County wants ‘in’ with ‘out’

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chairman Lynn Sasser said Tuesday he hopes the City of Andalusia will be receptive of “whatever we come up with” at a workshop planned next week to revisit the issue of ball fields for the county league.

And chief among the changes he wants to make to the proposal – which currently calls for a 15-year commitment –is a clause that would allow the county to “opt out” of the agreement at any time with 180 days’ notice.

Commissioners voted 3-2 Monday against a proposed joint venture with the City of Andalusia to build new ball fields. Sasser, Ken Ellis and Harold Elmore voted against the proposal, which Bragg Carter and Carl Turman supported.

“We’re going to get together – (the commission), the mayor in Florala, the mayor in Opp and I hope someone from Andalusia – to try and talk about how we can provide ball fields for this county’s youth and not leave anyone out,” Sasser said. The meeting is set for 9 a.m. on Wed., Sept. 8, and is open to the public.

“We’ve got to look at the whole picture,” he said. “(The commission) represents the whole county. We can’t leave Opp and Florala out. We have to treat everyone equal.”

Neither Mayor Earl Johnson nor Andalusia Director of Leisure Services Dwight Mikel had been advised of Sasser’s proposed changes to the agreement Tuesday.

“Our offer was rejected and we’re moving forward,” Johnson said. “We would love to see it happen, but we made what was a very, very generous offer to the county.”

For many years, county rec league participants have practiced on fields at Pleasant Home, Red Level and Straughn, but played games in Andalusia’s Johnson Park. At present, Florala children play baseball and softball in a sports league across the Florida line in Paxton. Those in Opp and the outlying county areas play in Opp’s city league. Mayors in both municipalities have asked for their “fair share” of recreational funding, if the county comes to an agreement with Andalusia.

The county and the city have discussed construction of a joint facility for at least a dozen years, but this marks the first time a proposal has been voted upon by the city or the county.

Representatives of the city and the county and the two rec leagues hammered out the details in the proposal rejected by commissioners on Monday, in which the county would have shared in both the construction and maintenance costs of what Johnson described as “a brand, sparkling new” facility. The proposal, already approved by the Andalusia City Council, called for the county to contribute $45,000 annually for 15 years, beginning in 2012.

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.

Sasser said the commission’s proposed agreement included a “let-out option,” which would give either side the option to terminate the agreement, provided 180-days notice was given.

“With this economy, we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” he said. “We’re not made of money. We have to be careful how we spend it. We want to make sure our lights are on next week, and that’s what it comes down to.

“The first payment with (the city’s) contract isn’t due until 2012,” he said. “Hopefully, we can have the money free by then. We’ve paid off a lot of equipment and should have done more by then.”

In 1997, the county passed a 2 percent lodging tax designated to fund recreation or cultural purposes, which typically generated $60,000 per year. In 2009, that tax was increased to 4 percent; however not stipulations was assigned to the to the estimated $120,000 in annual collections. That money is now dispersed from the county general fund.

Still, Sasser said he hopes to be able to “hammer out” a counter offer that includes a lower annual payment and includes appropriations for youth sports in Florala and Opp.

“I want to propose – and this is me talking – to make an offer to give ‘X’ number of dollars to Opp and Florala and Andalusia to let kids play ball on the fields,” he said.

Sasser said he felt that “(Andalusia) will take a bit less because of the position they’re in at the moment.”

Sasser said if any funding is allocated to Opp and Florala, it would be earmarked for “sports use.”

Demolition has already begun at Johnson Park and construction is slated to begin in a matter weeks, giving the commission a narrow window of opportunity to participate.

Sasser said he hopes commissioners can come to an agreement and adopt it at its Sept. 13th meeting. It still must be presented to the Andalusia City Council for approval.