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County makes plans for public hearing/open house on SPLOST?projects

Grady County commissioners had a lengthy discussion Tuesday night about how they should conduct a public hearing/open house on proposed Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funded projects Nov. 1.
Grady County administrator Carlos Tobar’s  idea of how the session should be conducted differed from ideas of the majority of the county commission.
Tobar’s plan was to display illustrations and materials in the courtroom for the public to walk around and see and ask questions and then present their comments to county clerk Carrie Kines Croy.
Commissioners voiced opposition to that proposal.
“All five commissioners need to hear all of the comments. Someone may tell LaFaye (Copeland) one thing and not say anything to the rest of us. All five of us need to hear the questions and comments,” said Charles Norton, commission chairman.
The majority of the board agreed with Norton. Vice Chairman Elwyn Childs was absent Tuesday night.
“I want to get something clear to my mind tonight. The ballot said aquatic center. If we don’t use all that money for an aquatic center what can we legally do with the money that is left over? Can we use it for the volunteer fire department or do we have to put that money on another referendum and get the vote of the people?” Chairman Norton asked.
According to county attorney Kevin S. Cauley, if there are excess funds due to a project costing less than projected, then the excess could be used on other projects approved on the SPLOST ballot.
Chairman Norton said that under a previous SPLOST excess funds collected were required to be used on debt reduction.
“You will not have an excess on collections. I do think you can use any unspent money for any of the other listed projects and that priority is up to you. The real issue here is the definition of an aquatic center and what that is,” Cauley said.
Norton also questioned if the county decided to build a splash pad instead of a lap pool would the project remain a joint project between the city and county.
The county administrator said he had discussed the proposal for the splash pad with Cairo city manager Chris Addleton, and Addleton had told him the council had no opposition to scaling back the aquatic center as suggested.
Tobar said that after the final cost of the revised aquatic center is known, and the entire $900,000 earmarked for the aquatic center is not spent, the county would refund the city their share of the unspent SPLOST leaving the county with its share to invest in other approved projects such as the volunteer fire department substations.
Commissioner LaFaye Copeland said that the public should be made aware that the county is not proposing to give the city back all of its percentage of the $900,000. “It’s just their share of what is not spent is all we are giving them. Some people think we’re just giving it all back to them. We need to be clear,” she said.
“We must make sure it is legal, whatever decision we make,” Commissioner Copeland said.
Cauley said certainly someone could challenge the county on the definition of an aquatic center, but he assured the board the use of excess SPLOST proceeds on other approved projects was legal. He also reminded the board there is a legal procedure to completely abandon the aquatic center project, which includes a referendum to be voted on by the public.
Chairman Norton warned there would be repercussions no matter what the board decided. “I’m like Mr. Childs (Vice Chairman Elwyn Childs), we’ve got to handle this with paper gloves or we will never get another SPLOST passed,” the chairman said.
He reminded the board that a previous SPLOST the county sought many years ago strictly for roads and bridges was voted down.
“The voters in the city control the outcome and you’ve got to give some pet peeves to get one passed,” Norton said.
Tobar said the actual cost today to build an Olympic-size swimming pool would be $3.3 million and he said the annual operating cost would be $100,000. The county administrator said that a public planning session for the long-term use of Barber Park conducted prior to his hiring in 2013 did not include an Olympic-size pool.
“The community did not ask for a pool,” Tobar said. According to Tobar, records from the public planning session indicate the public preferred a splash pad.
Tobar also said many laws and regulations regarding public pools had changed since the SPLOST referendum for the aquatic center was passed in 2007.
Commissioner T.D. David challenged Tobar on his suggestion the public preferred a splash pad over a pool.
“How can you say that?” David asked. Tobar said his information was based on information from a public planning session for the long-term plan for Barber Park.
Chairman Norton said that the majority of times no one attends public hearings held by the county, but he warned Tobar not to base opinions based on a lack of participation.
Commissioner David said the board should expect a delegation of citizens at the upcoming public hearing who are vocal in their support for a pool to be built.
Commissioner Ray Prince said he believed many more county residents would rather spend sales taxes to lower fire insurance rates than to build a pool.
Tobar said that all new public pools must meet federal requirements and be accessible to the handicapped. “That’s probably one reason why a lot of public pools in the area have been shut down,” Tobar said.
Back in 2007 when the voters had the opportunity to vote on the aquatic center as part of the package of projects to be funded with sales tax proceeds, there was significant opposition and community leaders at the time voiced concern that the referendum would not pass. It did pass, however, by 175 votes.
“We went through this on another SPLOST when it came up about a soccer field. All the kids that were going to play on it are adults today and they couldn’t care less now. It’s about the same with this pool. The parents who are so upset, their kids are grown and gone,” Chairman Norton said.
Commissioner David said the people who have contacted him were no less interested in the pool being built today than they were back in 2007.
Tobar said he is optimistic that once the public sees what is planned to be built at Barber Park they will be supportive. “I think they will get real excited. It’s going to be a fantastic place for the entire community to come and enjoy,” Tobar said.
The county administrator also reminded the board the county has been awarded a $100,000 grant from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources that will help defray the cost of the project. He told commissioners he hoped they did not abandon the splash pad project including the new bathrooms, playground and outdoor fitness equipment. “We’ll have egg on our face with DNR if we do,” Tobar predicted.
“I’m for the splash pad. I’m for the volunteer fire department, but my deal is we be careful about misleading the public and know what we do is legal,” Chairman Norton said. He went on to say he would prefer to put the issue back on a ballot.
Commissioner David said the majority had spoken once before on the matter and there is no guarantee the result would be different.
Based on what was discussed Tuesday night, at the Nov. 1 public hearing/open house there will be two periods for the board to receive comments from the public regarding the SPLOST projects. The remainder of the time the public will be able to view exhibits and receive information. The board plans to limit the session to an hour and a half. The session will begin at 6 p.m. in the main courtroom on the second floor of the courthouse.

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