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Savannah City Council votes to raise property taxes, is set for full repeal of Fire Fee
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A normally bitterly divided Savannah City Council today managed to agree on something.

They voted unanimously to adopt a property tax increase in preparation for eventual repeal of the controversial Fire Fee.

The tax rate in the City will go from 12.48 to 13.4 mills.

Council admitted that holding the tax increase to less than a full mill was due to "optics."

Alderman Julian Miller, previously a supporter of the Fee, said "I hoped we could do this without a tax increase, but I don't like the City we would have to live in if we don't do something."

Alderman Van Johnson, longtime opponent of the Fee, said, "No one likes raising taxes... but our millage rate as it is is not sustainable."

The Fire Fee, and new language in the City charter enabling it, is set for repeal at a future meeting.

In discussion prior to the vote, Alderman Brian Foster said that during the process of gaining more information about the Fire Fee, Council discovered that a third of properties in Savannah either pay zero or near zero in property taxes.

Foster said there are 5800 tax-exempt properties, with 19,000 properties in total not paying taxes.

Several Council members defended City Manager Rob Hernandez from public scorn regarding the Fire Fee idea.

Alderman Bill Durrence said, "The attacks on the City Manager are way out of line."

Regarding the news that Hernandez is a finalist for the City Manager job in Brownsville, Texas, Alderwoman Estella Shabazz directly asked the City Manager if he's going to stay in Savannah.

City Attorney Brooks Stillwell immediately said, "I don't think that's appropriate to ask."

In other Council news:

The $8.8 million award of a design contract for the new Westside Arena was briefly sidetracked so that the preferred bidder could take steps to "self-identify" more completely as a  Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE).

The City Manager had to explain to Council that the City "no longer tracks" minority-owned businesses; the nomenclature is now the "race and gender neutral" Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) description.

Alderman Van Johnson opened discussion of awarding Arena design contract by saying, "Welcome to another part of the most significant public undertaking that this City will ever undertake." 

An anticipated revision to the Alcoholic Beverage Ordinance was approved which will eliminate the bar card and mandatory background check for servers.

However, the new Ordinance will not include a proposed Administrative Hearing Officer to handle liquor licenses.

Alderman Van Johnson says he wants to retain the right to "weigh in personally" on each liquor license.