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News

Not Just for Roads: Penny tax covers everything from roads to more recreation

By Brad Buck

Roads may be Putnam County's No. 1 priority for Better Place Plan money, but county commissioners say they are also spending money on many things identified by residents as necessary.

That much is clear from talking to county commissioners, staff and residents.

"There was never any kind of commitment by the county that all the money would go to better roads," County Administrator Rick Leary said. "I think all (commissioners) had in mind that the bulk of the money would go to roads."

Nearly three years ago, county voters, by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent, chose to impose an additional 1-cent sales tax for everything from roads to more recreation, libraries and other amenities. Four times in recent memory, referenda for taxes to build roads in the county had failed.

In months leading up to that vote, meetings were held to see what residents wanted if the sales tax were levied. They talked about economic development, recreation, natural resources, transportation and infrastructure things like roads and buildings.

"Individuals came away from those sessions each with a little different idea of what had been said and what ought to be the primary focus," Leary said. "I think the numbers support the fact that the county commissioners have made transportation-related items the No. 1 priority" for Better Place Plan money, he said.

"I don't think the commissioners rated resurfacing over road paving over drainage matters," Leary said. "I think they rated each of those as equal."

By adding a penny to the local sales tax, the county has brought in $10 million since January 2003, when the tax took effect, records show. By the end of September, that figure should be closer to $12 million.

Of that, the county has spent $8 million on Better Place Plan projects. County commissioners have designated another $18 million for current or future projects. Included among those is a new Bostwick Community Center, finishing the County Road 309 resurfacing project from Welaka to Georgetown and some money for the East Putnam Regional Water Project. The majority of the money for the water project will come from federal loans.

The county promised residents it would pave 50 miles of dirt roads in five years. Commissioners have committed $14.4 million for those roads. So far the county has spent $5.3 million to pave 10.2 miles of dirt roads, county Public Works Director Bob Merton said.

It has also resurfaced 22.1 miles of paved roads, Merton's records show. That amounts to more than $1 million.

In addition to spending money on roads, commissioners have spent money on some facilities.

For instance, they recently decided to spend $1.1 million to buy the old BellSouth building on State Road 19 in Palatka for a new emergency operations center. Two years ago, they spent $400,000 on a mobile home park across from the recreation complex at State Road 19 and U.S. 17 just north of Palatka so they could build more soccer fields.

Then there's the $10,000 the county spent as its contribution to a welcome wall in front of the same recreation complex, Triangle Park or the Putnam County Central Complex, as it is formally known.

Commissioners also spent $300,000 on the new Edgar Johnson Senior Center in Palatka.

ONE MAN'S QUEST

Many residents are angry over the county's decisions on Better Place Plan spending, saying it should be used to pave some nearly impassable dirt roads.

For example, Amien Joseph of Bardin went to county commissioners Tuesday and said he does not expect his road to be paved anytime soon. But he told them that he wants to know how the county prioritizes its road paving.

Joseph said East Bannerville Road, where he lives, got 10 points on the county's criteria. When he checked with commission Chairman Kevin Durscher, it turned out, East Bannerville Road should have received 80 points. Durscher confirmed that at the commission meeting.

"You're making decisions based on faulty data," Joseph told commissioners.

Commissioner Brad Purcell said that while he appreciated Joseph's input, he took exception to the word "faulty," saying the word was troublesome.

ROADS VS. OTHER NEEDS

"My primary impression from the visioning sessions was the primary goal was roads," said Merton. "But different sections of the county said they wanted different things. Some wanted money for facilities. But there's no question the No. 1 priority was roads, and the No. 1 priority in what we're doing is roads."

For instance, those who live on paved roads either want more and better recreational amenities, libraries and so forth, or they might want their road resurfaced, Merton said.

The vast majority of the Better Place Plan money is going toward roads, he said. At the end of the 15-year life of the penny sales tax, $45 million of the $65 million the tax is estimated to generate will go to road improvements, Merton said.

Every time a resident approaches county commissioners at their twice-monthly meetings about road problems, commissioners sing the same song: They're doing the best they can to cure the county's road ills. But they have hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation needs that they and citizens have identified. County officials estimate that as much as $350 million will be raised from the penny sales tax, along with grants, loans and private money. Commissioners say they empathize with everyone's road needs, but they can do only so much.

Commission Chairman Kevin Durscher said he feels for the residents of West Putnam, particularly. He lives in Grandin.

"The majority of them probely would like to see 90 percent of the money go to roads," he said.

To put residents' complaints about road paving into perspective, the skeptics need to look at the percentage of money spent on transportation-related issues, Leary said.

When commissioners bought 7 acres and a mobile home park across Carter Road from the Triangle Park, some people said it was a waste of money that should have been spent on road paving or resurfacing.

The county saw it as a way to buy land for more soccer fields to serve children under 6, the age group growing fastest in soccer participation.

More recently, when commissioners saw fit to spend more than $1 million to buy the old BellSouth building on State Road 19 and retrofit it for a new emergency operations center, some people, especially those with dirt roads in Interlachen, got mad. The current EOC next to the sheriff's office barely meets hurricane standards.

Durscher knows roads need addressing, but he said the EOC building purchase was valid.

"It is totally inadequate," he said of the current EOC. "Do we like it?" Durscher asked, referring to spending $1 million to buy a building for a new EOC. "No. Is it necessary? Yes."

Leary put Better Place Plan spending in a broader perspective.

"While money has been spent on some other items, some of those items were items of opportunity," Leary said. "There were needs, and we needed to address them."

FUTURE

In the future, residents can expect to see senior centers in the south and west ends of the county in addition to the one just finished in Palatka, Durscher said.

More road paving and resurfacing is also on the horizon. Resurfacing is relatively easy to do, Durscher said. Paving dirt roads is another matter. There are so many levels of bureaucracy to go through, he said. One of the toughest is gaining ownership of right-of-way, Durscher said.

The county has more than 1,200 miles of dirt roads. Not all of them will get paved through the Better Place Plan, he said.

"Unfortunately, it takes a long time" to pave roads, Durscher said. "We don't have the sophistication, to be blunt, of say, Jacksonville. This is the biggest endeavor of its kind this county has ever done."

bbuck@palatkadailynews.com

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