It has been a long and strange journey for a library that doesn't even exist yet.
At its conception, it looked like the North Hall library would call Clermont home. Then in February, the Hall County Board of Commissioners voted to combine the library with a community center planned at Nopone Road. Months of friction between the town of Clermont and the county ensued, culminating in a lawsuit over the location of the library.
On Wednesday, a judge ruled in favor of the county.
The commissioners voted at their regularly scheduled board meeting Thursday to approve the construction contract for the facility.
It appeared the saga was over. But then, Commissioner Ashley Bell, along with Commissioners-elect Scott Gibbs and Craig Lutz, turned the tables on the library once again.
They plan to reverse the direction once the new commission is seated in January, leaving the plans for the North Hall park and community center intact but building the library in Clermont instead.
Bell, Lutz and Gibbs said they plan to move the library to Clermont because they feel it is not only the right thing to do, but also a way to restore trust in the special purpose local option sales tax.
Hall County voters passed SPLOST VI on March 17, 2009, with 62 percent voting in favor. A new SPLOST will not be up for a vote until 2015.
Bell acknowledges Hall County Superior Court Judge Andrew Fuller was correct in his ruling that the county broke no laws by choosing to build the library on Nopone Road.
"There may not have been an outright vote to give a library to Clermont ... But the reality is, did we make promises to people to make them believe we were going to do something? I honestly believe that."
Bell voted in February for the combined library and community center at Nopone Road but said documents he saw after the vote made him change his mind. When asked, county staff told him no one promised the library would be in Clermont.
"Continuously and precipitously that fact became altered and became untrue," Bell said. "Since then, I've seen letters, comments, grant applications saying we were going to put it in the town of Clermont; there's been a litany of evidence to justify why they feel that way."
Applications for state funding are done years in advance. Hall County Library Director Adrian Mixson has said Clermont was listed on a number of documents as a placeholder, but that the location of the library has no impact on the award of funding.
Clermont Mayor James Nix said he is thankful the new commissioners plan to restore the North Hall library to Clermont, where he believes it should have been planned all along.
"There was a spot picked out," Nix said of an approximately 41-acre tract of land the county purchased in Clermont in 2007. "That was what they purchased it for; that's what they indicated when they bought it."
Clermont residents say they were misled about SPLOST - something Nix said he thinks could be detrimental to future sales tax referendums.
"If the citizens don't see them using those funds the way they think they were intended to be, then they're not going to support one. It would be very difficult to get a SPLOST passed under the kind of environment we're in today," Nix said.
Almost 60 percent of the Clermont precinct voted to pass SPLOST VI.
The power of the penny
When the economy is slow, so are sales tax collections.
Assistant Hall County Administrator Phil Sutton said the major benefit of putting the library with the park on Nopone Road is cost savings.
"A complication for all projects is that SPLOST revenue is down quite a bit," Sutton said.
The Nopone Road facility was designed as a $15 million concept. Of that price, roughly $12 million would go toward building out the park and community center and $3 million would be for the library.
"From a design standpoint, the concept has worked exceedingly well and it was done at the right time, like we've always said. It would allow us to sort of live with reduced revenue that we know we're getting with SPLOST," Sutton said.
He said unless the economy picks up, the county would not be able to collect the full amount projected for SPLOST VI.
According to county engineer Jody Woodall, $612,840 has been spent on the Nopone Road site for architectural and engineering work, and $465,367 has been spent on construction work like grading and placing sewer lines.
Commissioner Billy Powell said he believes changing the course of the project now would be a waste of all the resources that have gone into the project so far.
"I think it's quite obvious that the library would better serve more people and be more centrally located at the Nopone location," Powell said. "I'm sorry if people's feelings are hurt, but it's a better location all the way around. It just doesn't make sense to put a whole new facility right there on the White County line."
According to Hall County Geographic Information Systems, which relies on Census 2000 data, there are 2,697 households within a five-mile radius of the land the county purchased in Clermont. There are 8,071 within a five-mile radius of the Nopone Road site.
"That's how the other libraries are placed. In pockets of population density," Powell said. "One of the statements in the oath of office commissioners take is to make decisions for the betterment of the entire county. I think the Nopone location is the best decision for the entire county."
Powell said he does not foresee the current commission halting the project before the end of the year because he sees it as a liability.
The commission voted Thursday to approve a $9.73 million construction contract for the facility.
"I think if we award a contract, then the contractor has the ability to sue us if we pull it," Powell said. "That's a legal document."
Plans for the future
Bell, Lutz and Gibbs say they plan to complete the North Hall Park and Community Center as is, leaving a "shell" where the library would be. Sales tax dollars will go toward building a library in Clermont.
"We look at this as a compromise. This is not one side wins, one side loses," Bell said. "The Nopone Road facility will still be there. There will be that shell there for whatever they want to use it for; it could be anything they want. It will still be a multi-use facility, but also Clermont will get a library. It won't be a Taj Mahal, but it will be a library that's suitable."
Both Lutz and Gibbs ran on the promise they would restore the library to Clermont.
Amy Henderson of the Georgia Municipal Association said the law is set up so that future boards are not bound by the actions of the previous board.
"It's certainly not unheard of for elected officials who are newly elected to undo some of the things that have been done by a prior commission," Henderson said. "Quite frankly, sometimes that's exactly what they were elected to do. ... That's oftentimes the purpose of elections is it expresses the will of the people through the representatives elected for those people."
Mixson, the library director, said he believes the whole issue is symptomatic of poor planning. The library board, a volunteer advisory board for library services, was never consulted during preliminary planning.
"We were never asked for our advice on location, never asked on anything," Mixson said. "We knew about the property in Clermont a month before the SPLOST vote. What can I say? Then they decided they were going to build at Nopone."
Mixson said he is confused as anyone about what will happen to the library, but the library board's position has always been to run whatever library the commission decides to build.
Mixson said it is a shame the library has become ensnared in political volley.
"At some point in time I guess we're going to have some kind of resolution to this. Hopefully it'll be before January," Mixson said. "In the end, it's the people that suffer. The community suffers."