By Justin Boron
Clayton County finance officials say money from a special sales tax directed toward capital improvements will almost be sufficient to complete all six of the recreation centers promised in a 2003 referendum.
Part of a $40 million Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax program, the centers have been a contentious issue for the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, which has faced criticism for its rate of progress on the project. Nevertheless, several commissioners have maintained that all six will be built eventually.
Recently, the county purchased property for a center in Commissioner Virginia Gray's district. The site is along E. Fayetteville Road in the northwest part of the county.
The purchase ate almost half of the $1 million budgeted for land acquisition for the centers.
Dan Martin, the director of finance, said the budget gap could be made up if the commission took out some of the ”bells and whistles“ in the plans for the centers.
But County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said he isn't going to do that.
Instead, he said he is going to find a way to get the extra money without using the general fund.
As possible sources of external support, Bell suggested selling naming rights for the centers or bringing the Boys and Girls Club into the fold.
He also said he is considering using that support to help defray an estimated $1.5 million in operational costs.
NAACP President Dexter Matthews, who has led the public charge for the centers, said the focus should not be on the final shortfall when progress on other centers hasn't moved forward sufficiently.
”We're talking about the end, and we haven't even started,“ he said.
Matthews also takes issue with the fact that the aquatic center and the senior center are included as two of the six centers. He argues that those were existing projects, and don't count as new centers to be included in the SPLOST.
Commissioner Wolé Ralph, who has been at odds with the other four commissioners over the centers, said he is still committed to building the centers as promised.
He said the centers are part of a larger goal of showing the public that the county government can make good on its promises.
”The recreation centers now represent more than just structures,“ he said.
Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer said he doesn't see any more financial obstacles holding up completing the centers.
Instead, the road blocks lying ahead may be funding the operation of the centers, which he said will have to include staffing and security.
In light of some of the violence related to students earlier this year, Rhodenizer said the centers may become another risk if they are not monitored properly.
”This gives us six more locations where young people are gathering where you can have a problem,“ he said.
Rhodenizer said eventually, the county is going to need to partner with schools.
”Somewhere down the road, we're going to have to join hands with them and work closer with them than we have, and start solving some of these problems,“ he said.