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The city according to Otis
Mayor makes state of the city address
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IT WAS obvious that most of the audience in attendance at the Town Hall meeting Feb. 10 were there for the public hearing on St. Patrick's Day.

Mayor Otis Johnson had a surprise – he made them sit through his annual State of the City address first, then gleefully said he’d done it that way on purpose.

Johnson compared himself to a jazz musician. “They start with a song that’s written and improvise as they go along,” he said, flourishing a thick sheaf of papers. “I do have 17 pages here, but I guarantee I won’t read them all.”

The news was good – mostly. But challenges remain and the current national crisis could have an effect on the city.

“We’re in good shape financially and are fiscally sound,” Johnson said. “We were able to balance our budget and did not have to cut any programs or staff.

“If this recession keeps going on and these ideological wars keep being waged and we don’t get a stimulus package, we don’t know what middle 2009 will bring, nor 2010,” he said.

But the city is moving forward. “We are bold,” Johnson said. “We are aggressive. We are visionary.”

Johnson said the city’s actions over the past five years have been driven by a vision statement. “It says we want Savannah to be safe, we want it to be environmentally healthy and we want it to be economically thriving,” he said. “We are very firm in our belief we are making measurable progress moving the community toward that vision.”

That doesn’t mean the city is there just yet. “If we’re going to be safe, we have to reduce crime and increase a sense of public safety,” Johnson said. “We’ve been working on that since day one but it’s still a major challenge in our community.”

The rate of arrests increased by 10 percent in 2008, yet the crime rate continues to climb. “Fifty percent of all firearm arrests in 2008 were aged 24 or younger,” Johnson said. “They’ve got a network that’s supporting them,” he said. “We need to be aggressive about identifying them and putting them out of business.”

While violent crimes dropped 3 percent, property crimes are up 14 percent. “The challenge is residential burglaries, items stolen from cars and yards,” Police Chief Michael Berkow said in a videotaped statement.

The city has tackled blight and is currently on its third list of 100 dilapidated houses to be repaired or demolished. The Thrive initiative has been launched to deal with environmental issues. “Savannah has stepped up to the plate,” Johnson said.

During his report, City Manager Michael Brown said with the national election and local construction projects, 2008 was an exciting year. But with an increase in foreclosures and other financial issues, it also was a time of worry.

While sales tax revenues are dropping and property tax revenues are flattening, Brown said wise decisions in better times has put the city in a good position financially.

“Your city leaders invested wisely and took some important steps,” he said. “We’ve not had to reduce major services and held the line on property taxes.”

Projects completed or started in 2008 include installation of wheelchair ramps at all corners, a major expansion of the riverwalk, a downtown drainage project, Sustainable Fellwood and the Whitaker Street parking garage.

Curbside recycling has gotten off to a successful start, and the city has added fuel-efficient vehicles, including a fleet of bicycles and a restored streetcar that runs on biodiesel fuel made from grease recycled from local restaurants.

“Foreclosures are still in doubt, there is a lot of bad debt out there and everyone is wondering when the banks will loosen up on credit. We are looking forward to the federal stimulus,” Brown said. cs

“The second issue we want to identify is (the need to) go green,” he said. “Savannah Thrive is about going green and reducing power consumption. (Third is) the Healthy Start initiative.”

Edward Chisholm, head of the Youth Futures Authority, said a holistic approach is being utilized that combines involvement, the faith community and programs such as Step Up Savannah, designed to help people pull themselves out of poverty through job training.

Programs such as Youth Reach Mentoring and Parent University are part of the Strong Families initiative. “We work with both child and parent,” Chisholm said.

Participants in Parent University must give up their Saturdays to attend, Chisholm said. “We understand how hard it is, but it is absolutely imperative for the initiative to work with both child and parent.

“The teen pregnancy rate remains a tremendous problem in our community,” he said. “Just saying no is not always enough. We have to have a comprehensive approach to how we educate young people about these issues.”

Some young people are working to help others through the Young Voices Advisory Council. Chisholm noted that the truancy rate and absenteeism both are down. “Our kids are staying in school and we’re having an impact,” he says.