Here we go again! The City of Savannah’s FY18 General Fund Preliminary Budget projections, as posted on the City’s website, have once again, come as a last minute surprise, and caught some key Cultural Arts and Social Services Programs off guard. These are programs that have provided services to Savannah’s citizens and its tourist population by supplementing their budgets with various percentages of financial support from the City’s General Fund. While many of us in the Cultural Arts community appreciate the efforts of our City Administration to effect a balanced operating budget for the next, and ensuing fiscal years, there are a couple of things we don’t get. We fail to comprehend the “baiting” to some of our organizations by the Administration, seemingly, with no intention to make a “catch.” We feel like fishes that are attracted to a fisherman’s bait line, scurrying around to grab the juicy bait, not realizing that the fisherman’s sport is merely to tease, and then watch the fish as he swiftly and abruptly pulls the line, leaving us hungry with jaws wide open. It’s synonymous with the “Charlie Brown-Lucy Syndrome.” Poor Charlie Brown – always subjected to Lucy’s hoaxes that get the best of him, every time.
On August 11, 2017, after months of anxiously waiting, the City finally issued its “Call for Proposals” for the 2018 Cultural & Arts Investment Program, with a deadline for submission on September 8th (a 4-week window). Workshops for technical assistance with proposals were scheduled within 11 days of the announcement, August 22, 24,25 & 26. In past years, this announcement was issued in the month of April, workshops scheduled in May, and the deadline for submission due the last Friday in June (a 10-week window). Despite this accelerated timeline, many organizations followed the new process and met the tight 4-week deadline for submitting the proposals (extended a week due to evacuation and office closures associated with Hurricane Irma). Proposals were reviewed and evaluated by the Cultural Affairs Commissioners, who, we believe, made recommendations for funding, in good faith, that were in line with the expectations for delivery of services by cultural programs as outlined in the City’s new Strategic Plan, which includes Economic Development, Poverty Reduction, Neighborhood Revitalization, and Public Safety. This process, combined with previous comments made by the administration during the FY17 budget procedure, where cultural arts and social service programs were told to prepare for a gradual phase out of City funding support in coming years, led many of us to anticipate some reductions in funding for 2018 and subsequent years. Since all organizations have budgets to balance, cultural leaders in our community began to plan proactively for the likelihood of reduced funding in 2018, adjusting our program budgets accordingly to be responsible stewards of donor funds.
However, the complete elimination of the Cultural Contributions Program in one year, as proposed in the FY18 preliminary budget, comes as a shock at this 11th hour, especially since organizations have already set budgets, signed contracts with performing artists, and made plans for programming beginning in January 2018. Have we been duped? If the plan was to zero out Cultural Contributions immediately, we think it was irresponsible to have allowed the FY18 “Call for Proposals” process to go forward without respectfully giving proper and advanced notice to the organizations affected.
We also feel that the Cultural Arts may be held hostages to the newly proposed Fire Fee Assessment, scheduled to be imposed in September 2018. We think that funding for Cultural & Arts Programs MAY be restored in the FY18 proposed City budget IF the new service fee is implemented. Essentially, our community is being asked to make a false choice between fire services and culture – a choice that we feel will be unfair and lacking in vision for the future health and vitality our community. A decision on the proposed FY18 budget is projected to be made within a few days, maybe as early as December 7, 2017, but after a few more work sessions. If the Fire Fee Assessment passes, within a short window of time, property owners will be assessed an additional fee that will be due along with their property taxes in September 2018.
Just a few questions and concerns for consideration about the proposed Fire Assessment Fee: Was one month (November 2017) enough time to fully inform the mass of Savannah constituents about the pros and cons of a Fire Fee Assessment? Were face-toface, question/answer public meetings and town halls held so that all concerned could be reached, even those who cannot access the internet? How are Senior home owners who live alone and on fixed incomes being informed about new fees and services? When and how will the risk factor assessment of properties take place that will determine the fire service that can be provided? What is the additional cost to property owners for upgrades that will qualify them for discounts? What happens to the property owner who cannot afford the upgrade? What happens to a property in the event of fire if the Fire Assessment Fee is not paid? In the event of fire at a property, must there first be verification of fee payment before service is dispatched? If so, what kind of quick response verification system will be used? Who will be held accountable if there is loss of life on a property that is determined delinquent in payment of the fees? For the municipalities shown as examples that are utilizing the Fire Assessment Fee, how do they compare to Savannah’s landscape, population density, and number and type of property owners?
Please be assured that those of us who are advocates for Cultural & Arts Programs strongly believe that provisions must be made to the fullest extent possible for the safety, education, well-being and cultural enrichment of all the citizens of our city and her visitors. Our desire is to work collectively with the City and one another to ensure that these opportunities are provided in a holistic atmosphere, with equal access, and that we all are responsible for our fair share of the cost. Since cultural arts is considered one on the core services provided by the City – and one that is featured in its brand new Strategic Plan – we ask the City to bring us to the table, support us and allow us to do our part, without being held hostage by false choices. Lastly, Citizens are at the top of the City’s Organizational Chart. Keep us informed, let us speak, and listen!