Meridian Star

April 7, 2013

Spending taxpayer money merits deliberation

The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     What's the rush?

    That was our first thought when on Monday the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors approved in a 3-2 vote a resolution of intent to pass a $14 million bond issue to fund recreational improvements and county courthouse renovations.

    District Two Supervisor Wayman Newell cast a nay vote, arguing that more discussion was needed.

    We agree. The Board of Supervisors was only recently told by a bond consultant that the county could borrow the $14 million without raising taxes.

    "We asked our financial consultant to come up with a figure of how much we could borrow, float a bond issue, without a tax increase and they came up with this amount of money, the $14 million bond issue," District One Supervisor and Board President Hank Florey said. "That is when we started deciding where to spend what."

    If there was any deciding going on, it wasn't done in public. The issue of how to spend $14 million in taxpayer money was never broached in a board work session.

    District 5 Supervisor Kyle Rutledge cast the only other dissenting vote, expressing a concern that borrowing that much money could affect the board's future ability to pay for roadwork and other necessities.

    "To maintain the roads we need to borrow $10 million," Rutledge said. "Our bond guy told us if we borrowed $14 million with no (tax) growth, we could borrow $7 million (in 2016) without a tax increase. Our roads are in such bad shape, I don't see $7 million doing it."

    To say that a $14 million bond issue would not raise taxes is a bit disingenuous given that it could necessitate a tax increase down the road to pay for needed county services or unexpected expenses.

    With all of that said, we don't dislike the projects on which the county is proposing to spend the money, which includes construction of a $3.8 million sports complex at Highland Park; $3.5 million and $2.5 million respectively for recreational facilities in West Lauderdale and Clarkdale; and $4.2 million in improvements to the county courthouse.

    Providing recreational opportunities to children promotes healthy lifestyles and provides them with wholesome activities. And there is no denying that the courthouse is in a deplorable state.

    We are also sensitive to the plight of members of the West Lauderdale Youth Association and Clarkdale Community Recreation Association.

    Association members raised money to buy land they donated to the county for construction of recreation facilities. They are to be commended for their efforts. And we aren't saying the county shouldn't honor its promise to build recreation facilities there.

    At the same time there is another proposal by a group that has been working for three years to find a location and funding for a master sports complex that could be used to attract sports tournaments to Meridian and Lauderdale County, which could pump money into the local economy.

    The idea has merit and should at least be considered alongside the other proposed recreational projects. Proponents fear allocating all $14 million to the listed projects could halt future efforts to build a master sports complex.

    We would like to see an open discussion at a board workshop on whether or not there should be a bond issue and if so, how much should be borrowed; what are the county's greatest needs; and what impacts could a bond issue have on the county's future bonding capacity and tax rates.

    As it stands now the resolution of intent to approve the bond issue will be published four times in the newspaper and at a May 6 meeting the board will vote the bonds up or down.

    Barring a change in supervisors' votes, the only other thing that could derail the process is if 20 percent of Lauderdale County voters, or roughly 1,500 residents, file a petition with the board to force the issue to a county-wide vote.

    In The Meridian Star's Wednesday online readers' poll we asked, "Do you think Lauderdale County should borrow $14 million to build a $3.8 million sports complex at Highland Park; fund a $3.5 million recreational facility at West Lauderdale; fund a $2.5 million recreational facility at Clarkdale; and pay for renovations at the Lauderdale County Courthouse with the remaining $4.2 million?"

    Of those who responded, 75 percent were not in favor of the proposal. And although the poll is not scientific, it at least indicates that there is some opposition to the idea and that more discussion is merited.

    At the Monday Board of Supervisors meeting where the resolution of intent for the bond issue was approved, resident James Harwell asked, "Why can't you wait for two weeks after a proper discussion of everything?"

    We agree. What's the rush?