SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - During a special called meeting on Friday, Savannah City Council voted to dissolve the Savannah-Chatham Metro Police Department merger, effective Feb. 1, 2018.
This comes after more than a decade of having a merged Savannah-Chatham County police department.
Council voted unanimously. District 1 Alderman Van Johnson did not vote due to a stated conflict of interest because he works with the county. He did not attend the vote. Councilwoman Estella Shabazz was on speaker phone to cast her vote.
This comes after the county did not agree on the results of the Berkshire Study, which recommended that the county would pay the city more than $14 million for the 2016 calendar year and a little over $12 million for the 2017 calendar year.
Before the vote most of the council members had something to say about arriving at this conclusion, a move they hoped they wouldn't have to make.
"What's next is we will leave that up to the committee, the police committee from our side and the chief to decide where we are going to go from there but we do have a plan, everyone will be protected," said Alderman John Hall, District 3.
City leaders issued letters to County Commission, the County manager and Chairman giving them 21 days to meet and discuss unresolved questions regarding the police merger agreement and say they never heard back.
"It's a frustrating process because there's been no reciprocal comments coming from anybody," said Mayor DeLoach. "We basically have been talking to ourselves,and we just got tired of talking to ourselves and decided that the city needed to move forward. And if the county had chosen to move forward, they could've come with us. We'll let them make their own decision."
"They laid it on the line and said this is what you need to do this is what it's going to cost and this is exactly where things need to go, if you are going to pay for that advise you take the advice," said Alderman Julian Miller, District 4.
"That's why we voted the way we did, because we've got to move on as a City to make things right for our citizens," said Savannah Mayor Eddie DeLoach.
The City insists more than the disagreement with funding formula numbers and who owes what, it's the County's lack of cooperation and willingness to come to the table to discuss their differences that led them to this vote. Council also says that disconnect poses a threat to public safety.
"The livelihood and the safety of this community are at risk here," said Alderman Julian Miller, District 4. "We've got to look, it'd be great if we could look at it county-wide. But we weren't elected to look at this county-wide. Our job is to look out for this City."
"With the issues that we are facing in this community, we cannot continue to operate like this," said Alderwoman Carol Bell, At-Large Post. "We can't continue to go on like this."
[Below is the signed Merger Termination Letter from the City of Savannah]
[Below is Al Scott's response to the City of Savannah's vote]
"Myself and this council have defined public safety as our top priority. We have endorsed the seven-minute response time Berkshire proposes and all of the resources necessary to obtain that goal. This is not an issue to be debated or compromised. Lives and livelihood of our community depend on it," said Mayor DeLoach.
The Berkshire Police Study was released earlier this year and it outlines how the city and county should share the cost of the police department. The city has been on board with the results, but the county has not been on board because County Commission Chairman Al Scott said some of the calculations are incorrect.
The agreement, which was signed by Scott and the city manager at the time Stephanie Cutter, said that unresolved questions would be placed in writing.
Savannah Mayor Eddie DeLoach and City Manager Rob Hernandez sent written letters to Scott and County Manager Lee Smith letting them know the city approved the Berkshire report.
[Below is the most recent merger agreement signed by the city and county in 2015]
Savannah City Manager Rob Hernandez told WTOC between now and November, staff with the City of Savannah will be working on finalizing the city's budget and that will include the additional resources the Berkshire Advisors study calls for.
The city wants to have a seven-minute response time to priority one emergency calls.
Hernandez also told us the city will be assisting the county in finding an alternative law enforcement provider. Those with the city staff, specifically the chief, will have to work on how to split up resources. Resources like policing equipment, cars, buildings, etc.
"City of Savannah police department has plenty of vehicles, we have another 55 vehicles that council approved two commission meetings ago. I don't think it is an issue, the county will have what they need and we will have what we need," said Hernandez.
We asked if the city will be taking on the 150 more officers the Berkshire Advisors study called for in anticipation of the dissolved agreement.
"This city council that we all work for has made public safety a priority and the bottom line is whatever resources our police department needs in order to accomplish its job, they can count on those resources being there," said Hernandez. "Whether it is 150, 120 whatever the case maybe. They will have the resources they need."
City Council members continue to stress that safety is their number one priority. But what about citizens in the unincorporated area of Chatham County? We asked Islands residents how they feel on Facebook.
"What we all need are answers," said Marianne Heimes, Whitemarsh Island resident. "Who is going to take care of us starting Feb 1st? I presume they will do something with the sheriff on a short term basis, but is that the long term plan?"
Heimes has lived in the area for 40 years and we went over all of the possibilities.
"If the demerger does hold, will the residents on the islands, in the unincorporated area have a say in what kind of policing we will have? Because I think we would like to," said Heimes.