The subject of special-purpose, local-option sales tax funds has been touchy in the past, with it praised by officials as a saving grace for county improvement and condemned by some in the community as a back-door tax for unnecessary projects.
That was the duality I had in mind when I boarded a Parks and Recreation bus Tuesday with about dozen local officials and a couple of other media representatives for a “SPLOST tour” to see different projects around the county. It felt a bit odd, because the tour was immediately following a County Commission meeting where several people spoke negatively about the county’s use of taxes over the tax millage rate.
The bus was driven by Active Life director Dan Wooten and emceed by County Manager Tod Tentler. The bus, Tentler noted right off the bat, is one of two new ones purchased using SPLOST funds – one for Troup County and another for Hogansville, weighing in at about $80,000 apiece.
Our first stop was Boyd Park, site of a planned amphitheater. Although from the road it appeared about the same as it always has, as the bus pulled around back, the work underway was obvious.
The Boyd Park pool, which closed when the county opened up the Mike Daniel Recreation Center on Lafayette Parkway, has been dug from the ground. Its location now a hole in the dirt behind the small building on Smith Street. Also gone is the ball field that was adjacent and grading is ongoing there and in what Tentler describes at “kudzu patch.”
The park has been open to the public since 1935, sitting on 11 acres at Smith Street between Ridley Avenue, Bacon Street and North Greenwood Street. The existing pavilion is to be rehabilitated and serve as entrance, facilities and concessions area for the new amphitheater.
The amphitheater is envisioned to accommodate 800 people on the lawn, 870 stadium seats and pit to fit up to 160 seats, or 120 seats with tables, while additional flanking lawn space would seat another 150 people. Altogether allowing about 2,000 people inside.
It’s kind of hard to imagine 2,000 people sitting in this area at the edge of downtown, watching a concert. Also, where do they park?
Tentler says attendees will most likely be at events during weekends, when surrounding businesses and the school are closed and their parking areas available. Patrons can also park in the county parking deck on Ridley, or the downtown parking deck on Broome Street. A quick assessment of the area shows 1,700 parking spaces within a half-mile radius, Tentler tells the group.
The amphitheater project combines funding from the city of LaGrange and Troup County with the Callaway Foundation. The foundation will provide $6 million and $1.1 million in county-wide SPLOST funds plus $400,000 from the city for the grand total $7.5 million project.
The build out is expected to be about 16 months, and Tentler says he’s hoping for a big concert event to open the venue with.
Next, the tour stops nearby at the Granger Park track. A combined project with the Board of Education, each spent $87,350 in their respective SPLOST funds for the $174,700 project to resurface the track.
The rubberized surface had previously been worn down with the underlying concrete showing in several spots. I used to walk the track constantly during lunch breaks, and it was in poor shape. This was the first time I’d seen the new surface, and it definitely looked much better, and the lines for track were actually visible now.
Skipping to the end of our tour, we stopped at the Chris Joseph Track behind Whitesville Road Elementary School, the site of the annual Relay for Life. This resurfacing was $125,700 each from the Board of Education and county SPLOST, for a total $251,400. Here, we get out and “test” the track a bit. No one takes a run, despite a few people trying to goad Commissioner Buck Davis to make a lap. Again, it looks good and definitely feels a lot cushier than the old Granger Park track.
As we make our way down Roanoke Road, we take a right before we get to the familiar entrance to Pyne Road Park. I see a sign I haven’t noticed before: the Pyne Road Park horse and pedestrian trails area. A combined project with the Troup County Saddle Club, the project started with a $100,000 grant from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources through the Georgia Recreational Trails Program with a required local match of 20 percent in donated labor and services.
Parks and Recreation Director Don Howell estimates that the county donated more like 30 percent in-kind labor, but the end result is 4.2 miles of trails for pedestrians, bikes or horses with a 20 by 24-foot pavilion with restrooms, a parking lot, a horse pin and bleachers.
The Saddle Club helps maintain the trails, and members provided in-kind labor like electrical wiring for the pavilion. The county paid for materials and a total labor and materials costs was $33,944.
In between stops we hear about the 222 miles of road paved in the county by County Engineer James Emery. New roads for Kia, widening of roads, extension of the LaGrange bypass system and improvements of previously dangerous intersections rank on the list of improvements using SPLOST funds and the county’s in-house paving. Emery estimates the county saves about one-third the cost of contracting out the work as it had previously done.
The next stop is the refurbished Abbottsford Fire Station. The station, originally built in 1974, was for volunteers and not intended to be a 24/7 station, notes Troup County Fire Chief Dennis Knight. Using $69,000 in SPLOST funds to refurbish the building – instead of an estimated $500,000 to tear it down and build a new one – the station has become more livable.
The small living quarters included only one bedroom for two firefighters, and cramped living and kitchen areas. An unused fourth engine bay was sacrificed to expand the living area, which easily fits the dozen or more people from the bus as Knight talks about the improvements and amenities.
“I’d like a refrigerator like that in my house,” quips Hogansville Mayor Bill Stanciewicz, as he points to the spiffy, new metal appliance. I agree.
The kitchen has granite counter tops and metal finishes. The living area has a flat-screen TV and two easy chairs for firefighters to kick back when they have a second to rest. A computer work station allows the firefighters to complete online training and reports.
Most importantly, firefighters also no longer have to sleep in the same bedroom - there are now two. Tentler asks the two at the station how much better the refurbished station is now.
“110 percent,” one of them says. “Much better.”
Although the county has built a few new stations using SPLOST money, this is the first of the county’s existing stations to get a renovation using the SPLOST dollars. The next up is the Hillcrest station.
We pull into the site of the Gray Hill convenience center, where we get a look at the newly paved and fenced area that will be the new trash disposal site, sitting next to the current spot, which is just downhill. Just a note, the site is not using SPLOST funds, but is part of a five-year, $1.2 million refurbishment of the county’s centers.
One of the new compactors for the site is there and another will be added. The new compactors, Tentler notes, each cost about $18,000 including electrical supply setup and are supposed to keep liquid from seeping out onto the ground while the machine is compacting. There also will be recycling bins along with areas to dispose of old motor and cooking oils, and batteries, notes Emery.
Tentler said Gray Hill is the first convenience center to get the refreshed treatment because it is the county’s most “environmentally unfriendly” site. The new center is expected to open in a couple of weeks. It’s currently lacking – aside from the second compactor – some landscaping additions.
In the midpoint of the tour, we stop at the Gray Hill Community Center for a lunch prepared by some inmates. The center is also a SPLOST project, but from the second SPLOST, converted from the old Gray Hill School, which was falling in an an “eyesore,” Tenteler says. Now the county rents it out for community events, weddings and reunions.
Scott Turk outlines some of the software improvements made using SPLOST funds, about $3 million worth that tie together the multiple court and law enforcement systems. It also has provided much-needed upgrades to outdated systems for human resources and tax assessors, among others, that had no backup.
After lunch, we stop in West Point to see the upgraded parks and ball fields. With Point University, the city made an effort to create areas that the university could use along with the community, and spent combined city and countywide SPLOST funds of $4.5 million.
New laser-graded fields for softball, baseball and football/soccer/lacrosse, along with new press boxes, dugouts, sod, fencing, lighting, bleachers and score boards came from the project. It also renovated the old West Point High School gym that Point University partially uses for coaches’ offices.
Back in LaGrange, we check out one of the most recent additions - a splash park at Calumet Park. The site of a shooting a year ago, people in the community came together to revitalize the park and make it a safe place for families. LaGrange City Council approved spending SPLOST funds and utilized a community development block grant from the state to renovate the park, adding the area’s first splash park.
Designed to let children have an area to cool off, it features a variety of colorful spraying devices on a sensor and timer system. Tentler says that a splash park is planned for Hogansville with concession stands and other amenities, planned at about $370,000, and officials also are looking at a possible splash park in West Point to replace its pool.
Deposited back at the Government Center, I ask Tentler why the county decided to host this tour:
“We decided to do tour all these sites to get the word out about how the community’s SPLOST dollars have been spent. We want anyone to know that if they want any more information that they can contact us and we can give them more detail on any of the projects and how they are funded. We’ve shown a lot of progress going into SPLOST three and four, and want to make it more available to the public.”
The phone number for the Commissioners’ Office is 706-883-1610, if you’re interested.
I’ve tried to sum up this experience objectively, but what do you think - are the SPLOST projects worth the 1 percent sales tax? Feel free to comment on our website, Facebook or Twitter.