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Tempers flare at Lee library meeting

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

LEESBURG, Ga. -- When the last angry exchange had been quieted and order was restored at the Lee County Library Friday afternoon, architects Sonya Spalinger and Bruce Richards were pretty sure they had some new marching orders.

At a special Lee County Commission meeting, ostensibly called to discuss a proposed library/conference center project whose bid opening had resulted in a price tag almost a million dollars more than what had been projected, spectators needed a scorecard to keep up with the competing wars of words.

It started with commissioners Dennis Roland and Rick Muggridge getting into it. Then Commission Chairman Ed Duffy tried to quiet spectator Tim Nelson, the vice chair of the local Libertarian party, before finally rapping his gavel and telling Nelson: "Cease and desist, please."

Lee Library Board Chairman Eddie Hinman had his own exchanges with Nelson and Roland, and shortly after the meeting ended, Herb Gladin, who had served as campaign manager for Duffy's opponent, Lester Leggette, in their July 20 District 3 Commission election, exchanged heated words with Duffy.

Essentially, though, what was decided was that Spalinger and Richards, representatives of SRJ Architects of Albany, would go back to the drawing board and redesign a downsized conference center to try to get the project in line with a projected budget of $5.2 million.

"It's my understanding that they want us to redesign the project with a reduced seating capacity in the conference center and to conduct value engineering to try and cut costs," Spalinger said as the bickering continued around her. "At least now we understand that the goal is to reduce the cost of the project.

"What we did during this process is design the facility that everyone told us they wanted. We discussed all the changes in the project as we worked on it, but it's obvious to me that the updates haven't been filtering through."

Duffy, meanwhile, said after the meeting the Commission would not likely approve the full project until budget constraints were met.

"The only way we'll build this library/conference center is to redesign it with less seating capacity and use value engineering to cut costs so that we're within our budget of $5.2 million," Duffy said.

"The library will be built," he said. "It is my hope that we can come up with a redesign (for the entire project) that will come within the parameters of what the Board of Commissioners feels we can afford."

The controversy surrounding the project started when the Commission selected a site for the library, which is to be funded by $2 million special tax dollars and $2 million from the state budget, in the Oakland Meadows development off U.S. Highway 82 in southwest Lee County.

It kicked into high gear this week when The Albany Herald revealed that the apparent low bid on the project came in at more than $900,000 higher than projected costs.

The County Commission decided at its Tuesday work session to "revisit" the issue, which it did Friday.

After Spalinger and Richards outlined some $320,000 in value engineering changes they had put together and almost a half-million dollars in changes proposed by apparent low bidder Hensler and Beavers of Doraville, the fireworks started.

Roland said he'd been approached by a group of concerned citizens who did not want to see special-purpose local-option sales tax money spent on a conference center, a contention supported by Lee Countian Wendell Arrington before the meeting.

"There may be a time to build a library/conference center in Lee County, but this is not it," Arrington said. "The way this economy is, now is a horrible time to even consider this. Most regular folks like me don't have anyone we can collect tax money from whenever we can't pay our bills.

"I've talked with a lot of people who are upset with the way SPLOST money is being used by the county who say they plan to vote against it the next time it comes up."

Hinman then told the Commission he was concerned that efforts to bring the project within budget would end up diminishing the library.

"The way we see it, we have the state money and the SPLOST money to build a library," the Library Board chair said. "Our concern is that you'll end up taking away from the library for the conference center.

We don't think the library should suffer.

"I'd hate for us to sit down at one meeting and start cutting things out and then three years or so down the road find out that we would have been better off in the long run to leave those things in."

Roland then turned the conversation away from the proposed project and called for more fire/EMS stations in the county.

"If the county's going to go into debt, I'd rather see us go into debt in a way that will protect our citizens," he said. "Mr. Duffy just ran his campaign saying the protection and safety of our citizens is our No. 1 priority. I know y'all don't think I have any vision, but my vision is for everyone in this county to be treated the same.

"People here are upset because their insurance keeps going up because of our lack of fire protection."

Muggridge responded to Roland's complaint.

"Isn't it true that people knew there were no fire stations (near their homes) when they moved there?" asked Muggridge, an insurance agent.

"Let's go there," Roland responded. "My parents moved into their house 60 years ago, before there was even a volunteer fire department. I don't want to hear that crap."

Muggridge had a ready reply.

"You keep implying that we're not treating everyone the same, but that's simply not true," he said. "Yes, there has been tremendous growth in the southern part of the county, but the majority of that growth has come through the investment of private dollars."

Duffy admonished Roland.

"I think this board has spent the county's tax dollars with a vision for the future," he said. "There are only so many dollars to be spent, that's the bottom line. Unless you want to raise taxes."

Hinman cut into the discussion.

"Why don't we talk about the library/conference center?" he said.

Spalinger told the Commission the current bids on the project would be good for only 60 days, and Richards mentioned that reducing the capacity of the conference center from 400 to 300 seats would initially save "around $283,000." That's when Nelson injected a question about public input into the discussion.

"This is a meeting between the Board of Commissioners, the Library Board and our architects," Duffy said. "You're out of order."

When Nelson persisted, Hinman asked him, "Do you want to be personally involved in this redesign? Is that what you're asking?"

Duffy finally cut off Nelson with his gavel, prompting the post-meeting ire of Gladin.

"We're going to get this worked out," Duffy said after the meeting as animated conversations swirled around him. "We're going to do our best to get this project within our budget."