NOVEMBER 24, 2020 – 11:00 a.m.


Due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, the City Council work session and City Manager’s Briefing was held via Zoom video communications at 11:01 a.m.  Following the roll call, Mayor Johnson asked Alderwoman Gibson-Carter to offer an invocation.


PRESENT:  Mayor Van R. Johnson, II, Presiding

Alderwoman Kesha Gibson-Carter, At-Large, Post 1, Chairman

Alderwoman Alicia Miller Blakely, At-Large, Post 2

Alderwoman Bernetta B. Lanier, District 1

Alderman Detric Leggett, District  2

Alderwoman Linda Wilder-Bryan, District 3

Alderman Nick Palumbo, District 4, Vice-Chairman

Alderwoman Dr. Estella Edwards Shabazz, District 5, Mayor Pro-Tem

Alderman Kurtis Purtee, District 6



Acting City Manager Michael B. Brown

City Attorney Bates Lovett

Clerk of Council Mark Massey

Chief Budget Officer Melissa Carter

Chief Financial Officer David Maxwell

Workshop Agenda Items
1. 2021 Proposed Budget - Session II

Mayor Johnson announced the work session is a continuation of the 2021 Proposed Budget from the November 19-20, 2020 Meetings.

1.  Enterprise Funds Overview.

City Manager Brown and Chief Budget Officer Melissa Carter gave a brief description of the budget presentations for today's budget session.  Chief Financial Officer David Maxwell gave the Power Point Presentation for the Enterprise Funds Overview.

Following the presentation:

Mayor Johnson inquired concerning the amount of the water bill when compared to other jurisdictions.  Residents have asked why their water bills are so high.  He asked Mr. Maxwell to give some explanation for the high water bills.  Mr. Maxwell replied:  1.) the City issues a bi-monthly bill, with combined charges of water, sewer, and refuse which is higher than a monthly bill; and 2.) often, residents receive high bills because they have not paid a water bill in months.  Those are the two main reasons residents receive high water bills.

Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan disagreed with Mr. Maxwell's explanation.  She had an audit and had no leaks but her water bill has increased.  There must be a reason for the increase in the water bill.  Some residents are receiving water bills for over $1,200.00.  The explanation of not paying the bill does not apply to everyone, including her, so why have the bills increased over the last year.  Mr. Maxwell stated many times that question cannot be answered.  When the utility office receives a complaint, the City inspects the meter for accuracy or leaks.  The utility office has found most complaints are due to previous unpaid bills.  Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan stated that explanation does not make sense given the water bills continue to increase across the City.

Mayor Johnson stated the City has not done a good job of educating residents on the cost of water, sewage and trash.  Residents fail to realize the rising cost of utilities.  For Council concerns, Mayor Johnson asked Acting City Manger Brown to drill-down on what water, sewer and refuse services cost.  Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan stated she has a clear knowledge of what water, sewer and refuse services cost.                

Alderwoman Miller Blakely reported receiving numerous resident phone calls in relation to receiving astronomical water bills.  When they changed the system a couple of years back, that is when the water increased.  She asked Mr. Maxwell if the system change is the reason for the large increase.  Mr. Maxwell stated the new system is using the same mathematical system and would not have an impact on the rate changing.

Alderwoman Miller Blakely asked if the City could assist residents by using a forgiveness assistance program for the high water bills.  Mayor Johnson reported, through the CARES Act funding, the City assisted many residents by paying past due water bills through the utility assistance program.  The Council can make a decision to provide assistance but the cost will remain the same and the City will need to find a way to recoup the cost.  Alderwoman Miller Blakely suggested possibly taking money from the Parking Fund and transfer to the General Fund or change Parking Fund from an Enterprise Fund to a General Fund.  Mr. Maxwell answered, based on the fact the debt level within the Parking Fund is over $100 million, and the City will experience a severe revenue shortage this year and revenue reduction of 34%, the Parking Fund likely would be unable to make those changes.  Alderwoman Miller Blakely added, she would like to see the City find a way to forgive those astronomical water bills.  Mayor Johnson indicated, the Council could agree to forgive those water bills, but the money would need to come from somewhere.    

Acting City Manager Brown suggested: 1.) educate Council on the City rates as it relates to other jurisdictions, such as Atlanta, Macon, and Augusta; 2.) the City can take a look at the base fixed rate and try to keep it as low as possible; and 3.) the City should establish a system to look at individual high bills to determine the reason.  Mr. Brown will send out an initial report and later a report on what steps can be taken in the future to settle the issue of the cost versus the rate.

Mayor Johnson cautioned Council Members the City has been approached previously by people in private enterprise who can do the work at a lower rate. Historically, the City has resisted privatizing the work.  Employees benefit from maintaining the services within the City with pay rates, benefits and pensions.

Alderman Palumbo suggested giving more clarity and accountability for their bills and where the water is going.  The City could possibly have online billing to alleviate some of the problems.

Alderman Leggett reported there are citizens dumping trash in alleyways and the backyard of senior citizens who have to pay for removal.  The City must take these situations in consideration when making refuse charges.

Alderwoman Gibson-Carter asked Mr. Maxwell to repeat the Parking Fund debt and explain why.  Mr. Maxwell answered the Parking Fund has debt service for several outstanding bond issues related to City parking garages.  As long as those garages remain operating, the debt service will be paid by the lease rentals on the garages.  Alderwoman Gibson-Carter asked if Parking Fund revenue could be used to assist neighborhoods with projects and why residents were not billed for their water, sewer and trash, making some bills more than $5,000.00.

Acting City Manager Brown stated the City must first get to the reason why there is a high water bill.  The City must establish a way that the net benefit of tourism comes to our neighborhoods.  Alderwoman Gibson-Carter asked for a more immediate need for the huge overdue water bills and asked Mr. Maxwell if any CARES Act funding went towards overdue water bills.  Mr. Maxwell responded, the CARES Act funding made an allotment of $3.3 million to assist residents with over due and past due water bills, and electricity.  Alderwoman Gibson-Carter asked for specific data showing how much money was paid for City of Savannah resident's water bills.  Mr. Maxwell will send a copy of the data to Mayor and Council.  Ms. Melissa  Carter supplied information on other organizations in Savannah that supply assistance for utilities and senior discounts, for those who qualify, from the City of Savannah.

Alderwoman Lanier reported in the Highlands area, residents have experienced a sharp increase in their water bills over the past several years.  Some households have decreased, but the water bill increases.  The City should examine the problem and create solutions.

Mayor Pro-Tem Dr. Shabazz asked who should the residents contact at the City to receive assistance with the water bills and what is the City's financial health in terms of outstanding debt.  Acting City Manager Brown answered, the City's overall debt is relatively low and the City's credit rating (debt) is very good.  He recommends no rate increases at this time but take a look in July 2021 to revisit the issue.

Alderwoman Miller Blakely has heard from several residents who contacted United Way for utility assistance and they did not receive any help.  Is there a way the City can get a copy of the residents who were assisted by United Way with the CARES Act funding dollars.  Mayor Johnson stated the CARES Act funding was only for hardships due to COVID-19, and any water bills past due or overdue prior to that time would not be considered.  Alderwoman Miller Blakely asked if all CARES Act funding monies have been utilized.  Mayor Johnson asked Mr. Maxwell to send Council a report of all CARES Act funds spent and remaining.


2.  Capital Plan Overview & Implementation Strategy.

Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan asked if the discussion on the six year SPLOST VII allocation plan during the next budget session.  Mayor Johnson replied, it will be discussed during the Capital Plan Overview & Implementation Strategy.

Chief Budget Officer Melissa Carter gave the PowerPoint Presentation for the Capital Plan Overview & Implementation Strategy.

Following the presentation:

Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan asked of the SPLOST VII funds, District 3 will only receive $500.00 for swimming pools only, which might not be used due to COVID-19.  She recognizes District 3 needs additional assistance with other projects (sidewalks and lighting), and she does not want to wait another five years for additional funding.  Mayor Johnson stated there is money for sidewalks and lighting, but it is not designated by District.

Following Ms. Carter's breakdown of the the SPLOST VII funds, Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan asked for further clarification.  Ms. Carter explained the City-wide funding streams on pages 3, 5, 6 and 7.  Adjustments will be made by the voters.  Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan requested additional information on the $8 million for Broughton Street.  There are other projects the $8 million can be used for other than streetscapes.  Acting City Manager Brown reported the prior administration allocated the $8 million for Broughton Street streetscapes.  Council should have discussions on keeping the allocation as it stands or reallocate.  However, Broughton Street is important to tourists and local residents for entertainment.  Going forward, Council will be able to allocate funds to projects that reinvest in the neighborhoods.  Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan expressed her concerns for the funds not being equitably disbursed throughout the City.         

Mayor Johnson stated although it is a restricted fund, Council will have the ability to create equity through other means.

Mayor Pro-Tem Dr. Shabazz stated the six year allocation SPLOST VII Plan was the child of the previous administration.  On behalf of the 5th District, she submitted over $15 million in projects and will receive only $800,000.00.  She believes, with the newly elected officials at the County, the City and County will have a great opportunity for collaboration.

Alderman Purtee agreed with Alderwoman Wilder-Bryan and Mayor Pro-Tem Dr. Shabazz that the six year SPLOST VII Plan is not equitable.  Moving forward, he hopes the City will have a solid plan.  He believes there should be a unified City-County government.  Residents are paying for duplicate services.  He asked Council to think about a unified City-County government for the future and identify additional resources.

Alderwoman Miller Blakely asked what can the Council do to change the SPLOST VII allocations.  City Attorney Lovett answered, there is a path to reallocate SPLOST fund.  He described to Council the process.  Alderwoman Miller Blakely asked Council if they wanted to proceed to reallocate.  Mayor Johnson suggested Council have extensive conversations before any decisions are made.  Residents voted for this allocation of funds and if Council decides to reallocate funds, it could damage their future attempts for approval from residents for SPLOST funds.  Council should also have discussion with the County on reallocations.  There is a cost for the referendum.  Alderwoman Miller Blakely feels the residents will not have a problem with putting money back into the community.  She stated the City should look at increasing the hotel-motel tax for additional revenue.

Acting City Manager Brown thinks this is timely and Council should have meetings soon to prepare for next year and the legislative session.  He suggested the City have discussions with County Commissioners regarding LOST (Local Options Sales Tax).

Alderwoman Lanier commented  on Chief Budget Officer Melissa Carter's presentation and the City continuing to do business as in prior years.  Going forward, she would like the City to use the model for a Community Benefits Agreement.  She discussed the benefits of using the model to relieve the burden with capital projects funding.  Alderwoman Lanier suggested the City take a serious look at the model.  It is a best practices model.  She feels the residents in District 1 have not received a return on their investments.  It seems the downtown area receives the greater portion of investments and this is such a disparity when the poorest sector of Savannah lives only one mile away.  The City must engage and explore new modes of doing public business to make sure all residents receive an equitable return on their investment.  If there is a SPLOST VIII, Alderwoman Lanier suggested the City focus on infrastructure.

Mayor Johnson suggested Council meet sometime next week to continue the budget discussions.   


3.  Police & Fire Budgets.

Not presented.


Mayor Johnson reported to Council, the budget sessions will continue until the 2021 Budget is finalized.

Mayor Johnson adjourned the Work Session at 1:20 p.m.


The audio recordings of the work sessions can be found by copying and inserting the below links in your url:


Mark Massey, Clerk of Council

Date Minutes Approved: December 10, 2020

Initials:  mm

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