The Islands, where I live, are a-flux with incorporation fever.
Merchants offer to round-up sales purchases to help marshal the resources to pay for the state-required study. Residents on social media and in meetings actively promote the process as a step to avoid being [consolidated with] the City of Savannah, an outcome that is represented as on par with Voldemort becoming the ruling authority over the island communities.
Indeed, it seems a moment of reckoning is coming where the islands will remain an island or become a parcel of the growing city of Savannah. In all of this, there have been several myths about incorporation, either with Savannah or as an individual entity that seem to be gaining traction in the community.
In that vein, this is an Islands edition of “Myth-busters.” Side note of disclosure — I see merits to both [consolidating] with Savannah and I see merits to Self-incorporation. This editorial is primarily designed to shed-light on some the ways this issue is being discussed so that you can better decide on incorporation’s merits.
Myth Number 1 — Your Taxes will Go Down if the Islands Self-Incorporate
It would be virtually impossible for your taxes to either remain the same or go down under either scenario. Local governments are responsible for a large range of unnoticed resources — roads, storm-water runoff, police and fire services, and maintaining public infrastructure. In Georgia, Cities and Counties sometimes split these costs through intergovernmental agreements. But typically, that is due to costs being primarily associated with one body or another. On the islands, the roads themselves would require significant public resources, which have been provided by the county up to this point. In other words, the costs for island road upkeep is currently spread across 284,000 people through property assessments, SPLOST Funding, and other revenue generating devises. If the Islands incorporate, those same costs will now be spread primarily across 22,000 people.
Myth Number 2 — We are Like Sandy Springs, and they did ok
This is a simple, “no we’re not.” There is a reason why Sandy Springs has been able to privatize most of its functions and lower taxes — they’ve externalized their revenue. The downside to privatization of government services is the unseen costs that are externalized to the public. These costs don’t catch up all at once, but when they do, they can be a back breaker for communities. Sandy Springs has avoided this problem because they have an external source of revenue capable of offsetting the costs externalized to the public by private businesses. The number of businesses in Sandy Springs literally dwarfs the number of businesses on Wilmington Island and Whitemarsh Island. Located in the heart of Atlanta, Sandy Springs attracts residents from the greater metro area of Atlanta meaning that the sales tax revenue doesn’t come from their residents — but rather others that live around Sandy Springs. Its a win-fall and boondoggle all at the same time. They can completely fund their government without hitting their own residents up for revenue every time there is a shortfall. The Islands simply do not have that same built in revenue generator. So when roads need repaving because we have 10 trash trucks riding through the neighborhoods each week ( I counted) — your taxes will go up and not incrementally, but with a large jump. At the same time, the cost of other things like milk and bread, lawn bags at Ace, and detergent at Walmart will also rise because of the need to supplement the property tax revenue with sales tax revenue. What incorporation without proper creation of revenue generating mechanism (like taxes means) is that it would become more expensive to live on the island.
Myth Number 3 — Privatizing Public Services is Always Better
When I was growing up, the U.S. postal service was the whipping boy of government largess. Services like Fed Ex and UPS did things faster for those that could pay for it. Meanwhile, the U.S. Postal Service seemed to lag behind in both technology and competence. But you know what we did — we invested in it and made it better.
Privatizing government services creates a number of problems. First private enterprises do not have the same incentives as public service agencies. Their incentive is to create more revenue. Thus Southside supplements its fire force with volunteer fireman, not professional fireman. (For the record, I don’t have a generic problem against volunteer fireman, but if MY house catches fire, I’d prefer the professionals). Speaking to fire department members who left Southside for Savannah Fire Department, the difference in equipment and training is substantial. Lastly, looking at the numbers for Fire Service in Savannah compared to Fire Service provided by Southside, the costs per property are comparable. This doesn’t make Southside a bad actor, it just points to the difference in motivations between public services and privatized public services. You pay for what you get.
Myth Number 4 — Joining with Savannah is all Bad
Savannah’s government is deemed to be the big bad wolf in all of this. The reality is that [consolidating] the islands with Savannah has benefits. Savannah is the largest economic community in the metro area. Consolidation gives island residents a seat at the political table that their county representatives don’t have. Mayoral elections would have to account for the island (I suspect that Mayor Eddie Deloach covets the island votes in this process). The islands would get representatives on the city counsel. Despite the fact that there is a draw bridge on President’s street, the islands are not a place where we can simply pull up the works and be completely separate from the challenges that Savannah faces. A seat at the table is a valuable asset.
Myth Number 5 — Self-Incorporating is all Bad
Likewise, you may read this and assume that I am anti-incorporation. I am not. An incorporation strategy that is built on reality and designed to harness the resources of the islands could be a winning strategy for everyone. For example, a municipal arm with the power to remake Johnny Mercer into a true Town Square could create a sustainable economic engine for the community and increase property values across the islands. (Imagine a true town square, with traffic circles connecting Johnny Mercer to Waltour, Penn Waller, and Cromwell, with walkable access, bike paths that run along the marshes and connect the Library to the sports fields, schools, and beyond; and buildings that do not look like a mixture of 1960’s neo-soviet architecture with bad 1990’s stucco (and a lawnmower repair shop serving as a sports bar to boot). But these are things that require sophisticated governments. And more than that, they require a tax base.
The One Reality
Whether the islands incorporate or are consolidated, your taxes will go up. If the islands incorporate and they don’t go up immediately, then brace up — there will be much higher taxes down the line. Taxes are not a bad thing. An incorporated islands community with a higher tax rate will increase value to individual property owners if the land use decisions that incorporation enables follows. But an incorporated island with no real municipal government that is incapable of undertaking realistic land use reform (see the current Chatham County Board of Supervisors) will only result in property values not increasing to their potential and property taxes rising to boot.
[Edited: In an earlier version of this piece I used the term annexation. I have made clear that the process is consolidation.]