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Budgeting for safety
The City and County continue negotiating the terms of the Metro Police merger.
Although the police merger was agreed upon in 2005, negotiations are ongoing about how much the unincorporated areas of the county should be paying for police services. - photo by Patrick Rodgers

Since May of this year, talks have been ongoing between the City of Savannah and the Chatham County Commission in regard to funding for the Metro Police Department, which was created after an intergovernmental merger in 2005.

At the heart of the discussion is the issue of the formula used to calculate how much each government body contributes to the MPD's annual budget, which is currently near $70 million.

Declines in collections of sales tax, the hotel/motel tax and property taxes have lead to questions for both the City and County governments about to move forward without damaging public safety, which is the highest priority for both.

"We're under the same financial constraints they are," explains Assistant City Manager Chris Morrill. "So until we finish our budgeting for outcomes process, we're asking everyone to tighten their belts."

The City is currently in the process of trying to figure out how to cover a projected deficit for next year close to $15 million, and according to a budget workshop held Sept. 24, they are close to solving the issue, but may still need to find another $2 million in savings before their 2010 budget is balanced.

The County succeeded in passing their budget at the end of June, and in doing so escalated the imperative to renegotiate the police merger by allocating less funds for the MPD than was dictated by the formula set forth in the merger agreement.

The County budget runs on a fiscal year from July 1 through June 30 of the following year, while the City budget runs on a Jan. 1-Dec. 31 calendar year.

While the County has provided the funding for the MPD through the end of December, starting January 1, their budgeted amount is $837, 916 less than the amount of funding established by the merger formula.

"The merger agreement is very clear how the costs should be distributed," Morrill says. "There's no question of what that formula is."

The complaint among several of the County Commissioners is that the agreement established in the merger has put an unfair financial burden on the unincorporated areas of Chatham County, also known as the Special Service District, which includes most of the islands, as well as other areas of the county that remain outside any established municipalities.

"The original contract calls by population, which is really good if you're the city of Savannah, and really bad if you happen to be in the unincorporated area," says County Commissioner David Gellatly, a former Chief of Police.

Combined, the unincorporated areas of the county represent what would be the second largest municipality after the City of Savannah, with a population of approximately 75,000, nearly one third of the county's total population.

What Gellatly and County Commission Chairman Pete Liakakis, among others, have argued is that because there is less crime happening in the unincorporated area than within Savannah's city limits, calculating the MPD budget off population alone is unfair to residents of the SSD.

"Population ought to be a factor, but the calls for service needs to be put in there also, and some of the calls for services need to be weighted," says Gellatly, who further explained his point by saying that a noise complaint should be weighted differently than a homicide for instance, because the homicide requires investigative manpower.

"There's much less crime in the unincorporated area of the county than it is in the city, so they did some auditing and felt that the formula needed to be changed," Liakakis says, although he would not elaborate on how the County calculated the reduction in budget for the first six months of next year.

According to a memo from City of Savannah Finance Director Richard Evans written in July, if the City were to follow the same method of under-budgeting for the MPD, it would result in a total shortage of over $4.6 million for the police.

"To achieve a savings that approximates $4,626,773, the force would need to be reduced by approximately 87 officers," Evans writes.

Although such drastic measures will not be necessary, the City has asked the police department to look at ways to reduce their overhead without reducing the quality of service provided to the community.

"We are asking the police to tell us how they're going to achieve our public safety priorities and how they're going to do it efficiently," says Morrill. "Police have been great at looking for ways to reduce costs for next year. It may be a non-issue."

While the County's argument for a renegotiation of the terms of the merger has centered around the disparity of funding police based on population alone, according to correspondence between Police Chief Michael Berkow and County Manager Russ Abolt in June of this year, when the MPD budget is broken down per capita, residents of the SSD are paying $182.63 per year for police services, while residents of the City of Savannah are paying $329.03.

Berkow's letter also points out that while the SSD has less total crime per capita than the City of Savannah, the amount of crime in the unincorporated area has increased 13 percent from 2005 to 2008.

What may be a bigger problem for the County, which is actually serves in two capacities - one as the County government under the Maintenance and Operations Budget, and second as the municipal government for the unincorporated Special Service District - is how to continue to fund the SSD without raising the millage rate.

According to Evans' memo, when June 30, 2010 rolls around the M&O portion of the county's police funds will still have a surplus of about $18,000, however, the SSD will come up short by $856,614.

At the County Commissioners' meeting at the end of June, when their budget was approved, the funding of the SSD was a major issue of contention, and County Manager Russ Abolt said even then that it was "in serious trouble."
County Commissioner Pat Shay pointed out in the same meeting that the SSD's administrative costs were being passed off onto the shoulders of other county residents, whose M&O tax dollars were being used to subsidize the SSD budget rather than raising the millage rate for SSD residents.

In the County's 2009-2010 budget, the M&O received only one transfer of $867,627 from the SSD to cover administrative costs. However, that number should be closer to $5 million, or 18% of the total SSD budget, which is what the County pays for admin costs.

While the City still has several months to review budgeting for next year, if the police budget can't be reduced to the level set by the County's budget, than the City will have to invoice the remainder.

"As the merger agreement spells out, we would send them an invoice for their share of the cost," says Morrill. "We would expect that they would pay that."