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Ho, ho... woe
National economy likely to affect 2009 city budget
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CITY COUNCIL has turned its attention to that end-of-the-year grinch -- the annual city budget.

City Manager Michael Brown groused at the council’s Dec. 4 meeting that this is his least favorite time of the year. “But I don’t mean the holidays,” he quickly added.

Brown means the seemingly endless number-crunching that has gone into formulating the 2009 Service Program and Budget, which got its first public hearing at the meeting. He says the budget is a good one, but the national economic crisis will have to be considered. The $282 million budget, which runs Jan. 1-Dec. 31, 2009, will be approved at the council’s Dec. 18 meeting.

Brown said the city is in better shape than most other cities. “We held city departments to 2008 funding levels,” he said. “We told them there would be zero new programs.”

The largest slice of the pie, 38 percent, will go to water resources, with 34 percent going to public safety. Twenty percent of the budget is for transportation, and 8 percent for administration.

While the status of the nation’s economy is critical, Brown said the city is in a good position. “We do have time to look at revenues and expenditures and scrutinize each cost to assure the budget remains balanced,” he said.

The council also unanimously approved the Parental Support and Responsibility Ordinance, despite concerns raised at the previous meeting that there weren’t enough resources in the community to provide the necessary support.

Brown noted that most children in the community won’t be affected by the parental ordinance. “Eighty-five to 90 percent are successful,” he said.

Brown again stressed that the ordinance is not intended to be punitive towards parents, but instead is designed to identify problems and provide parents with resources needed to deal with those children.

Residents have been calling for action by the council, Alderman Mary Osborne said. “Parents do have responsibility for their children,” she said. “We want to help them. If the parents don’t want to do what they should, there is an administrative court hearing.”

“Parents are looking for help with how to handle these children in certain instances,” Alderman Edna Jackson said. “When it gets to the administrative level, that’s a different picture.”

Alderman Jeff Felser said some parents are looking to the city government for help. “They’re wanting us to provide a process through legislation,” he said. “That’s the best we can do as elected officials. The rest depends on cooperation between the schools, the DFACS, the courts and the police.

“We are doing and fulfilling what the public asked us to do,” Felser said. “We’re asking parents to step up to the plate. If they don’t, there is a process to take them in another direction.”

“This council is saying ‘We heard you’,” Mayor Otis Johnson said. “As imperfect as this ordinance may be, it’s better than anything else we have because there is nothing else. It’s better than anything we have right now.”

In other action, the council discussed the staffing of the county’s Counter Narcotics Team. The Savannah Chatham Metropolitan Police Department is required to provide 30 of the total 60 officers in the CNT, per the five-year merger agreement that united city and county police departments.

Under the original agreement, control of the CNT was supposed to pass to the city police and be supervised by Police Chief Michael Berkow. The county has refused to budge, leaving the unit under county control and the supervision of County Manager Russ Abolt.

So far, only 23 city officers are assigned to the CNT, raising concerns that the city wasn’t fulfilling its obligation because of the merger disagreement. But Brown assured the council the other seven officers would be provided.

Brown said the entire police force will be expanding, as per Berkow’s plan. He said he expects the department to be at full staff, about 600 officers, by June. cs