Can Savannah city leadership walk and chew gum at the same time?

I don’t really mean the title of this post to sound so snarky.

I’m just asking the logical question in response to alderman Van Johnson’s words at the end of an excellent article today in the SMN As repairs mount, Savannah city leaders promise new police headquarters, precincts):

“I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” [Johnson] said. “We need to be able to make substantial improvements on all our SPLOST projects.”

Well this is not a question of walking and chewing gum. It’s a question of money. Can we pay for all of the things that citizens voted for in 2006? The answer is no.

The city of Savannah originally estimated that it would get about $160 million from the current round of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) and designed their project list, including a new arena, accordingly. But no one thought $160 million could cover all those projects; those were boom times and it seemed the general fund would have surpluses in perpetuity. The arena alone would probably run $120 million.

And $120 million is about how much the city of Savannah is going to get from the current SPLOST, which runs through 2014. I discussed some of these financial issues in a recent City Talk column: Leaks, mold and questions about infrastructure spending.

The problems about how to spend that $120 million are compounded by some questionable decisions about sites.

The city had a good site chosen at Hall and MLK for a new cultural arts center, but we’re apparently going to trade short term savings for long term gains and move the center to Oglethorpe and MLK. (For more of my thoughts on that, go here.)

The West Gwinnett site chosen for a new arena has apparently turned out to be inadequate.

The previous police chief and city manager decided that the Central and Downtown police precincts would move to an aging strip mall on Waters, but that decision never made much sense to me from a public safety perspective. Now there are increasing questions about the structural soundness of that building. Lesley Conn should have more on that next week in the SMN.

There has been no decision yet about the location of the new police headquarters.

Given that the current SPLOST collection was approved by voters in 2006 and began in 2008, it seems more than a little problematic that so many questions remain about sites.

We have some hard decisions ahead of us. In 2012 or 2013, when local politicians and economic development officials ask for a new SPLOST collection, they’re invariably going to have items repeated from the 2006 list. That’s going to be a tough sell.

Disappointingly but hardly surprisingly, there has been no public discussion of other methods of funding necessary or desired public infrastructure projects.