Does county’s ‘no’ mean ‘no’?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Covington County Commission “took a walk” Monday on a proposed joint venture with the City of Andalusia to build new ball fields, voting 3-2 against the proposal.

But a few hours later, it appeared commissioners might want another turn at bat when Chairman Lynn Sasser called a workshop meeting for 9 a.m. next Wed., Sept. 8, “to further discuss options to provide ball fields for county youth.”

For many years, athletes who played in the county rec league have practiced on fields at Pleasant Home, Red Level and Straughn, but played games in Andalusia’s Johnson Park. For more than a decade, the county has sought to partner with Andalusia for a new complex, and at one time, even wrote the project into a bond issue.

General plans to jointly construct a new facility behind the Kiwanis Community Center were discussed, and both the county and city worked on those plans, but never came to final agreement.

However, rehabilitating Johnson Park was one of the goals the current Andalusia City Council set for itself, and a plan recently was developed to improve the 1960s-era facility, by reworking existing fields and adding two new ones. Demolition work has already begun there.

The Andalusia City Council has already approved a plan that representatives of the city and its rec department and representatives of the county and its rec league had agreed upon, sources close to the negotiations said. Under the terms of the contract, city league games would be played on Tuesdays and Fridays and county league games would be played on Mondays and Thursdays. Make-ups would be played on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Last year, approximately 520 athletes competed in county leagues and played in Johnson Park, which the city maintains. The county paid the city $6,000 for the use of its fields, or slightly less than $12 per player.

The new agreement called for the county to pay $45,000 annually – $20,000 for the operation and maintenance of the fields and $25,000 for the debt service on construction. The payment would escalate by 1 percent annually for its 15-year duration. Concessions were to be managed by the city’s employees with profits from the sales to be split on a pro rata basis, based on the number of players in each league.

But with approximately 40 people in commission chambers Monday, commissioners rejected the plan.

Speaking to the Kiwanis Club at lunch, Mayor Earl Johnson said the city could be in the construction phase of the project in a couple of weeks.

“We told them we have to move on this,” he said. “There is a very narrow window of time to complete this project because the fields have to be ready for practice in March.

“We put together a plan that was fair and equitable to everybody and the county league agreed with us,” Johnson said.

But two of the people who didn’t exactly agree, Florala Mayor Robert Williamson and Opp Mayor H.D. Edgar, spoke during Monday’s meeting and asked for money from the county. Both said they supported the proposed project, but Williamson asked for $7,500 with which to fund a city basketball league and Opp asked for $20,000 for its recreation program. At present, Florala children play baseball and softball in a sports league across the Florida line in Paxton. In a previous meeting, Edgar said that a number of county residents play in Opp’s city league. No action was taken on the requests.

County Rec Board chairman Wayne Bush argued for the project.

Bush said by voting against the measure, it would “hurt the disadvantaged, the ones farthest from town, those at the lowest economic point.”

“(Commissioners must) do what’s right for the children (in the county),” Bush said. “If you vote no… Mr. Mayor, in Opp, Ala., every child you’ve got playing ball is going to continue to play ball. Mr. Mayor in Opp and Florala, if they vote this down today, it won’t affect your kids one bit next spring.

“If you don’t do this, it’s going to affect some kids from Red Level severely, Pleasant Home severely and some from Straughn,” he said, addressing the commissioners.

“If we knock kids out of this program, we are taking away the opportunity we should be providing. It’s not about providing equal funding. It’s about doing what’s right for the kids.”

Bush’s plea was not enough to sway commissioners’ opinions, despite hearing supportive words by Commissioner Bragg Carter, who made the motion to approve the agreement. Carter spoke of the 12-year process of coming to an agreement with the city.

“When this was proposed 12 years ago, no one in Florala or Opp spoke up,” Carter said. “When we talked about building a complex with 14 fields, no one from Florala or Opp spoke up then. What concerns me is the 526 kids that stand to be hurt. Opp will continue to play and not miss a game; Florala the same way. The children in Pleasant Home, Red Level and Straughn don’t have that same luxury. Mr. Chairman, I support the children of this county and I support this agreement.”

Commissioner Carl Turman also voted in favor of the project. But both Commissioner Ken Ellis and Commissioner Harold Elmore said they felt the county wasn’t in a financial position to take on new debt, and voted against it.

“This is not an easy decision, but…I think we’re at the point if we can’t afford it, we need to say, ‘no,’” Ellis said. “We’re going to try to give employees a 3 percent raise, health insurance is going up; sales tax (collections are dropping). If you’ve got an answer, I’d be glad to hear it.”

With a 2-2 vote, the commission chairman had to break the tie. Sasser said he felt compelled to vote against the measure because he felt it “was the chairman’s responsibility to vote for the whole county.”

The agreement proposed at the commission meeting was a slightly different version than the one approved by the Andalusia City Council earlier this month, county attorney Julie Moody said. The new agreement included no change to the dollar amount, the length of the terms or “any major points,” she said.

In other business, the commission:

• approved a new hire in the Probate Office.

• adopted new voting precinct descriptions, names and numbers.

Andalusia Leisure Services Director Dwight Mikel talks to Commissioner Harold Elmore about the project.| Stephanie Nelson/Star-News