How Much Quality of Life Can One County Afford?

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How Much Quality of Life Can One County Afford?

If you thought $150,000 for a military monument was something, take a look at what Columbia County wants to do now.

In case you haven’t heard, Columbia County has released its list of projects for the 2017-2022 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), and it’s heavy — heavy — on those things that keep getting the county featured in all those Best Places to Live lists and surprisingly light on those boring things that only get talked about during election season. You know, things like infrastructure.

It would be easy to blame this on the quest for the hospital, which is claiming $30 million of the $144 million total, if not for the contingency projects they’re requesting if that money isn’t needed.

In fact, forget the contingency projects themselves and just look at the distribution of them: almost $28 million to Community and Leisure Services and $2 million to Public Safety and Emergency Services.

On second thought, go ahead and take a look at the projects themselves: park upgrades and a new regional park versus replacing two pumper trucks, two rescue trucks and two water trucks.

And that’s on top of the things that absolutely are not contingency projects, like a new library for Harlem ($3.4 million), park upgrades and property acquisition ($7.5 million) and a cultural arts center/museum ($9 million).

In last week’s Metro Spirit news story about the list, Chairman Ron Cross pretty much confirmed what Insiders have been whispering since word of the pricey cultural arts center started to leak: it’s Cross’ baby, his new Evans Towne Center Park.

“I had a change in philosophy and I talked it over with a good many people and they seem to agree that with the success of Evans Towne Center Park and the other growth in the surrounding areas, we don’t need to push a heavy commercial center there on that property,” he’s reported as saying. “We thought it would be good to change the approach and say rather than a big box or some other anchor tenant, let’s let the cultural center be the focal point.”

Doesn’t exactly sound like the idea came out of the suggestion box, does it?

Of course, the county got the 26 acres in a 2010 settlement with the Marshall Square developers, who sued the county for $57.5 million after commissioners limited the number of apartments they could build on the property to a number the developers felt was unrealistic. In the settlement, the county paid $6.25 million for the land and has been sitting on it ever since, using the large expanse of grass as parking for events at Evans Towne Center Park, which ironically used to be a big grassy field of its own before Cross got the idea to develop it into what it’s become.

Originally, the entire 57-acre Marshall Square site was going to give Evans what it was so obviously missing — a heart. Now that the left chamber of that heart is a hodgepodge of professional buildings, senior residential (can’t wait to see how they’ll react to the noise from those concerts in the park) and a colossal heath club, Cross has apparently decided to get all highbrow, throwing down $9 million for something at least one private group was already seeking to do anyway.

The list is up for public comment. The remaining opportunities to be heard are July 10 at 6 p.m at the Government Center, July 22 at 6 p.m. at the Exposition Center in Grovetown, July 24 at 6 p.m. at the Marvin United Methodist Family Life Center in Martinez, and July 28 at 5 p.m. at the Public Safety Building in Harlem. Two others have already come and gone.

Expect the most heat to come from the $19 million earmarked for the renovation of the Justice Center, particularly the 200-space parking garage that will give judges a secure lot and Cross’ opponents another chance to cry “Why?”

When the idea last came up during the formulation of the 2011-2016 SPLOST list, several of Cross’ critics recoiled at the notion of spending such money on a luxury like covered parking. Now, at least with the success of the two amphitheaters, there’s no doubting the actual need for more spaces, but for many of Columbia County’s more fiscally conservative Republicans, who are already suspicious of Cross’ conservative credentials, the covered parking is an even better example of extravagant spending than the military monument going in behind the library… and a whole lot safer to criticize.

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