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And the budget plays on...
Changes to the Film and Tourism Department and the SDRA dominated last week's city council meeting
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Whether it was intentional or not, anyone who watched last week's City Council meeting in its entirety, received a lesson about the importance of budgeting.

The meeting drew a full house crowd for the public hearing regarding the City's 2011 budget, which will include cuts to several high-visibility offices as well as some major re-organizing of departments, if approved by Council at a vote next month.

Before input could be heard regarding the futures of the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority (SDRA) or the Film and Tourism Department, both of whom rallied supporters in their defense, awards were given to three middle school students - the winners of the Mayor's Dollar Wise Essay Contest - each of whom read their prize-winning compositions espousing the virtues of responsible budgeting for families and individuals.

This was either a sly maneuver aimed at disarming discussions of tapping reserve funds to balance the budget or an uncannily serendipitous moment in scheduling.

Although comments could be made on any portion of the budget, behind the scenes lobbying efforts by the Film Department and the SDRA made them the subject of every comment but one, which related to the health of urban trees.

Word of the Film and Tourism Department's demise spread quickly and rumors of its death might have been somewhat overstated.

Emails, text messages and social media updates spread virally, prompting dozens of phone calls and emails to members of council and staff prior to last week's city council meeting, which was inaccurately billed, according to some of those messages, as a city hearing specifically about the future of the department.

Updates about the department's situation did not spread as quickly, and from more than half dozen film supporters who commented during the public hearing on the City's 2011 budget, only one or two seemed to have a complete grasp of the situation at hand.

The Film Commission, a 19-person board nominated by City Council, is not going to be cut to one person. Nor is the Film Department going to be shuttered. The Film and Tourism Department will likely have ‘tourism' removed from its list of responsibilities, and it will have two staff people who will be employed in said office.

"There is no movement to abolish the Film Commission," said Mayor Johnson during what he described as a "teachable moment."
"There is no effort to lessen the effectiveness of those persons who have been working and doing all the great things you've been talking about," the mayor continued.

That the office will likely not be cut to one staff person is a relief to many in the film community who were in attendance, but several members of the Film Commission expressed concern about plans to shift the Film Department under the umbrella of Leisure Services and Cultural Affairs, rather than have the director answering directly to the City Manager.

Interspersed with the parade of local film supporters were also several people wishing to express concern that the SDRA was slated for a 67 percent reduction in its budget request for the following year.

Although the multi-million dollar Martin Luther King Boulevard streetscape improvement plan is finally contracted, its commencement was delayed for several years, which had some members of council questioning the efficacy of the agency during last year's budgeting process.

Several supporters noted that although the SDRA wasn't the only factor involved, that they had played a significant role in the re-development of downtown to its current vibrancy. Alderman Jeff Felser called the "gutting" of SDRA's budget "unjust and undue."

Despite the cuts to departments and scores of positions lost through attrition, no one questioned the wisdom of potentially re-instating Performance Skill Incentives (PSI), bonuses paid to high performing city employees, mid-way through 2011 if revenues allow for it. The PSI, which could cost more than $2 million, was dropped from the initial budget proposal, in exchange for an across the board wage increase for City employees effective January 1, 2011.

Alderwoman Mary Ellen Sprague stressed that the two percent wage increase would not be shouldered by tax payers directly because the millage rate would be reduced next year, and that it would be paid for by cuts.

Alderwoman Mary Osborne then interjected to further define "cuts" by saying that savings would be realized by things like incentivized early retirement rather than actual reductions in services.

Alderman Tony Thomas applauded the City Manager's efforts with the budget, particularly for finding and eliminating "at least 100 positions" that were vacant, but the funding for which was being used to balance budgets for various offices. "That is a success," he said.

With the clock ticking before the unveiling of the Extreme Home Makeover house, council moved to pass the new mission and value statements for the city government. The mission statement, which was developed over several months by staff, now states, "The Mission of the City of Savannah, Georgia is to provide exceptionally responsive and accessible municipal services."