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December 3, 2018 | News

Study backs effort to form new Chatham County islands city

Writer: Eric Curl

Published November 30, 2018
Savannah Now

 

A new city government could operate much more efficiently as long as a “wackadoodle” is not elected, Adam Avant told a crowd of more than 200 people at St. Andrew’s School Thursday night.

Avant, a board member of the Islands Community Association, was touting the results of a $30,000 study his nonprofit group had paid for following a fundraising campaign to determine the feasibility of incorporating Oatland, Talahi, Whitemarsh and Wilmington islands.

The study by the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government is required by the Georgia General Assembly for incorporation legislation to be introduced. It found that the new city was financially feasible and could benefit from new sources of revenue currently not available to the islands in unincorporated Chatham County.

While a referendum would not take place until 2020, legislation would need to be introduced during next year’s legislative session for that to happen. And Avant said he wants to give people that choice.

“I think we can govern ourselves better than people who don’t live here,” he said.

‘Found revenue’

The movement to form what would be Chatham’s second largest city - estimated at almost 26,000 residents - began after Rep. Ron Stephens, the Republican chairman of the Chatham County legislative delegation, started taking steps about two years ago to consolidate Chatham and Savannah’s two governments.

Many of the islands’ residents were opposed to the idea of becoming part of the county’s largest city, which they believed would result in higher taxes and diluted representation.

Stephens said he is no longer pursuing consolidation due to a lack of support from Chatham and Savannah officials. And the islands’ state representative, Jesse Petrea, along with State Sen. Ben Watson, both said they would oppose any consolidation legislation. They urged residents on Thursday not to let fear of consolidation be a motivating factor in deciding whether or not to incorporate.

“I am not in agreement with that so that is a dead issue,” Watson said.

But proponents have cited a number of other reasons to support the formation of their own city - including $6.2 million in new Local Option Sales Tax revenue the study estimated the municipal government would raise annually. The study also estimated the islands city would experience an annual surplus of about $2.3 million, with the LOST proceeds making up about 38 percent of the $16.2 million in revenue the city would raise each year.

Chatham County Commissioner Patrick Farrell, who represents the islands, said the LOST revenue currently amounts to a donation to Chatham’s cities.

“That’s a new found revenue source and that is the largest positive outcome,” Farrell said.

The incorporation committee is also proposing a lower property tax rate than what unincorporated Chatham residents currently pay - a reduction Petrea and Watson said they required for their support. The proposed reduction was not accounted for in the study and would trim about $800,000 in projected tax revenue, but Avant said the committee’s task forces, comprised of about 30 residents, believe costs can be “substantially” lower than the study’s estimates in some areas. Avant cited $119,012 marked for marketing and communications as one example of unnecessary spending.

But opponents, such as Whitemarsh Island resident Thomas Grooms III, remained unconvinced that the new city’s elected leaders wouldn’t just amount to another layer of government and higher taxes.

“I don’t see a positive end to this in the long-term for us, we the people who own homes out here,” Grooms said.

No guarantees

One concern raised Thursday was that county taxes would be raised as a result of the new city taking some of the county’s LOST revenue that is currently used for countywide expenses, such as jail costs. Others pointed out that LOST distribution is renegotiated by the county and cities after each census and there is no guarantee the new formula would provide the estimated amount of funds after the next round of negotiations are completed.

Doubts were also raised about the projected surplus, since the study based the city’s estimated $13.9 million in expenses on the average cost of operations of the selected comparison cities - Pooler and Kingsland - rather than the highest actual costs during the two years that were examined.

For instance, Pooler was found to have paid about $81,389 in 2017 per police officer, but the average came out to be $71,373. If the highest actual expense had been used, officer costs would have been almost $621,000 higher.

Residents could also lose their unincorporated district Stephens-Day homestead exemption upon formation of the new city and would have to get state legislation passed to again freeze their property values for the municipal tax, said Stephens, who co-authored the exemption he said is now much more difficult to get passed.

“It’s not a gimme that it’s there,” he said.

Seeking signs of support

A majority of the people in attendance at Thursday’s meeting raised their hands when asked whether they would like the opportunity to vote on the matter, although some balked at signaling their actual support for incorporating.

Whitemarsh resident Judith Grissette said - as an accountant - she needs more information before she can decide if incorporation is a good idea.

“I have to look at those figures better and see what’s missing,” Grissette said.

Petrea and Watson said they will not introduce the incorporation legislation unless there is a preponderance of support for the referendum shown by residents.

“We don’t need to just go out there and start slinging government everywhere,” Petrea said.