The Watkinsville Council last week unanimously approved a concept plan for a Miracle League Field and new playground in Harris Shoals Park behind the Extra Special People two-building complex on VFW Drive.
The Council instructed the city staff and attorney to work out an operating agreement between ESP and the city to be considered and approved at a later date.
Mayor Bob Smith, however, said he was confused by the proposal, was uncomfortable with a commitment made by the Council before he became mayor to invest $440,000 of city money in the project, and did not think the Council should go forward with the plans at this point.
The disagreement was one of two between Smith and the Council that took up large parts of the 4 hour and 15 minute long meeting.
Smith also wanted Council to delay a vote on the city’s budget until it had been cut by 12 percent in anticipation of decreased revenue resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Council approved the just less than $2 million budget in a 5-0 vote.
Whitaker had presented the modified plans for the ESP Miracle League Field and playground to the Mayor and Council at its meeting on May 20 and has held a virtual presentation and on sight tours since.
|Smith Discussing Budget 6/17/2020|
The centerpiece of the proposal is a Miracle League Field, which is a ball field that can be used by people in wheelchairs, to be located immediately behind the existing ESP buildings at 189 VFW Drive.
Included in the plans are a new playground next to the ball field and a paved pathway to allow users of the existing facilities to access the playground and ball field and people with mobility limitations access to the shoals area, which is the central physical and historic feature of Harris Shoals Park.
That pathway also will make parking at the ESP complex available to other users of the park.
The future of the existing playground remains undetermined, but the new playground and ball field would be available to the public and jointly operated by the city and ESP.
Discussion of the ESP proposal began with a presentation by Whitaker and was followed by 50 minutes of discussion, much of it dominated by Smith.
Smith said he didn’t understand the physical boundaries of the project, though Whitaker said they were marked for anyone who wanted to visit the site.
Smith also objected to a commitment by Council in September of last year to spend $440,000 in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenue to the project.
The city is committing 40 percent of the cost estimate, with ESP committing the remainder.
Smith also said he wanted to keep the existing playground.
Smith objected to approving the concept plans and to asking the staff to move forward with development of a collaborative agreement with ESP.
“What is the backout plan?” he asked. “If we make this decision tonight there is no going back.”
Sharyn Dickerson, city administrator, made the budget presentation to the Mayor and Council, saying that it was cautiously created in response to the changes in the economic environment.
That budget shows that 20.6 percent of the city's revenue comes from property tax, and 38.5 percent comes from Local Option Sales Tax. (This is a correction from the initial post. I apologize for the error and thank Council Member Brian Brodrick for bringing it to my attention.)
When Dickerson finished, Smith spoke for 32 minutes without allowing any interruption, calling the budget the city manager’s budget, not his, and bringing up many of his old complaints, including that the Council had taken away his power when it created a city manager before he assumed office.
Smith also said he had been given inadequate information about the budget and that he had reviewed the documents he had received with an outside auditor.
“I met with him last night for five hours, and we still can’t figure this budget out,” Smith said.
In the end, Smith asked the Council to delay action on the budget until it reduced it by 12 percent because of concern about the economic implication of the pandemic.
“I sent you all a letter yesterday saying that we need to cut our budget 12 percent,” Smith said.
“I’m very concerned about where we go forward with this budget,” Smith said. “I think that we don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know what the future holds.”
Council passed the budget without making the cuts.
The meeting was held with the Mayor, Council and staff assembled at City Hall, but access to the Council Chamber was limited.
The public had access remotely.
Sarah Bell was invited to attend and recorded the video below.
Discussion of the ESP proposal begins at 40:37 in the video.
Discussion of budget begins at 1:38:40 in the video.
Smith began his comments on the budget at 1:50:29.