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Countys budget problems leave parks fate uncertain
SPLOST money not for maintenance and operation
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If you build it, they will come.

But when it comes to two sales tax-funded parks in Hall County, the money for maintenance and operation hasn't quite RSVP'd.

As Hall County officials consider eliminating funding for most of the recreation services the government provides and a few of its libraries, construction for a park and a complex of baseball fields on Cool Springs Road, and a library and a community center on Nopone Road are still underway.

The two parks are slated for completion in spring 2012 — the target is April — but both the director of the county's parks department and a county civil engineer say that, because of a severe funding shortfall, neither complex will open for at least another three months.

Construction for both parks was approved and paid for by a special purpose local option sales tax.

State law prohibits the county from using that tax money for the maintenance and operation of those facilities, leaving the county's ailing general fund to shoulder the burden for such costs.

County officials are frantically searching for ways to bridge an $11.5 million gap between expenditures and revenues. That could mean reducing the county's parks department budget by some 78 percent, essentially shutting down all parks the county doesn't share with local school systems, according to a proposed spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.

While whispers of a revenue shortfall began months ago, Commissioner Scott Gibbs said county officials didn't realize how bad the shortfall would be until a little more than three weeks before budget discussions began.

"We had to start scrambling," the commissioner said
Hall County's Parks and Leisure Services Director Greg Walker had originally been told to prepare for as much as a 20 percent reduction in his department's budget he said.

And Walker says he didn't learn until the county's budget proposal was made public that the cuts actually eliminated all but 22 percent of his department's funding.

But by that time, construction crews had already begun grading the site for the future park on Cool Springs Road. On Nopone Road, lights already stand above ballfields and the beginnings of what will be a community center are already visible.

The $14.4 million facility on Nopone Road will include four baseball fields, a track, walking trails, a library and a community center, according to the county's civil engineer Jody Woodall.

But officials can't say for sure when county-paid employees will give life to those facilities. For now, the safe answer is next fiscal year, or sometime after July 1, 2012.

"With the budgets the way they are right now, we're just holding off until 2013," Walker said. "...As soon as (the Nopone Road complex) is built, I'm sure there's going to be people wanting to occupy. It's going to be a beautiful facility."

Gibbs, the county commissioner who represents the area that includes the Nopone Road facility, said he hopes to be able to make the complex open to the public soon after its construction is complete.

If nothing else, Gibbs says the county will maintain the parks until it can afford to do more with them.

"All those fields have got to be maintained, because we have millions of dollars invested in them," he said. "Everything will be operations. The bathrooms will be functional; they'll be clean...we just won't have any organized parks events."

Gibbs says he has also asked the members of the county's library board to consider finding a way to open the site's library next spring, even if it means closing the library at Blackshear Place. But Gibbs acknowledges the board must make its own decisions.

"They're an independent board," Gibbs said. "I don't know what's going to happen with it."

Though he is working to find a way to open the complex in his district, Gibbs said he voiced concerns earlier this year about beginning construction on the Cool Springs facility, in Commissioner Billy Powell's district, because he worried about funding its maintenance and operations.

"I thought they did deserve a park, but I knew this was coming," Gibbs said of the county's declining revenue stream. "...I didn't think we should be building anything else that we didn't have the funding to operate. We knew in February that we had a challenge in front of us with our budget."

 

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