SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Savannah Mayor Eddie DeLoach addressed his priorities on public safety, poverty reduction, economic development and community revitalization in his State of the City Address on Monday, Feb. 12.
DeLoach said his top priority is ensuring the police department is running as it should be to provide protection to the public. He says things are looking up for the city of Savannah this year, but he got emotional when talking about combatting poverty.
"Given the opportunity, these men and women want to succeed. They can succeed. They deserve that second chance," he said. "We must help to find a way to provide for them."
Alderman Julian Miller stands by DeLoach in the endeavor and agrees that conquering poverty starts with educating children.
"There are children growing up in poverty. You see the results of it in crime now. Our 15-year-olds are shooting people. That comes from the situation they grew up in," the District 4 alderman said.
He's also working to reduce the city's poverty rate by creating better and earlier access to education and jobs.
DeLoach said Monday a first-grade teacher recently told him about 60 percent of her students don't go to preschool before they walk into her classroom.
"If you bring in 60 percent, that's behind the curve that far, there's no way that kid's going to ever catch up by the third grade," he said, "and if you can't read at the same level everybody else can read in third grade, the chances of you graduating are slim to none."
Now, he's focusing on increasing access to early childhood education. He's working with Savannah-Chatham County Public School System to create a long-term plan to get children from 3 to 5 years old in public schools, and he's asking the private sector to help educate those younger.
"We want to pull a full spectrum group together that takes in not only the education part, but the health part, the food - as far as whether they, in fact, are getting meals or not getting meals - and then the education to the parents that says this is what you're here for," DeLoach said. "You're a parent. You need to act like a parent, and you need to raise this child."
According to 2015 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Savannah has an overall poverty rate of 26.5 percent poverty rate, but 41 percent of the city's youngest residents, those under 18, live in poverty. DeLoach says access to education is one way to give these kids and the city a fighting chance to reduce that rate.
"They can't do anything about what they're in," he said. "We need to figure out a way where we can do something to help offset those issues they have to deal with every day they go home."
He's also hoping to help skilled workers snag higher paying jobs by hosting a job fair at the Savannah Civic Center from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Feb. 20, 2018.
"We want folks that can move to those other jobs or get those opportunities, we want them to have them," he said, "and the best way to do that is bring them and the employers together."
He hopes improving individual outcomes betters the city as a whole as well.
Mayor DeLoach says another priority is beautification. The council invested $1 million in the new budget this year.
"For landscape maintenance and improvements. I love that, Y'all," the mayor said.
Road infrastructure, child development programs, the list goes on. While the community recommended more improvements, the city manager told the council that 230 initiatives are already on the table.
"We can't handle much more. We've got to get some of these off the table before we can go on to other things," Alderman Miller said.
Community activist Detric Legget says one thing that can't be pushed to the side is crime involving our youth, as he carried a child's coffin to the stage to take a stand.
"By putting this casket up here, everybody should have gotten quiet and walked out the door. I have a 13-year-old son and I have to tell him tomorrow he has to bury one of the kids that go to his school," Legget said.
The mayor addressed several times during the speech the importance of upbringing in our children, but Legget is not convinced.
"I think I need him to put his money where his mouth is," Legget said.
Others in the community also want to see results.
"We make little small actions to remedy the here and now, but we don't do anything for the long term," said Matteo Marra, a Savannah employee.
DeLoach and the city expect a successful and positive year ahead, as the people stand by hoping their tax dollars pay off.
Ahead of Monday's speech, Mayor DeLoach noted public safety was his platform when he ran for mayor, and his first order of business is the keeping his campaign promise to make Savannah a safer city. The Savannah Police Department already uses community-oriented policing, but DeLoach says a smaller area to patrol because of the de-merger will allow officers to concentrate on building relationships.
"It will enable us to have the trust of the people in our areas," he said. "Our police officers working those areas will know who lives there and what's going on there because it's such a smaller area we've got to take care of."
DeLoach also spoke about infrastructure improvements residents will see in the next year. He says work to add a boulevard on West Gwinnett Street should start soon, and that will allow crews to start working on the new Savannah Arena and Canal District site. With the project manager already hired and in place, DeLoach expects construction to start this year.
He also noted the President Street Project and the Bilbo Canal Expansion to improve drainage will also continue. DeLoach said it may not mean a lot to some people, but it should improve drainage throughout greater downtown.
"These small, mundane things are a big deal," he said. "When you have a hurricane and you have flooding, [if] you get these canals in place and built like they should be, then we'll be able to move the water off quicker, so people won't necessarily flood like they did in the past. We're excited about those. It's going to be a big difference."
You can read the full speech here: