3/6 – Savannah Morning News – CITY TALK: City campaign, election could set new tone for business | savannahnow.com

CITY TALK: City campaign, election could set new tone for business | savannahnow.com.

Posted: March 6, 2011 – 12:19am |  Updated: March 6, 2011 – 3:19am

Savannah’s city election is still eight months away, but I’m excited that candidates are throwing their hats into the ring and starting the debate now.

If candidates and their supporters can refrain from polarizing rhetoric, we might end up having a vigorous discussion about the role we want city government to play as Savannah tries to find new ways to grow.

I’m not talking about population growth. We won’t see any significant increase in population until we recover thousands of jobs lost since 2007.

According to the Georgia Department of Labor’s recently released data, the Savannah metro area had 147,800 jobs in January. That’s up less than 1 percent from last January but still about 11,000 jobs less than in January 2008.

Can city elections have an impact on that grim number?

Yes.

First, a fresh tone might present a more upbeat face to the world, which could make us more likely to lure employers.

Second, new leadership might be more likely to move ahead with initiatives that would facilitate the opening of new businesses and the expansion of existing ones.

An example of such a concrete step would be the implementation of the Unified Zoning Ordinance, which would streamline zoning across the city and county.

The Metropolitan Planning Commission spearheaded the much-needed UZO process, but city and county officials have not exactly pushed the UZO forward.

As a member of the UZO Technical Committee, I spent about 80 unpaid hours over three years reviewing the work of commission planners, and I’m certain the document would facilitate economic growth.

Alderman-at-large Jeff Felser, who just announced his candidacy for mayor, was also part of that committee.

Another area of obvious need has already been publicly discussed. The Savannah Development and Renewal Authority was dramatically defunded for the next fiscal year, but suggestions of a new authority with a new mandate have so far produced nothing concrete.

New faces at City Hall, or even old faces in new seats, could also demand that the city bureaucracy establish a different tone when dealing with small businesses and with local citizens generally.

Some of my friends and readers think I have been insufficiently appalled by the actions of our city government since Rochelle Small-Toney became acting city manager.

But the Thin Mint Debacle of 2011 seemed to me almost a seamless continuation of the random and sometime draconian enforcement of poorly written ordinances that we’ve been seeing for years.

Remember the Jaywalking Fiasco of 2009?

On a related note, I’ve thought often of late about an interview I did many months ago with a downtown merchant who has had years of experience dealing with permits and inspections.

While fairly successful in moving projects forward, this particular merchant shared strong feelings about dealing with the city bureaucracy: “Every encounter is negative.”

I hear versions of that impression routinely from small businesspeople, both new and existing ones.

We don’t need to have a bureaucracy that seems so unfriendly, do we? Isn’t neighborliness something Savannah prides itself on?

It strikes me as wrongheaded to blame our acting and soon-to-be permanent city manager for a bureaucratic attitude that has existed for many years.

She doesn’t own that problem now, but she will own it soon.

No, new faces in City Hall won’t be able to create jobs overnight, but they can ensure a new tone, present a better face to prospective employers and enact concrete policies that foster the entrepreneurial spirit.

Georgia Legislature punting on economic growth, again

Georgia’s statewide employment picture is even worse than our local one.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, which produces a leading index for each state’s projected growth rate, predicts Georgia and a dozen other states will have shrinking economies in the first half of 2011.

But I have not seen a single bill move forward in the current Georgia legislative session that would boost the state economy in the near term.

It appeared we were poised to see passage of a bill allowing local voters to legalize Sunday package sales, but that effort appears dead.

There has been considerable discussion about a tax overhaul. But the result of the push for greater “fairness” would be an increased tax burden on middle and lower class Georgians, fewer tax incentives for some business investment and higher taxes on retirement income, which might discourage in-migration.

Proposed taxes on services would surely have a stifling effect on all sorts of independent contractors who perform basic maintenance and repairs.

The Georgia Legislature is also considering an “Arizona-style” crackdown on illegal immigrants, which would certainly place a burden on small businesses.

I know that some residents think our economy would get a boost from an illegal immigration crackdown, but they are not taking into account the taxes actually paid by illegal immigrants, the goods those immigrants consume, the high proportion of immigrants in the work force, the chilling effect the law might have on Latinos who are legal immigrants or citizens and the 150,000 or so residential units that illegal immigrants occupy statewide.

The governor and Legislature have presented a credible proposal to keep HOPE from going bankrupt, but the higher costs for students will drain money from the consumer economy.

The legislature is also considering a bill to force President Obama to present further verification of his citizenship before his name can appear on the 2012 ballot. I’m sure that will work wonders the next time the state asks the feds for money.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net or www.billdawers.com. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

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