Some Macon, Bibb officials critical of recreation master plan

pramati@macon.comDecember 10, 2013 

Members of the committee that oversees the Bibb County special purpose local option sales tax seemed to have as many questions as answers after a Tuesday presentation of the latest version of the county’s recreation master plan.

With a significant amount of money from the 2011 SPLOST earmarked for recreation projects, members of the oversight committee attended the presentation by consultant Peggy Winters-Thompson.

While the master plan isn’t finalized -- the Macon-Bibb County Parks & Recreation Department still will contribute its final thoughts -- Thompson said her role is essentially done and that she’s turning it over to the county.

State Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, a member of the oversight committee, said he thinks the committee didn’t give its thoughts on the master plan as it was being created.

“It seems like all these things have been done without our being consulted,” he said.

The plan itself hasn’t changed much from the version that was presented to commissioners just over a month ago.

“I was a little surprised,” said former Macon Councilman Theron Ussery, a member of the oversight committee. “I was expecting they would change some things (in the plan), but it was the same old things.”

Some officials voiced their displeasure during the meeting about how the plan came about as well as suggested elements within the plan.

Commissioner Lonzy Edwards noted that just 0.14 percent of the county participated in a general survey about the county’s recreation opportunities, along with four public meetings to give input into the plan.

“Ultimately, it needs to be elected officials who make the tough decisions,” Edwards said, noting the small surveyed sample size doesn’t give a true representation of the entire county.

Edwards also argued that the master plan should have been in place before the SPLOST was put on the ballot, to give people a better idea how the money is being spent. He noted that some funds that have been earmarked for one aspect of recreation might be better served somewhere else.

“From a planning perspective, we need to put the facilities where people’s needs are,” he said. “It’s wrong to spend money just because we can.”

Lucas referred to state law when he noted that once SPLOST funds have been earmarked for specific projects, the money can’t be used for something else.

With Macon and Bibb County set to merge Jan. 1, many of the officials noted that it will be the new government that has to deal with the master plan.

The master plan outlines 20 goals for recreation over the next few years, ranging from creating new facilities to putting in security identification cards at all parks and recreation centers. Winters-Thompson listed 10 funding strategies to help achieve the goals in the master plan, including creating partnerships with other organizations, applying for grants and marketing Macon-Bibb County regionally.

Also, each of the recreation centers will move toward having specialty sports programming as well as arts and sciences programs.

One of the goals in the plan -- creating a specific police force for parks and recreation centers -- drew heavy criticism from members of the oversight committee. Lucas, Ussery and Monica Smith, Macon-Bibb County Convention and Visitors Bureau president and CEO, all said a new police force was unnecessary. Instead security of the parks and recreation centers should be done in coordination with the sheriff’s office.

But Commissioner Joe Allen noted there are several other agencies with sworn officers, such as the Bibb County school system and Lake Tobesofkee rangers, so a designated park police force isn’t necessarily out of order.

Winters-Thompson said the police force is listed in the plan because the surveys indicated a general perception that parks and recreation centers aren’t safe.

Lucas noted that the city currently contributes 17 percent of its revenue to recreation as part of the Service Delivery Strategy and wondered what would happen to that money once the governments merge. Commissioner Gary Bechtel, who is a commissioner-elect for the new government, said that’s something the new government will have to address.

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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