By Justin Boron
Bolstered by support from local clergy and community activist groups, Clayton County NAACP President Dexter Matthews demanded Tuesday night that the Clayton County Board of Commissioners secure funds for the construction of six recreation centers promised in the county's Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax program.
Community activists say the recreation centers have fallen by the wayside of a government which prioritized too many of the transportation projects ahead of the $40 million recreation portion of the program.
In turn, they asked the county to set aside the money within the next 60 days to ensure the projects will be completed.
"Even though the economic status of the county may change, the needs of its children will not," said Matthews, who read from a prepared statement. "We pick the children over asphalt."
Chairman Eldrin Bell acknowledged SPLOST's disproportionate project schedule Monday, but said little could be done to halt the roadway enhancements already started by the previous administration.
"I inherited a dozen eggs," he said. "I've got to cook them all."
In a gesture toward the need for re-prioritization, Bell said he would try to have the ground broken for a planned recreation center in Commissioner Virginia Gray's Riverdale district within 90 days.
Nevertheless, looming financial straits brought on by proposed state legislation that would dramatically reduce tax revenue in the county also have stirred doubt about the government's ability to collect the $240 million that is part of the five-year SPLOST program passed during a special election in 2003.
"It has us in a tailspin," said Clark Stevens, the county chief of staff.
In a news release following a legislative hearing on the bill, Bell said he expected the measure that would give fuel tax exemption to Delta Air Lines to drain the SPLOST program of $20 million in its last 2 1/2 years.
The consequence, the release said, would be the elimination of several recreation centers and road projects.
Which projects should be eliminated and which projects could be saved, county officials say, are questions they cannot answer yet.
But much of the community, Matthews said, feels the recreation projects should gain precedence because they are seen as one of the key components to the SPLOST's approval by citizens.
Lou Hisel, who was co-chairman of the SPLOST committee during its campaign, said the recreation centers clearly broadened the base of support for the initiative, which failed a year earlier when it was proposed with only road and infrastructure projects.
"I think it helped because what it did was create another group that was in favor of using sales tax for what they were interested in," he said.
But Hisel strayed away from calling the recreation centers the linchpin for SPLOST's approval, saying the second campaign's advantage was in its education and inclusion of the public.
Now, a year into the SPLOST, cross-sections of the program's supporters say they feel betrayed.
One possible answer to the tenuous situation would be to borrow the $40 million needed to build the projects, Bell said, adding though, he didn't want to do it.
But he said he would if the commission asked him to do it.
County Commissioner Wole Ralph said he would support borrowing the money.
"The commitment has to be made from the commission that we continue to fund the recreation centers," he said. "I don't think there is a higher priority than building those recreation centers for our kids."
The questions over the SPLOST and other items inherited by Bell's administration illustrate the way much of the county's business appears to have taken a back seat to the aches and pains of political transition, the chairman said.
The current government has been characterized by its need to react to several crises in its first two months in office, Bell said.
"We have been busy in this county putting out fires," he said.
But Bell said his long-range plans are under way and he looks to use the upcoming County Commission retreat as a brainstorming tool to determine the direction to take the county.
"I'm moving ahead with my planning on another front," he said.