By Terri Ferguson Smith / firstname.lastname@example.org
The Meridian Star
Plans are moving ahead for the county to finance construction of a sports complex at Highland Park in Meridian.
The Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors on Monday approved the initial resolution to pass a $14 million bond issue that will pay for, among other things, the construction of a 32,000 square foot facility at Highland Park where the old basketball and tennis courts are now. Plans call for a four-court gymnasium with bleachers at one end, an entrance with toilets and a small administrative space.
Because of lower interest rates, a good bond rating for the county, the recent refinancing of some existing bonds, and paying off some other bonds, supervisors said they can do this without raising taxes.
Supervisors plan to spend $3.8 million of the bond issue on the sports complex; the remainder of the bond issue is earmarked for two recreational facilities in the county and the first phase of improvements to the Lauderdale County Courthouse.
The decision did not come without controversy, however. In a rarely seen split of opinions, the Board voted 3-2 in favor of the resolution of intent to issue the bonds, the first step in the process. In favor were: District One Supervisor Hank Florey, board president; District Three Supervisor Josh Todd, and District Four Supervisor Joe Norwood. Voting against the bond issue were District Two Supervisor Wayman Newell and District Five Supervisor Kyle Rutledge.
Newell said he was opposed to the issue because, although the board has talked about the projects for some time, it had never as a group discussed the $14 million figure and he felt more discussion was needed.
"My point is that we as a board have not discussed this as a whole board at any work session and I would like to make a motion that we table it for further discussion," Newell said.
That motion failed, with Newell and Rutledge voting yes; all others voting no.
Rutledge said he believes the board is borrowing too much and he too would like more discussion on the matter.
"I'm just worried that we borrowed too much now and it's going to affect whichever board is here in 2016. To maintain the roads, we need to borrow $10 million. 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," Rutledge said. "Our roads are in such bad shape, I don't see $7 million doing it. Hopefully we will have growth. Our growth in the last two or three years has gone down instead of up. I wish we could have talked it out and worked this out. I knew some of them wanted to but I didn't know it was going up for a vote because it wasn't on Thursday's work session agenda."
Rutledge said he supports recreation in Lauderdale County, but he worries about future budgets.
"Even though it's not a tax increase, we do have to pay $14 million back," Rutledge said.
Florey said the $14 million figure came from the bond consultant that the county uses.
"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," Florey said. "That is when we started deciding where to spend what."
County attorney Rick Barry explained that the resolution that the board passed on Monday is an intent resolution. It will be published four times in the newspaper; then at the May 6 meeting the board will consider going forward with the bonds.
"If 20 percent of Lauderdale voters, or a minimum of 1,500 should file some petition with the board, it could be forced to a vote," Barry said. "Otherwise, this is the beginning of the intent resolution on this bond issue."
Norwood, who has worked closely with Meridian Mayor Cheri Barry on the project, said that now is the right time to pass the bond issue. Two years ago, he said, he and others on the board voted against a similar issue because it would have raised taxes. Now that construction costs and interest rates are down, it's time, he said.
"Everybody on the board who voted against it basically was in support of doing the bond issue if we could do it without a tax increase," Norwood said. "I strongly feel that it is time for us to do this. We've been dealing with this for years and if we ever, in this community, do anything, now is the time."
County administrator Joe McCraney said $3.5 million of the bonds will go to the county-owned fields of the West Lauderdale Youth Association; $2.5 million will go to the county-owned Clarkdale Community Recreation Association park construction, and the remainder will go to courthouse improvements.
At both West Lauderdale and at Clarkdale, association members raised money to buy land and then donated the land to the county.
"They paid it off, they gave it to us," Todd said, noting that the West Lauderdale Youth Association had chicken dinner fundraisers for 11 years to raise the money.
"This is bigger than just us," Todd said. "I'm a firm believer in it, I stand behind it. The kids deserve it and this is without a tax increase."
Mayor Barry was among supporters of the project who attended the meeting.
"It has been a pleasure for the city to work closely with the county in our efforts to offer a better quality of life across the board," Barry said. "I think this is something attainable in the next year to two years. We have to start somewhere."
James Harwell, a realtor, spoke out with concerns about the project. He said he is not opposed to recreation and he is aware of the improvements that need to be made to the courthouse, but he thinks more discussions are needed.
"I'm very concerned about the way some of these issues have been brought up to you this morning," Harwell said. "Some of the elements of this bond have kind of slipped through under the cracks before us where we don't know exactly what we're voting on here."
Harwell defended Newell's position.
"Why wasn't he able to be apprised of all the elements of this bond," Harwell asked, adding that there had not been a thorough discussion of the issue.
"Why can't you wait for two weeks after a proper discussion of everything."
Harwell said he is concerned in particular about improvements at Highland Park.
"I think we need to make improvements in a way for recreation that makes sense," he said.
Norwood said the board wasn't trying to slip anything through secretly.
"We've been doing this for the past two years. It's no secret," Norwood said. "Every member of this board knew what we were doing."
Harwell voiced concerns about construction of a sports complex in Meridian at Highland Park, saying that $4 million is not enough. He also said that the park is in a small, contained area where property values are already down. He asked that the board reconsider its vote.
Ken Wallace, president of the West Lauderdale Youth Association, said he was pleased to see progress on the project, but he wished it had been a unanimous vote.
"If we can do this and not raise taxes and with construction costs being low, I think the time is perfect and I think it is a wise move. It feels really great after so many years of hard work to know that we are one step closer," Wallace said.
Tommy Galyean, president of the Clarkdale Community Recreation Association, thanked the board for its action.
"We haven't had a place to play for a long time. We don't know how many kids we're going to serve. We have an idea it will be 300 or 400 to start with, but we don't know," Galyean said.
Galyean said Clarkdale wants to build a community recreation facility on its 20-acre site, to include baseball, softball, tennis courts, soccer, a walking trail, and a community building.
He said this project should not be confused with plans others have of a sports complex for the city and county that could host large tournaments that would pull in thousands of visitors each year. He supports that project, he said, but the Clarkdale project is something for that part of the county.
Van Goodwin spoke up about the large sports complex that has been talked about for several years. He and others favor a central sports complex for the city and county. Goodwin said such a complex would bring in money for tournament fees for soccer, baseball, recreation basketball, and will bring in money for restaurants and hotels.
"We've laid this out time and time again," Goodwin said. "We can build a premier sports complex for Meridian and Lauderdale County with what you're proposing. We can come together as a county and a city, build one facility to serve all and we will bring economic development into this town and to this county."
Florey answered that they had not approached the board with land and a plan.
Rod Amos asked the board how many phases there are of the recreational expansion and is the bond issue an expense that will be passed on to future generations.
"All my life I have seen the parks in our community to continue to deteriorate. I am glad to see that you are beginning to step up to the plate to address the needs and concerns of our community, but my issue is that we do it in a wise and prudent manner because you all are the stewards of the taxpayers," Amos said. "You spend our money and you should be doing it in a comprehensive manner so that we address all the needs of our community."