Should Skidaway Island Incorporate?
At the July 18 True Perspectives Seminar, our Chatham County Commissioner Pat Farrell elaborated on the key issues of Skidaway Island potentially incorporating as a separate city. This is especially important as the City of Savannah is seeking to annex the unincorporated areas of Chatham County.
The topic is especially relevant as the three Republican County Commissioners were outvoted at the last Chatham County Commission meeting, when the other five voted to raise the dry trash fee to get an extra $3.6 million to add to County surplus. (Editor’s note: Skidaway Island has about 3% of the population of the County but pays about 12% of the real estate taxes.)
Those three no votes (of eight) represented about 65% of the unincorporated population of the County, but got outvoted by the other commissioners because of how the district voting is designed.
So, his main message on Incorporation was it gives Skidaway Island much more control of its destiny and the allocation of finances. Tybee Island has only 3,000 people, but its status as a separate city gives it much more control than Skidaway’s 8,500 population does, being only part of the unincorporated area of the County.
How the Taxes Work
Take the 1% Local Area Sales (LOST) Tax. It raises about $65 million a year in revenue, but none of that goes to the unincorporated areas.
Consider the Franchise Fees paid by vendors like Comcast. 5% of their revenue is a “tax” that gets rebated to the County to be used for “public communications” and does not go to unincorporated area specific needs.
Similarly, the franchise fees for natural gas and electric go entirely to municipalities not to unincorporated areas like Skidaway Island. (How many of our island residents pay those franchise fees that never find their way back to us?)
The “sixth penny” – Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST – is another 1% sales tax generating $65 million a year, but mostly for County-wide projects, not much for resurfacing McWhorter Road, for example.
Farrell thus characterized the current situation as “taxation without representation,” as our voice is not much heard when the funds are doled out. If we incorporated, and merely kept the new millage rate of 4.99 cents, that would generate almost $4 million a year to be spent on governing Skidaway and Skidaway projects.
Expenditures if Skidaway Incorporated
To form a separate city, at least three services must be provided by the municipality (direct or by contract) among the following list: police, fire, roads, planning/zoning, waste management, utilities, etc. We don’t have to have our own police department; we could contract that out to the County, or even to one of the other municipalities within Chatham County, whatever the best deal we could work out.
For fire services, individuals could continue with Southside Fire, or have the City of Skidaway do it for all, and we would have tax-deductible fire service.
Similar outsourcing can be done is for court service or road repair. The Landings Association (TLA) currently pays for more than it has to in maintaining roads from the bridge to our community. That could be reallocated to the right share of maintaining all areas on /Skidaway, sharing equitably with the other communities (like Modena and South Harbor).
Questions and Answers
- Will the County raise its taxes if it loses fees to Skidaway, where we don’t gain from the switch? They might, but our share of the higher taxes will be much lower, due to our smaller population.
- Will we have to have our own schools? No, as the school system is already shared County-wide with the City of Savannah.
- Do we need our own police force? No, as previously stated, it can be contracted out.
- What’s happening with the supposed merger of the County with the City of Savannah? First, that’s only intended to be with the unincorporated areas of the County. Next, it requires a unanimous vote of the entire Chatham County delegation to the state legislature to even go forward with a public referendum, and two of those delegates are opposed to the merger.
- What has been Jacksonville Florida’s experience with merger and annexation of areas in its county? More needs to be researched on that.
- What is the biggest downside to us Incorporating, in your opinion, as most of the comments seem to be the advantages of an incorporation? Possibly inertia and its attendant fear of change. However, Farrell was confident that plenty of expertise and initiative existed in this community to easily overcome that slight disadvantage.
- Is there a concern about introducing a new level of bureaucracy? On the contrary, he was confident that the decisions being made closer to the community and the control over finances would work much better, as this community was not shy about giving feedback to those temporarily in charge.
- Would incorporation have given better results, given the slow and inadequate response by the County to our needs after Hurricane Matthew? By all means.
- If Skidaway incorporated, would we have a better say in whether to be annexed by Savannah? (Editor’s Note: we would not even likely be asked to join them, if we were a separate city.) Absolutely, as we would be voting as a block for all of Skidaway. If we were still part of the unincorporated area of Chatham County, we would comprise only about 9% of the unincorporated voting area, and could be outvoted by the other areas, and thus have to merge into the City of Savannah.