River Street, Canal District to see upgrades as Savannah hotel-motel tax passes Legislature

·5 min read

Savannah will see an increase in taxes levied on hotel stays within city limits following the Georgia General Assembly's passage of the long-sought increase to the hotel-motel tax.

The money collected through the 2% increase will be used to fund improvements to Rousakis Plaza on River Street, as well as segments of the Tide-to-Town trail network and the restoration of the Historic Waterworks building. Since this legislation was a local bill, only the nine members of the Chatham legislative delegation voted on the increase during Monday's session.

Visitors and locals walk down River Street the day after St. Patrick's Day.
Visitors and locals walk down River Street the day after St. Patrick's Day.

The bill’s sponsor, House 165 Rep. Edna Jackson, said earlier this month the bill would be a boon for River Street and the needed improvements to Savannah's waterfront.

“If our River Street is in disarray, when you look at it, and you look at other areas where [visitors] are going — you want to have something that is representative of a city that is as old as ours,” Jackson said.

More:A long-sought Savannah hotel-motel tax increase is imminent. Here's what you need to know.

More:Where would increase hotel-motel tax funds go? River Street. Canal District. Trail network.

More:'The whole waterfront needs a facelift.' River Street merchants say improvements overdue

Hotel-motel details

The hotel-motel tax is distributed to the city government, the Savannah Convention Center, the Savannah Civic Center and Visit Savannah, the area's marketing arm. The former 6% rate generated $34.6 million in 2022, according to a city report on the fee. The same report anticipated an 8% hotel/motel tax would have generated $46.2 million the same year.

Water Works conceptual plan
Water Works conceptual plan

But the division of revenue also changes with the 2% bump.

A new hotel-motel tax agreement includes changes to the distribution formula. Under the former structure, half of the taxes go to the city, a third goes to Visit Savannah and the remaining 16.7% is directed to the Savannah Convention Center and the Savannah Civic Center.

But a resolution crafted by Savannah City Council in February 2021 refined how revenues generated by an expanded hotel-motel tax would be spent. The new formula calls for 37.5% to go to the City of Savannah's general fund, 33.8% to Visit Savannah and 14% to the Savannah Convention Center. The remaining 14.7% would go toward tourism product development, a project list put together by the local government using state guidelines.

Savannah's projects include the redevelopment of the River Street waterfront; expansion of the Tide to Town urban trail network; renovation of the Historic Waterworks building near the Enmarket Arena; trails, sidewalks and other connections between the Historic District, westside neighborhoods and the new arena; museum development; a new water-access facility on Savannah's southside; wayfinding signage; and West Bay Street gateway enhancements.

Read it:Bill increasing Savannah's hotel-motel tax by 2%

Other local bills

Other local bills passed on Monday included a provision that would increase the pay of Savannah-Chatham County Public School board members. Both were sponsored by first-year Rep. Anne Westbrook, who serves House District 163. She said while this bill wasn't necessarily a heavy lift, she was proud to provide a raise for board members.

The salary increases put each of the eight school board members at $25,000 per year, and the School Board president at $35,000 per year. Previously, board members received $12,000 per year, and the School Board president received $16,000 per year.

"[School board members] work really hard in this day and age, they get so much scrutiny, so much feedback from the public, plenty of it negative," Westbrook said. "They work really hard for our kids and we were happy to make that happen for them."

Read it: Bill increasing compensation of School Board members

Additionally, the Georgia Legislature passed a bill that would limit the terms of Savannah City Council, another measure sponsored by Westbrook. These are the first bills introduced by Westbrook to pass both the House and Senate.

The legislation follows the passage of an agenda item by City Council earlier this year. The resolution requested the Legislature pass a bill limiting alderspersons to three four-year terms in any one seat, starting when the next council is seated in January 2024. Terms of less than four years will still be recognized as a full term, but prior terms, including those of the sitting council, won’t count towards this total.

For instance, prior to becoming mayor, Van Johnson represented Savannah’s 1st District for four four-year terms. But these terms wouldn’t count towards his total, since he served in those positions prior to July 1, 2023.

Read it:Bill enacting 3-term limits for Savannah City Council

Savannah’s charter already term-limits the mayor, restricting officials to two four-year terms consecutively. Technically, this limit doesn't restrict a mayor from holding the office for two terms, skipping a term, and then coming back, but that hasn't happened in recent memory.

The charter reads: "any Mayor who has been elected for two consecutive four-year terms of office shall not be eligible to be elected for the succeeding term."

Council voted 7-2 to approve the term limits, with Alderwomen Bernetta Lanier and Alicia Miller Blakely in opposition.

While each of these bills has cleared the Georgia House and Senate, they still require Gov. Brian Kemp's signature before they become law.

Chatham County Delegation Chairman Ron Stephens said the passage of these local bills is an example of the cooperation that he's come to expect from the area's representatives.

"It's been a good year," Stephens said. "As usual, we worked together while others fought, and the legacy of the Chatham County delegation rides on."

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah gets long-sought Hotel-Motel tax increase after years of push