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Commissioners discuss putting pool issue back on ballot

The primary topic of discussion at a work session held by the Grady County Commission Tuesday regarded the proposed construction of an aquatic center at Barber Park.
The project was approved by Grady County voters in 2007, but has yet to be built. Grady County subsequently was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to fund the construction of a splash pad, playground equipment, stationary adult exercise equipment and bathhouse at Barber Park and the deadline for project completion is Dec. 31, 2018, according to county officials.
County officials continue to discuss the possibility of declaring the project infeasible and putting it back on the ballot for local voters to decide whether or not the aquatic center, including an eight-lane competition swimming pool, should be built.
“We’re not able to maintain a pool like that even if we did build it. It would cost $70,000 to $80,000 annually to maintain,” said Chairman Ray Prince.
“And times three on insurance,” predicted Donna Johnson, accounting manager for the Grady County Commission.
“Do we have to have a pool that big?” Commissioner June Knight asked during Tuesday’s work session, which was held with Recreation Department Director Becky Bracewell, Assistant Director Shawn Miller and County Attorney Jennifer Dorminey Herzog.
Chairman Prince said the community already has a pool and he questioned the need to construct another one when the existing pool at Holder Park in southwest Cairo will likely be closed down if a new pool is built at Barber Park.
“We inherited a mess,” Bracewell said Tuesday, adding, “Needs and concerns have changed since the SPLOST was passed.”
“If we had a swim team it would be a different story,” Prince commented.
Bracewell told commissioners that the taxpayers she hears from at Barber Park tell her that a pool would cost too much money and she predicted the annual budget for the aquatic center would exceed the budgets of her other recreation programs.
Chairman Prince told his fellow commissioners he would hate for the county to construct the facility and then in two or three years have to close it because the county could not afford to operate it.
“If we are going to declare this project infeasible we’ve got to be specific. It can’t be because we used the money for something else,” Grady County Commission Vice Chairman T.D. David stated.
Grady County Commissioner LaFaye Copeland said it was time to make a decision. Copeland said the issue had been batted around for as long as she had been on the board.
“Is there any other way to use this money?” Commissioner Copeland asked. Chairman Prince said for debt reduction or to roll back the millage rate.
County Attorney Herzog reminded commissioners that in order to pursue a declaration of infeasibility the City of Cairo Council would have to concur. She also noted that if the voters voted against declaring the project infeasible the project would have to be built.
Chairman Prince said it was his personal preference to put the question on the ballot for the people to decide. “It’s hard for five people to decide on something like this when all taxpayers will be paying for it,” he said.
Commissioner David suggested constructing the splash pad, bathhouse and office for the recreation department and using the money left over to apply toward debt. Herzog questioned whether that proposal would pass legal muster.
The county attorney said it would be up to a judge to determine, but perhaps it would be possible to articulate that circumstances had changed since the SPLOST was approved and the project could be declared jointly with the city as infeasible.
Herzog said the county was not only bound by the ballot language, but also the promotional material distributed to the public at the time of the 2007 SPLOST referendum.
“I understand this is an issue people feel strongly about. I hear it on both sides,” Herzog said Tuesday.
Commissioner David said that special interests that pushed for the passage of the SPLOST to construct the pool were likely to sue regardless so he recommended proceeding with building the splash pad, bathhouse and purchase and install the playground equipment then put the remainder toward the county’s debt.
“I believe we will have more of a problem that way than to deem it infeasible,” Chairman Prince said.
Recreation Director Bracewell pushed for the board to make a decision Tuesday. “Are we close to making a decision? We are holding off on other projects,” she said.
Chairman Prince said additional discussion would be necessary before the board could take action.
At the commission meeting immediately following the work session Tuesday, pool proponent John Brannon spoke during the public participation portion of the commission meeting. Brannon shared a copy of a legal opinion provided by the Assistant General Counsel of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia to former county attorney Kevin S. Cauley in December 2016. In that opinion, Joseph Scheuer of ACCG wrote to Cauley, “I think it is an uphill battle to say that a splash pad equals an aquatic center.”
Scheuer also questioned if infeasibility is an option. “Things that do not qualify for infeasibility are: higher costs, diminished revenues, lack of support by elected officials and technical problems that can be fixed.” Another concern raised by the ACCG attorney is the fact that the county had previously solicited bids for a competition pool, not a splash pad.
Scheuer concluded his December 2016 opinion by stating, “Angry parents could quickly turn into ready plaintiffs, so be sure the board understands they do not have a good hand to play.”
“I’m disturbed the board got an ACCG opinion in December 2016 and you continue to delay and deceive,” Brannon said. The pool supporter also took issue with the county having a work session to discuss the pool issue without making the public aware that was a subject to be discussed.
In addition to the pool issues, the board very briefly discussed future rental of the Grady County Agri-Center and an issue with a plat with Grady County Code Enforcement Officer Brian Harrison.

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