West Point officials say one resident’s complaints about the use of special-purpose, local-option sales tax money to renovate city recreation facilities are “flat out incorrect.”
Mike O’Brien has called for an independent investigation of the city’s use of SPLOST money to renovate its gym and ball fields on U.S. 29, which now is in use by Point University’s athletic programs.
“I just want to know what’s going on,” O’Brien said. “I have asked for an independent investigation. If nothing’s happened, have the investigation and shut me up.”
The city is expecting about $6 million in the next round of SPLOST, which was approved by voters in November 2011. West Point City Council decided earlier this year to bond $4 million of that money and start renovations at its recreation facilities right away before the tax revenues start coming in.
The infusion of SPLOST money coincides with the city’s redevelopment plan, in the works for the last three years, to revitalize the U.S. 29-Ga. 18 corridor in the city, which is composed primarily of low-income neighborhoods. New recreation facilities are the first priority of that redevelopment plan, which also includes initiatives to bring in new business and affordable housing.
The SPLOST money and recreation facility upgrades also coincide with the move of Point University – formerly Atlanta Christian College – to West Point. Classes began in August.
O’Brien says that when the redevelopment plan was hatched – with public input – one complaint of city residents surveyed was that recreation facilities were “over scheduled” and not available for regular use. Now that Point University is in the city, there’s no chance at all for regular use of the facilities by residents, he said.
He also contends that the city knew Point was coming when the SPLOST was negotiated and the recreation facility project was created with Point in mind. O’Brien believes the city shouldn’t be using SPLOST dollars for what is amounting to the development of a private university.
“That is flat out incorrect,” Mayor Drew Ferguson IV said, of a connection between SPLOST and Point.
“Under no circumstances did that happen,” he said.
Ferguson and City Manager Ed Moon also say there’s nothing illegal about using the SPLOST funds to work on a project that benefits Point University.
“We used SPLOST money for streetscapes,” Moon said, referring to the refurbished downtown sidewalks. “Who does that benefit? The downtown business owners.”
Moon calls the agreement between the city and Point for use of the recreation facilities no different than other recreation sites in the area that are rented out by private parties for private functions. The agreement with the city and Point is on a larger scale and part of West Point’s overall economic development.
“The recreation facilities are used by both the city and Point and because of the SPLOST money we have better facilities and better use of the facilities,” he said. “Most cities would do whatever they could do to attract Point University to their city. We were fortunate. If we sit on our hands and do nothing, we will get nothing. The city hasn’t done anything wrong.”
Moon said he can sympathize with residents who may want to use the park for unscheduled activities.
“I live downtown and we don’t have a yard,” he said. “I used to use the football field a great deal to walk the dog or play Frisbee. But when the city gets redeveloped, the usage changes. We have to think about moving those activities to other areas.”
O’Brien brought his concerns to the Troup County Parks and Recreation Board earlier this week. The county group is responsible for the daily operation of the park in West Point that’s under question.
The group told O’Brien that there wasn’t much they could do about his concerns, which were between the city and Point University. However, they said if he was patient, he would see how the parks will be renovated for the benefit of the college and city residents.
“As long as it’s done in a proper manner, it could be a win-win for the residents and the college,” said Tod Tentler, Troup County manager and former parks and recreation director. “Let them finish the construction and then there will be an opportunity to schedule things each week.”
Phase One of renovations at the park included renovated soccer, football, baseball and softball fields and the gym in the former high school building.
Moon said the city nearly is done with the first phase of renovations and will start phase two next year. There will be more opportunity for public input on what needs to be done before phase two is started.
Ferguson said residents have had and always will have first priority with the city’s recreation facilities and praised the renovations. Point is paying rent to the city to use the facilities.
“We will have more usage and more access with more revenue than we have ever had,” he said.