For five years now, Golden Triangle Outdoors, a local non-profit group dedicated to providing outdoor activities for the area’s disabled citizens, has struggled to find funding to build its “Field of Dreams” sports facility in Lowndes County, most likely as part of a renovation project at the city’s Propst Park complex.
Of late, it has been a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum as the group tries to form a private/public partnership that will provide the $350,000-to-$400,000 needed to build the facility.
County and city officials want to see a serious financial commitment from the private sector, while Golden Triangle Outdoors officials say private sources are waiting for the two government entities to commit finances to build the park before pledging their support.
“It does get frustrating,” Debbie Taylor, the group’s treasurer, said. “We are working with the Miracle League, which has built parks for disabled citizens all over the country. Based on the parks they have built over the years, there is a range of cost, up to $1 million for a facility with all the bells and whistles. What we tried to do is find a happy medium, something in the $350,000 to $400,000 range. We think that’s reasonable.”
The group has been operating a baseball league at Propst Park for years, Taylor said. Fifty players will participate in this year’s league. Without a field built to accommodate disabled participants, the challenges are many, however.
Seasons are generally shorter, since hot weather can be a real challenge for some participants. Weather had also prove to be a real challenge in other ways.
“If it rains on Thursday, the other leagues can play on Friday, no problem,” Taylor said, “That’s not possible for most of our kids because they are in wheelchairs or crutches and they can’t move around a wet, soggy field.”
A need v. funding
The facility would be managed by the Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority.
“It’s an absolute need,” Greg Lewis, the director of CLRA, said. “Many times, for example, if it rains, the events (for special needs people) are canceled because the surface isn’t fit for them to get around in their wheelchairs.”
Last September, as the city and county finalized Fiscal Year 2016 budgets, officials from Golden Triangle Outdoors asked for $100,000 from each entity to match the $150,000 raised by the group, which includes $60,000 in cash commitments along with $90,000 in pledged “in-kind” donations.
The timing for that request was unfortunate, however.
Both the city and county approved FY2016 budgets that featured shortfalls. The budget approved by the county for 2016 showed a deficit of $750,000, while the city’s budget featured a $178,000 shortfall. Both governments dipped into reserve funds to balance the budget as the fiscal year began.
City revenue, primarily from sales tax receipts, has far exceeded expectations, however. Columbus Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle said sale tax revenue for FY2016 is up by $732,000 as of April. Much of that money is committed to payment on a pair of TIF bonds, so as the city heads into budget planning, the financial state of the city may not be significantly changed from last year.
While both city councilmen and county supervisors say they support the group’s efforts, with four months remaining in the current fiscal year, the budget outlook far from guarantees funding for the project during the 2017 fiscal year.
“I certainly hope we can do something for this, because I feel like it’s a good project,” Ward 6 City Councilman Bill Gavin said. “But it is an expensive project and we do have other needs to be taken care of. I’d like to see the city and county get on board, but I’d also like to see the community step up because I do feel like it’s a community project, first of all.”
Meanwhile, Lowndes County revenues for the fiscal year should come in close to projections, said County Administrator Ralph Billingsley. While he expects the county to see slightly lower expenditures and higher revenue by the fiscal year’s end, he said cost overruns at the county’s new E911 center will likely more than exceed whatever savings result by year’s end. The county estimated cost overruns of $600,000 when it completed its budget in September. Now, that estimate is at roughly $1.4 million, which includes the cost of equipment the center with $500,000 in new equipment, a decision the board made earlier this year.
In September, supervisors said they might be able to make up that deficit through interest earned from the county’s $30 million trust fund. However, a tumble in stock prices at the end of 2016 meant the county could withdraw only $73,000 in interest from the trust account after collecting a combined $1.8 million over the previous two years.
“I expect our budget for next year will be pretty similar to this one,” Billingsley said.
Board president Harry Sanders said that the county supports the project, pointing to a resolution of support passed last September.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able, when it comes budget time, to be able to find some money for it,” Sanders said. “The reason we signed the resolution was to help them get public support. So we support the plan. It’s just a matter of how it all sorts out in the budget.”
Sanders said the county’s financial commitment rests on what the city chooses to do.
“In other projects that were supposed to be a 50-50 split, the county has wound up paying far more than that,” he said. “I think our attitude is, ‘Let’s see what the city does.’ Until I see what they plan to do, I’m reluctant to commit to anything.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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