Photo by Curt Yeomans
Jonesboro Public Works Director Joe Nettleton explains where a stove had been located in the concession stand at Lee Street Park. City leaders are accusing county officials of stripping the park of its equipment in retaliation for an ongoing service delivery agreement dispute.
Jonesboro officials were fuming after Clayton County workers unexpectedly removed equipment from a park Wednesday in what city leaders suspect is retaliation for their not signing a service-delivery agreement with the county.
County officials told city leaders a month ago that control of Lee Street Park was to be transferred to Jonesboro, the county seat. Clayton County had leased the park, which is at the corner of Lee and Smith streets, from the city since the 1950’s, and run it under a service-delivery agreement. But, that agreement expired last October, and county officials are now turning it back over the city.
The removal of the equipment caught city leaders off guard, however. Press boxes, bathrooms and the park’s concession stand were left open for anyone to walk into, because county officials removed the door locks. The concession stand was also stripped of its coolers, refrigerator, stove and air conditioning unit.
A sink, a water heater, a wooden table and debris left from the removal of the other equipment was all that remained in the concession stand by mid-afternoon. A large square hole in its wall shows where the air conditioning unit was once located. Scoreboards and bleachers at the park’s football field are expected to go next.
“The county took everything,” said Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day. “They stripped the concession stand bare, and now groups that want to use the park to hold events may not be able to do so.”
Retribution in the service delivery fight?
Although, the incident at Lee Street Park is — on the surface — a dispute over communication and equipment, it must be viewed against the backdrop of the ongoing service delivery strategy, and local option sales tax (LOST) fight in the county.
The service delivery agreement stipulates who will be responsible — city or county — for which services inside the county limits. No new grants, or state permits can be granted without a new agreement in place.
The cities have refused to sign a new agreement proposed by the county because of a stalemate in LOST talks. They also have accused the county commission of refusing to sit down for negotiations. State law does not require every city in the county to sign the agreement, but Jonesboro — as the county seat — must sign on before it can go into effect.
Some Jonesboro officials are making the accusation that the county’s real motivation for removing the equipment from Lee Street Park was retaliation against the city for not signing the proposed service delivery agreement.
“It’s because of that agreement thing that they can’t get worked out,” Jonesboro Public Works Director Joe Nettleton said.
Day added: “It’s disturbing that they are doing this, and I think the public ought to know about it.”
County Manager Wade Starr dismissed the notion that there was any retaliation involved in the removal of the park equipment, however. He said the county was not legally allowed under the State Constitution to operate the park, within the Jonesboro city limits.
“There was no retaliation,” he said. “The fact that they are saying that tells me they wanted the county to break the law.”
As a result of the perception that retaliation is taking place, the Lee Street Park issue could escalate into a full-blown showdown between the county and the city.
Day said the city now has its police officers patrolling the park frequently to prevent county workers from taking any more equipment. Jonesboro public works employees removed metal benches from the park’s basketball court Wednesday afternoon, in a move designed to prevent county officials from taking them as well.
Nettleton quickly called in a locksmith to put new locks on all of the doors on the facilities, to prevent people from vandalizing them — at a cost of $385 to the city.
The public works director said he has been instructed by the mayor to secure the bleachers with chains and locks. “Everything is under our lock and key now,” he said.
There were communication problems
Nettleton said the city is not disputing that the equipment had belonged to the county when the decision was made to transfer the park to city control. The problem, he said, was over the communication — or the possible lack thereof — about what equipment would be given to the city with the park, and what items would be moved to another county-run park.
He added that he had been expecting to receive some communication from the county over what equipment would be removed during the transfer of authority.
“I think there could have been some bargaining, of some nature,” if the city had been notified in advance about what equipment was to be taken, Nettleton said.
Nettleton said he did not receive any notification from the county, however. He added city leaders assumed the equipment became the city’s property since they had already become responsible for maintenance at the park.
“We were told [approximately a month ago] they put a cease and desist order over here [and] that they were done,” he said. “So, we took it as everything that was here was ours.”
They said they received no other communication from county officials after they took over maintenance — until Wednesday. Nettleton and Day said they even had trouble getting confirmation of when they would receive keys to the park’s facilities, or be allowed to have new locks installed.
City officials said they were caught off guard when county workers showed up at the park this week and began removing door locks and equipment without any notice. Nettleton said he only found out the county workers were there, when they were spotted by one of his workers who showed up to empty trash cans at the park.
“There was no communication, no bargaining, no nothing,” Nettleton said. “There was just a big, fat surprise that they showed up and cleared it out.”
Starr said he is now investigating how the Clayton County Parks and Recreation Department handled the transfer of Lee Street Park. He explained that he had instructed officials in the department to oversee the transfer of authority in a smooth fashion.
“If there was a breakdown in communication, then that was unfortunate, and we’ll take care of it,” Starr said. “I was told [by parks and recreation officials] that they had been communicating with Mr. Nettleton.”
Starr added the county was maintaining parks inside the Lake City, and Lovejoy city limits under the now-expired service delivery strategy as well, and he pledged to improve communication as those parks are transferred back to their respective cities.
No instruction to take everything
Starr said he did not give a blanket command to Clayton County Parks and Recreation Director Detrick Stanford to take everything out of the park.
“I told him to take only what he felt could be used at our other parks and recreation facilities,” the county manager said. “I guess he thought they needed everything since that’s what they took.”
Day and Nettleton said they did not believe the county needed all of the equipment, however, because some of it was in questionable shape. “Some of that equipment was old, and we’re not sure how much longer it could have been used,” Day said.
As Nettleton took a reporter on a tour of the concession stand Wednesday afternoon, he explained that he was not sure if the water heater that was left behind still worked.
Nettleton said there are some pieces of equipment at the park, such as its electronic scoreboards, that the city does not want. But, he added there were some items he and other Jonesboro officials wanted to keep, so they could hold city events, such as the upcoming Jonesboro Days celebration, at the park.
“I think [the football bleachers] is the thing the city wanted the most to keep, because they were talking about moving summer concerts here,” he said. “It was so people could have places to sit without having to bring their own chairs. Don’t tell me that the county needs those. They don’t need them.”