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Controversial 2011 budget passes, concluding months of debate
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Another year of spending on city services and capital improvement projects has been approved, but not without struggles. The mayor and council passed the 2011 budget by a vote at last Thursday’s meeting, marking the end of several intense weeks of back-and-forth with city staff — and the public.

Budget staff had been preparing for a tough year, but shrinking revenue and SPLOST funds forced many difficult decisions. Early on, departments were asked to plan for five percent cuts to budgets. But as the year went on, acting City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney requested that departments plan for 18 percent cuts.

Since the initial budget was presented in early November, city officials have endured copious public commentary regarding contentious decisions to cut funding for the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority (SDRA) by 60 percent and to re–configure the Film and Tourism Services Office.

The meeting’s lengthy agenda, wrapping up business for the year and recognizing several organizations for good deeds, was exacerbated by nearly an hour-long starting delay as council members were in closed session to discuss matters of litigation.

Dozens of people who had come to support both the SDRA and the Film Office grumbled that the delay was a tactic by council to sap their vitriol.

Even with the delay, there were still nearly a dozen citizens who stood before council in support of the SDRA, giving arguments for a more substantial financial commitment to the organization that serves as a bridge between public and private investment along Broughton Street and the MLK corridor. Comments ranged from practical to mildly unhinged, including sensible discussions of longterm redevelopment plans and a mind–boggling tale about a New York hot dog vendor.

In an 11th hour effort, the SDRA presented city council with a proposal to compromise with a 36 percent budget cut, acknowledging there were changes that needed to be made within the organization. That plea fell on deaf ears.

If the SDRA completes a comprehensive audit by the end of January 2011, council members left open the possibility that discussion of the organization’s future could be re–assessed mid–year.

The other hot button budget issue has been the re–structuring of the former Film and Tourism Services Office, an effort plagued by misinformation and a failure to communicate. During periods of public comment, concerned citizens and professionals have often expressed dismay over the dissolution of the Film Commission (a completely separate entity from the Film Office that hasn’t been at risk).

Although the “Tourism” aspect of the office has shifted to the Citizens Liaison Office, which contains the newly formed Downtown Services department, the Film Office will have two full time staff and be funded at close to the same level that it had been previously, minus the tourism–related budget.

An earlier draft of the budget had the office being reduced to one staff member, however, Small-Toney conducted a job audit and added the second staffer back to the office.

During last week’s meeting the main opposition to the proposed changes to the Film Office was that it would be housed under Leisure Services rather than answering directly to the City Manager, which it has done since its creation in 1994.
Members of the Film Commission said that shifting the office further from the City Manager sends the wrong message to incoming producers and film executives.

By 4:45 p.m. the time for public comment was closed and the budget vote came before council. There were three amendments made to the budget totaling an additional $70,000 in spending by the city. The mayor’s Healthy Savannah Initiative, the Homeless Authority and a joint environmental awareness website funded by the City and County all received additional funding.

An additional amendment proposed by Alderman Jeff Felser, which would have restored some additional funding for the SDRA, failed to pass by a vote of 6–2.