SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - The city of Savannah extended the deadline for residents to get a discount on the new fire fee.
"We believe it is important to give people an extra two weeks to complete their applications so they can receive a discount," City Manager Rob Hernandez said. "We hope more of our property owners take advantage of the discounts and take the appropriate measures to make their home safer."
City Council passed an ordinance that will allow some to receive up to a 20 percent discount on their annual payment, but so far only 2,000 people and businesses have submitted discount applications. Of those 2,000, the city revenue director says 90 percent are from single-family residences.
According to the city, nearly 1,000 residents have called and asked for help with the application process and the number of applications has doubled in the last few days. The city says there are 35,000 single-family residential properties that will be charged a fire fee.
Staff is sending out letters to residents after an application is processed to let them know how much of a discount they can get. Seven hundred people have gotten those letters and are officially qualified for discounts. If you think you should have a higher discount when you get the letter back, give the city a call or if you're missing something, they'll call you.
"We've gotten several applications from single-family residences where perhaps they've checked that they've done an evacuation plan, but they've not submitted that plan or they've not submitted the date that they practiced," said Ashley Simpson, City of Savannah Revenue Director. "We're happy to work with those residents to finalize that documentation so that they get their credit."
Simpson says all the documents you need to submit with your application are listed on the application. If you think you could qualify for the hardship program to get your fee waived, you must submit the discount application.
"We have heard from some of our larger property owners that are in that non-single family residence category. We're working with them to simplify that process and to get those in, and we are expecting to receive some of those larger applications this week. We've had representatives from SCAD in our office and representatives from the Board of Education working to get their discounts, and we expect to see those back this week," Simpson said.
"If you think you have an issue with square footage or your discount letter or the property type that we have submitted to you on your letter, you can submit those online without having to submit anything in the mail or in our office," Simpson said.
Simpson says if you submit your application and it's incomplete or missing some documentation, she and staff will work with you after the deadline to work it out as long as the original form is turned in by Friday.
The base fee for an average family is $256. If a family takes advantage and applies for these discounts, they could cut $50 from their fee. Here's how a family can qualify for the discounts.
There are five categories: homeowners, commercial and industrial, non-profits, educational, or served by another fire department. Under the homeowner group, households can do a few things. First, have up-to-date fire devices including smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, and carbon monoxide detectors. It's a five percent discount for each of these items. Then, households can develop a fire evacuation plan and practice it in an annual drill, and fill out a home fire safety survey. Homeowners can apply for these discounts up to 20 percent maximum.
"The discounts that apply to the fire fee are directly related to those property owners' actions to minimize risk," said Curtis Wallace, the assistant fire chief for Savannah Fire. "The request for the fire department to come to your home to complete a home fire safety survey or to install a smoke detector is all that's required for you to complete your application and get it in by the deadline."
Charles Etta Austin has lived downtown for 15 years. She said the 20 percent discount is better than nothing.
"Homeowners need all the breaks we can get," Austin said.
Even so, some say this markdown might not be enough.
"Twenty percent? It could easily be 25 percent so the opportunity is there and I wish it could be more," said Bernard Steplight, who owns multiple properties in the downtown district.
"There are a lot of folks who really cannot afford any extras attached to their cost of living. Nothing extra. If you don't have a second job to supplement your income, then you're in hot water," Austin said.
Officials from the city of Savannah said they started working on the discount program as soon as the fire fee passed in December. This is not the low-income solution for the fire fee. Officials said they are continuing to work on the hardship program for those who qualify.
The category 'served by another fire department' only applies to Hunter Army Airfield and the Air National Guard. In other words, no household or business can contract out with another fire department and avoid the fee.
City officials currently anticipate billing the 2018 fire fee on the second installment property tax bill in September 2018. Property owners can apply for the fire fee discount program between April 15, 2018, and June 15, 2018. The city is accepting all applications that are either postmarked or delivered in-person by 5 p.m. on Friday, June 15. More details about the program and the application can be found online at www.savannahga.gov/firefee.