By Joel Hall
A new juvenile justice center and three new police precincts are among a proposed $106 million in new building projects county commissioners want -- if voters approve a new Special Local Option Sales Tax during a special election Feb. 5. In addition, commissioners want to spend $125 million on transportation enhancements.
The proposed spending was recommended recently by the SPLOST Citizens Committee, a group of commission appointees who make SPLOST spending suggestions.
The six municipalities in Clayton will have until today to submit their requests for projects they would fund with their shared of an estimated $73 million leftover after the county gets its share of the anticipated $305 million in proceeds. City leaders must sign an intergovernmental agreement with the county in order to benefit from the SPLOST.
If voters give their approval, the 1-cent sales tax is expected to generate the $305 million figure over the six-year life of the tax. Approval will ensure a continuous stream of tax collections when the current SPLOST ends. It began Jan. 1, 2004, and will end Dec. 31, 2008, or when the $240 million approved during the last SPLOST is collected, according to Michael Smith, county attorney.
The recommendations from the county include several high-end improvements to public safety and the county's legal infrastructure. The county wants to use $15 million for a new Juvenile Justice Center and $6.3 million for the construction of three new police precincts in the northeast, northwest, and southwest areas of the county.
The Juvenile Justice Center, which is a level-one priority project, is a vitally needed, said Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske. He said the county's juvenile court is operating "in a state of emergency," out of Annex 3 of the historic Clayton County Courthouse.
"People are stacked on top of one another," Judge Teske said. "The facility that we are in now was never meant to be a juvenile court. Right now, we're having to send kids all over the place," to receive different services that the court provides. "The kids that are detained, and have to go to court, have to be shackled," said Teske. "Right now, where we are located, those kids are marched in public in shackles. These are kids that by state law are supposed to have a confidential status, and we are parading them in public. That's shameful."
The three new police precincts would allow the police to become more accessible, said Commissioner Wole Ralph, He said, neither the south, nor north precincts are adequate police precincts in their current physical states. "They weren't designed to be police stations," said Ralph, who said that the north precinct, at 6335 Riverdale Road in Riverdale, used to be a YWCA, and that the south precinct, at 1669 Flicker Road in Jonesboro, "was a small house."
"They don't have space to house officers," he said. "They don't have marquees that let people know that they exist ... they lack visibility and the image we want to portray for public safety in the county."
Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner said that, while police precincts do not equal police presence -- as most officers are out patrolling -- he believes visible precincts in some of the less central parts of the county would have a positive impact on crime in those areas.
"I'd like to have one ... far enough north on the east side, where it could make a difference," Turner said. He said that he would like to "place it where a lot of residents are," and [near] high-crime areas.
Meanwhile, county attorney Smith noted that, if approved, the next SPLOST will be a six-year SPLOST, due to a 2004 change in the Georgia State Code, which allows for an extra year to be added to the SPLOST, as long as all cities involved sign an intergovernmental agreement with the county.
The agreement, which was not a part of the current SPLOST, will bind the cities to the projects they submit, according to Smith. He said the agreement is advantageous, because cities that underestimate funding for SPLOST projects will be responsible for paying the difference, "instead of the county having to come up with the money."
In addition, Smith said that the agreement will also allow the county to disperse SPLOST dollars to cities on a monthly basis, thus, allowing cities to prioritize their own projects, rather than waiting for the county to do so.
Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said, "We're going to finalize and vote on" all city SPLOST recommendations early next week and that the "full package" is scheduled to be submitted to the Board of Elections on Wednesday.