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Challenge 2015: Brian Foster, Alderman at Large Post 2
Foster, foreground

A FORMER banking executive with decades of financial planning and funding experience, Brian Foster is running for the Post Two seat being vacated by Tom Bordeaux, who took the unusual step of endorsing Foster for the position.

While Foster has taken flak this election season for his close ties to the Chamber of Commerce and Savannah Economic Development Authority, his focus is on the numbers, and how best to bring real financial expertise to a City Council that clearly needs it.

Tom Bordeaux endorsed you to take over that seat. Were you tempted to tell him thanks but no thanks, an endorsement from any of these incumbents is the kiss of death?

You’re not the first one to ask that! I’ve known Tom for 25-plus years, going back to when he was in the state legislature. We go to the same church together.

He and I are different personalities—we think differently on a lot of things and don’t always agree. But one thing we’ve always had is honesty and openness. He trusts me and I trust him.

I told him my concerns about the current Council, and he told me his frustrations, and about why he’s not running again. At that point I was not seriously considering running. He said, “You ought to think about it.”

One day we had lunch and he spent about an hour and half giving me a bunch of reasons why I had some unique qualifications that are desperately needed: Financial expertise, the ability to build coalitions.

I would never not accept his endorsement, because I have respect for his intelligence and thought process.

You are one of very few people either on Council or running for Council with an iota of private sector experience. I find that sort of incredible.

I’ve really spent some time studying the budget and revenue flow and where the money’s going. Clearly what needs to happen is they’ve got to set a plan and stick to a plan. Call it a strategic plan, a financial plan, whatever you want to name it.

But for them to decide to take $3 million out of a fund to buy the fairgrounds is ludicrous! That stuff has got to stop.

I actually believe with all the revenue growth from real estate valuation they could roll back the millage rate a little bit. I really believe they should roll the millage back this year, if they understood what they had. What I’ve heard is the evaluation is going to be up about 7.5 percent. If it goes over 5 percent I’m for rolling it back.

Part of my plan is to say, let’s go do some bonding. Rates are at a historic low, they’ll only go up.

The City’s grading allows us to borrow at two percent. The total yearly payments on bonds are only 795K out of $300 million in revenue. They’ve been ridiculously unbalanced in the way they’re financing.

It’s a piece of cake for them to easily go buy all new cars and laptops for the police. Some officers have 11 year old laptops that don’t work. We can easily get them state of the art equipment.

We could easily put up a 200 camera system up all around town, the whole package is $5 million. That’s no big deal at two percent interest. We need to do it now before rates go up.

Also, the City has a four percent bond capacity up to a cap of eight percent. What that means is currently we’re not even utilizing 50 percent of our bonding capacity.

Yet they are shorting existing accounts to buy more properties.

They sit up there and talk about drainage. We’ve got 100-year-old drains falling in, why in the world don’t you take steps to do something in advance? It’s not sexy to dig a hole in the ground to replace a drain, but my God, we’ll never have another opportunity like today to get that stuff done.

And Edna still says, “I wonder why we haven’t done this before.”

They really need someone like me up there to talk to them about this stuff, to bring some professional advice in there. They’ve hired all these consultants because apparently the professionals on City staff aren’t up to the task.

As an old Chamber of Commerce guy, you know the Chamber has spent a lot of money campaigning to pass SPLOST measures. Do you have problems with how SPLOST has played out? Any regrets about supporting it in the past?

Well, I was on the Chamber board when we supported SPLOST. We have to plan and not waste money on stuff. Put public safety first. Use bonds on infrastructure and equipment, and you can roll the millage rate back.

SPLOST has been critical for roads and drainage. But to be honest when I was out supporting it many years ago with the Chamber, there were some things I thought were going to happen that haven’t happened the way they should.

Transparency has been terrible. Communication has been terrible.

For instance the voters never approved this idea of each district getting $1.5 million in discretionary funding. They did not vote in discretionary income to every district, that was not on the ballot.

And of course they’re all using it in their districts to get reelected. Let’s just call it what it is.

What do you think about the Westside Arena? That will cost the equivalent of a third of the entire City budget.

I don’t like the way they handled the Arena. If you look at arenas in other parts of state, like Gwinnett County, Turner Field, the mistake was they built and said development will come.

The Civic Center already loses money. The big moneymakers are concerts, and to make that work in Savannah you need people from surrounding counties to come into town. They won’t come in if they don’t feel safe enough to go to a restaurant and then to a show.

The Arena will be stuck in the middle of nowhere. I have yet to see plan of how it is supposed to make money and what do with the old Civic Center. All that should have been planned and laid out first.

Would you vote to remove Stephanie Cutter as City Manager?

I don’t know Stephanie Cutter well enough to just say, OK she’s got to go. I would need to get elected and spend a little time trying to understand what she’s done or not done before saying for sure. What she has done is filled the void at a time when somebody trusted was needed. She did some good things.

Then the question becomes, was she the appropriate choice to then become our fulltime longtime professional City Manager? I don’t think that process was vetted enough.

We probably will need to start a nationwide professional search, and if she feels like she wants to be part of that search she’s certainly welcome. She’s also been a loyal City servant for a lot of years.

In my interview with your opponent Joe Steffen, he criticized you for raising so much money and clearly insinuated your donors expect favors in return. What’s your response?

He hasn’t been able to raise money himself, and in fact he has gone to the exact same people and asked for it, and didn’t get it. So it’s a lot of sour grapes.

He’s even asked one of my contributors to do a fundraiser for him!

I’ve been working for 30 years helping people get stuff done. I’ve raised money for many and various community projects. The truth is I didn’t have to ask a lot of people to donate money, many people came to me. They want me elected and I absolutely am humbled by the response I’ve gotten.

I have over 200 donors and probably 50-60 of them gave $100 or less. They’re giving me money because they know me and trust me and think I can make a difference on Council.

There’s a lot of talk about some sort of Citywide living wage this campaign. Where do you stand on that?

One thing is you want to define what a living wage really means. Some people are advocating that the hospitality industry start paying $25 an hour! A suggestion that unrealistic sort of speaks for itself.

All the candidates are talking about poverty and jobs and everybody basically says the same thing over and over again: We’ve got to create jobs and have a better workforce.

There are probably 50-60 different programs working out there, but no single point of coordination for community programming in place.

One thing I’m hearing is that businesses would create new jobs and have to recruit out of the City. That’s very depressing to me. That’s why I started working with Savannah Tech.

I work with Savannah Tech on their capital campaign, raising $5.5 million for workforce training, apprenticeship programs. Gulfstream donated a plane to train to get jobs out there.

Why isn’t the City working more with the school system? Next time we build a community center, instead of putting it in a “special place” in somebody’s district, put it on campus. You can mentor afterschool, and do homework. And be safe.

What’s so hard about that? Yet I can’t find anybody who’s had that conversion on City Council with the school system. They don’t work together.

You’re also closely associated with SEDA, which frankly doesn’t have the best track record of attracting big employers.

It’s time to change the focus of SEDA. One thing I’ve been saying is that SEDA’s problem is they don’t have anything to sell anymore. They’ve built out Crossroads, that’s full. Now they’re looking for major sites in Bryan County.

Right now SEDA is an authority without a product. That means they’re what’s known as being mature in your market. So what you do then is go into the redevelopment business. They have taken the first step on that by offering new film incentives, which is great.

Why don’t we say OK SEDA, time to redevelop, let’s see what you can do on Ogeechee Road where Sam’s is, in Berwick, Waters Avenue. They’re really the only entity in town with the resources and ability to go in and make a difference.