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Chairman Bell makes plea for 2008 SPLOST

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Tomorrow during the presidential primary, Clayton County residents will vote on whether or not to support a new, six-year, $350 million Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) focused on public safety and infrastructure improvements.

Certain community groups -- particularly the Clayton County Branch NAACP -- have opposed the new SPLOST because of what has yet to be accomplished in the $240 million, 2003 SPLOST.

"[The Board of Commissioners] have only spent $80 million in four years" of the current SPLOST, said Clayton County NAACP president Dexter Matthews during a recent protest. "Right now, they have not given us anything ... they just want us to trust them."

The local NAACP chapter has urged citizens to oppose the referendum for a new SPLOST until the county delivers on a promise in the 2003 SPLOST to build two additional recreation centers.

In an interview with the Clayton News Daily, Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell urged residents not to cut off their noses to spite their faces.

Bell said opposition to the new SPLOST was short-sighted and that voting against the SPLOST would put tremendous strain on the county's Juvenile Court system, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program, and seven city governments depending on SPLOST funds to pay for millions of dollars worth of infrastructure improvements.

"What is the message we send to them when we refuse to build a Juvenile Court facility that is used more for the service of the teens, rather than to incarcerate them ... to CASA, who is leading the country in reducing the rate of recidivism amongst our teens," said Bell. "What is the message that you send to seven mayors who are desperate for the projects they put in?"

The proposed $305 million SPLOST would provide funding for a long list of county and municipal projects, most notably a new Juvenile Justice Center, three additional police precincts, a new multipurpose Fire Department training facility, a new senior center in the southwest portion of the county, and two additional libraries. Bell said due to the 89 million people who travel yearly through Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, about 60 percent of the SPLOST funds would be supplied by visitors to the county.

"It is inconceivable how any organization, group, or individual could opt to spend tax payers' money ... on capital improvements and not use the instrument provided to us by the state to raise money to do capital projects," said Bell. "No right-thinking person could do such dastardly wrong to so many people who are in need ... to get the things that someone else would so ably help us to pay for."

Bell, who is a life-member of the NAACP, has been criticized by its local chapter for not building six recreation centers in a timely fashion.

Currently, three recreation centers -- the Virginia Burton Gray, Carl Rhodenizer, and Jim Huie -- have already been built. According to Bell, the language of the 2003 SPLOST agreement calls for the building of five centers.

Bell said a public relations error sent 2003 SPLOST campaign materials out with the wrong number recreation centers advertised and in order to live up to the promise of an additional recreation center, collected SPLOST funds were put into a money market account to earn interest at a rate of 5.29 percent.

"The law said ... and our citizens voted on ... to build five recreation centers," said Bell. "Somewhere, somehow, someone on behalf of the county advertised it as being six. As chairman, I sought to live up to that expectation and figure out a way to do it."

Bell said that Commissioner Wole Ralph made the recommendation to borrow the money in order to build all of the recreation centers at one time, but in order to do so, the county would have had to pay nearly $6.3 million in loan interest. Instead, the BOC voted to put the SPLOST collections into a money market account at Wachovia Bank, which as of Friday, has earned $11,781,482.

"There was a great deal of hoopla ... by citizens driven, in my view, by political concerns, wanting us to build [the additional recreation centers] immediately," said Bell. "The law says we cannot start a project until [the county] has the total amount of the cost of the project in hand.

"Because the documentation went out as six, I wanted to do six and by doing what I have done, I can now give them six," Bell said. He added that if the 2008 SPLOST passes, he will provide regular SPLOST collection and project reports in the county's legal organ to ensure that citizens are not "driven by inaccurate information."

Bell said the 2003 SPLOST is not expected to reach its $240 million cap until August of 2008, and until then, the collected funds would continue to gain interest. He said the time was more than sufficient to begin construction on three additional recreation centers, two of which he plans to start building by the end of this month.

"Because of the $11 million [in earned interest], I can now deliver on that promise, and will," said Bell.