SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Savannah City Council voted 6-3 to adopt the fire fee as part of the Fiscal Year 2018 budget.
Alderman Tony Thomas, Alderwoman Estella Shabazz and Alderman Van Johnson voted "no" on the acceptance of the budget including the fire fee.
"There's about 10 percent of what I disagree with about this fire fee. There's 90 percent of what I do agree with," Dr. Shabazz said.
Instead, she said she voted against it because it negatively affects churches and the poorest residents.
Under the adopted fire services fee, each single-family home - regardless of size - will pay $256 annually ($21 per month) for fire services, which could be reduced an anticipated 20 percent or more through a menu of risk-reduction discounts which are still under development.
Council also allocated $400,000 to develop a fire services hardship fund to provide assistance for low-income property owners.
The City of Savannah will not begin collecting the fire fee until September 2018,
Council members have been deliberating over the budget for weeks leading up to Thursday's vote.
"The cupboard is bare. It's what we had to do, and we're trying to move forward," said Mayor Eddie DeLoach.
Several town halls were also held by individual council members. Alderman Bill Durrence's town hall was held the night before the vote. During Durrence's meeting, he said the decision to implement a fire fee comes down to one simple fact: The city must generate more money.
"We can't have everything and pay less," Alderman Durrence said.
A few community activist, as well as residents, approached council during the public hearing portion of Thursday's session to air grievances and concerns with the new budget. The ability for the poor to afford a new fee and whether enough resources were allocated in the budget to help at-risk youth were common questions posed to council before the vote.
Before the vote on the proposed budget, Alderwoman Carol Bell read aloud a reminder for all of council, and the public, of what services would be cut as a result of not passing the budget with the fire fee. Bullet points highlighted what she says would be a less safe community, lower quality of life, less efficient government and less money for neighborhood improvement.
"I think it's important that the citizens understand that with the institution of the authorization of a fire fee, it affords us The opportunity to find the services, the restoration of services and the enhancements from the original budget that nobody, as the budget director said, nobody favored," Alderwoman Bell said.
Alderman Thomas raised the issue if enough time was devoted to checking other options besides the fire fee. Thomas stated his main concern with the fire fee is he feels the money is, " going to everything but the fire department." City Manager Rob Hernandez says the funds produced by the fire fee will be kept in a separate fund from the general fund so the money will only be used for its intended purpose: fire services.
Alderman Johnson said he voted "no" out of a matter of conviction. He didn't want to pass the fee to residents. Instead, he says city staff could have looked into cuts in other areas of government.
"There was some cuts that we had not considered. There were some departments we didn't look at in terms of their function. I think we have a variety of things where there's fat that could've been cut, but we didn't cut those things, yet we were adding some things," Johnson said.
The 2018 budget does include the 1 millage point decrease. The 2018 Fiscal Year budget will total at $408 million.
According to the city, adoption of the fire fee frees up funds in the $182 million General Fund to make investments in other projects and organizations in Savannah. The City of Savannah states the adopted budget will:
- Creates 13 new police officer positions, and one police analyst position
- Continues funding a Cold Case Investigative Unit
- Saves 18 firefighter positions proposed for elimination
- Allocates $7 million in General Fund dollars to the Capital Improvement Program to fund street, sidewalk, drainage and parks improvements. The fund had been severely underfunded in recent years due to budget constraints.
- Allocates $643,177 to nonprofit programs serving poor and elderly residents
- Allocates $680,400 to cultural arts agencies
- Allocates $319,080 to extend youth programming at community centers into the evening hours
- Allocates $2.3 million for enhanced grass cutting, tree pruning and tree removal services across the city
- Enhances drainage by funding a $500,000 modernization of the control system at the DeRenne Avenue Pump Station
- Funds $410,000 in improvements at Joseph Tribble Park on Savannah’s southside
- Contributes $1.2 million for street, sidewalk, lighting and park improvements in the Edgemere/Sackville neighborhood as part of the Savannah Shines program
"You can set back and not vote for it. That is your choice, and you can point your finger later. That's your choice," Mayor DeLoach said.