By Terri Ferguson Smith / email@example.com
The Meridian Star
With some residents for and others against, the county has passed a $14 million bond issue to pay for recreation projects and the beginning of courthouse renovations.
Over the objections of two county supervisors and numerous citizens in Lauderdale County, the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 on Monday to pass the bond issue.
The bond issue will fund $3.8 million to build a 32,000 square foot sports complex that will house a four-court gymnasium with bleachers at Highland Park. Also, $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, $4.2 million, will go to fund the beginning of renovations at the Lauderdale County Courthouse.
The issue was first voted on in April, an intent resolution that set things in motion to pass the issue.
At that time, supervisors voting for the bond issue were Hank Florey, District 1, Josh Todd, District 3, and Joe Norwood, District 4. Those voting against the bond issue were Wayman Newell, District 2 and Kyle Rutledge, District 5.
The vote was the same on Monday, however before the matter came to a vote both Newell and Rutledge offered up their own motions regarding the bond issue, which earlier this year prompted a petition drive to bring the issue to a county-wide referendum. Although initially the petitioners had enough signatures to call for a vote — at least 1,500 — numerous names were thrown out because they were either duplicate names, illegible on the petitions, signed by a spouse, or were signatures of people who were not registered voters. There were 1,554 names collected, but only 1,338 were verified. Nineteen people signed affidavits asking that their names be removed from the petition.
Before the verification process was finished, those circulating the petitions were able to get another 320 signatures but those were not counted because they came in after the May 6 deadline.
Newell made a motion on Monday to accept the 320 names, but the motion failed with Rutledge and Newell voting yes; all others voting no.
Board attorney Rick Barry said the law is clear; names cannot be accepted after the deadline.
Rutledge then cited a law that allows the Board of Supervisors to call for an election on a bond issue even if they are not required to do so by a successful petition drive. He made a motion to call for a referendum on the bond issue. Rutledge said he had heard the concerns of some who said a referendum would cost about $30,000. He said he did some research and learned that it would actually cost about $20,000, a small portion, he noted, of a $14 million bond issue.
Rutledge and Newell voted yes to the referendum; all others voted no. Later in the meeting the motion to pass the bond issue went to a vote.
"I have to vote no on this, borrowing $14 million. I believe we are borrowing too much money. We are borrowing all the money we can. I don't treat my personal finances that way. I'm not going to treat the taxpayers' money that way," Rutledge said. "To the people of Clarkdale and West Lauderdale, you've worked hard to get these complexes. I do have some reservations about Highland Park. There's been no vote from the city council on this about the placement of the complex in the park, maintaining the complex or paying the utilities."
In addition, Newell said, the plans to renovate the courthouse beginning with $4.2 million is just a drop in the bucket compared to what the building needs.
"One attorney said you might as well go out and put it in the street and set it afire," Newell said. "Several years down the road you're going to be looking at the same thing again. I can't support it because there are too many people against it."
Todd commended the people of West Lauderdale and Clarkdale on their fundraising efforts which led to the land purchase for the parks.
Norwood has been a strong proponent of the bond issue.
"I'd just like to say, to the people of the inner city, it's very clear to all of us that the only reason this project is having any issues or controversy is because of what's been going on in Highland Park," Norwood said. "I think HIghland Park is an excellent location for this facility whether those people agree or not, I understand and respect your opinions."
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.
Later in the meeting citizens both for and against the bond issue voiced their opinions. Among them was Ray Huffmaster, who said although he is not opposed to building ball fields, he is against passing a bond issue when there are already 11 bonds that the county is paying on.
"I want to thank Wayman and Kyle for voting your convictions and sticking with it, regardless of what anybody else thinks," Huffmaster said. "I thank Joe, and Josh and Hank for adding a tax burden to us for a long time, not only for us but it's going to be a burden on the young people. They are going to have to pay for all this."
James Harwell also spoke out in opposition to the bond issue. He is particularly concerned about the Highland Park portion of the bond issue.
"I think the question that I intend to bring forward is whether or not the county can precede the city and overstep the ordinances on the books with respect to zoning inside the city limits."
It has not been approved by the city, Harwell said.
Harwell gave the board copies of a notice of intent to appeal.
Barry asked Harwell if he had an attorney to handle the appeal and Harwell said it wasn't necessary at this time. Then Barry cautioned Harwell about the possible consequences of a lawsuit. One of the reasons for getting the bond issue now is that there are low interest rates, Barry said. It is not known how long those rates will last.
"If there is a frivolous appeal and it is conducted and that causes several of these bond prices to go up," Barry said, "I think at that point this board is going to need to consider recouping the difference in the sale price and interest on what we could have gotten in the sales price and interest versus what we may have to pay if the rates go up.
"Certainly Mr. Harwell has a right to appeal that. I would advise him to consult with an attorney on that before he does anything on that, to find out the ramifications and possible consequences."
If interest rates in a $14 million bond issue go up, Barry said, that would be a substantial amount of money."
Nevertheless, Harwell said he was going to file an appeal.
"Mr. Barry I think that's something the board should have considered before entering into this sort of haphazard loosely put together scheme to borrow additional funds above and beyond what the citizens are agreeable to going into," Harwell said.
Tommy Williams said he was surprised that the board did not listen to the voters who signed petitions.
"It just appeared to me that you all would have more consideration for the citizens of this county than to have stuck with that concocted piece of legislation," Williams said. "I would have thought that with a new administration, a new mayor coming into office on the first of July you might have at least waited and had some official conversation with them as to what their preference was and whether the mayor can somehow work this out. You could have considered the citizens interests. That to me is incomprehensible that you would continue so adamantly to go forward in light of a new mayor and a couple of new members of the city council in the city where you are dedicating $3.8 million to the property owned by the city."
Williams said board members who support the bond issue have gone to great lengths to stop a referendum.
"You all four, or three have done everything but turn back-flips to keep the citizens from voting on this," WIlliams said.
Tommy Galyean, president of the Clarkdale Community Recreation Association, thanked the board.
"I certainly respect everyone's right to their opinion. Personally I'd like to thank the board for passing this bond issue," Galyean said. "It's not something that's been concocted and thrown together at the last minute. I know that because I've been involved in it for several years. I look forward to seeing it completed."
Clarkdale plans 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.
Ken Wallace, president of the West Lauderdale Youth Association, said it is a good investment for the county. There are plans for an eight-field complex, community center and walking trails.
"This was actually put before the board two years ago. It was voted down then because it would cause a tax increase," Wallace said. "Now we're able to do this and actually get more money with no tax increase. Why not make this investment in this community? This is money well spent. This is an investment in this community and I appreciate you for it."
Norwood agrees that it is money well-spent, especially when one considers the costs of not providing recreational opportunities for young people.
"There are groups that want the county to build a juvenile detention center," Norwood said. "To build a big juvenile center would probably cost $10 million and $2 million a year to operate it, but then we don't want to spend $4 million on a facility that will service more kids than all the facilities in this entire county? It's hard to comprehend what's on other peoples' minds when they don't want to invest in kids."
Rutledge said he feels it's not the right time nor is it the right amount of money.
"I believe we could have done something without borrowing so much money," Rutledge said, adding he is concerned that when it comes time in 2016 to borrow money for road maintenance, the county may not be able to do so without raising taxes.
"I've had hundreds of calls from people against it," Rutledge said, "and I have probably had three or four asking me why I voted against it."