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Lee library on Commission agenda tonight

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Lee County Commissioners are expected to revisit a proposed library/conference center project planned for the southwest portion of the county at its meeting tonight and may even approve a slightly redesigned/value engineered facility that falls more in line with proposed budget numbers.

The Commission voted to "revisit" the project, which has $4 million in funding allocated through special tax dollars and the state of Georgia budget, at its last regular meeting because of higher-than-expected construction bids. In a follow-up called meeting three days later, during which architects Sonya Spalinger and Bruce Richards discussed possible design changes, a number of angry verbal exchanges between meeting participants left the immediate future of the project in limbo.

But Spalinger said Monday that subsequent meetings with Lee County Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander, with interim County Administrator Al Crace and with project engineers had opened up the possibility of forward movement at today's 6 p.m. Commission meeting.

"We've met with the people involved with the project -- with Bob Alexander, with Al Crace, with our engineers, with (Library Director) Claire Leavy -- and I think we're now at a point where we're ready to go back to the Board of Commissioners," Spalinger, vice president of Albany-based SRJ Architects, said Monday. "We looked at all the possibilities and came up with a list (of changes) we think everyone is comfortable with."

While a group that Commissioner Rick Muggridge called a "very small, very vocal minority" has called for work on the library branch to continue at the exclusion of the conference center, Alexander said Monday he expects to recommend that both facilities be built utilizing changes worked out at meetings with the principles involved in the project.

"I don't want to speak out of turn, but I think we've been able to get the cost down to a point where, if the Commission decides to go along with the recommendation, we could be in the neighborhood of the cost everyone had been shooting for," the planning and engineering director said. "Through a combination of realizing that the site plan needed to be reduced and some value engineering, we've been able to get the cost down to a point where we could recommend a redesign and rebid.

"That would take another six months or so, but sometimes you just have to see what the market will do and then realize you can't get everything you want."

The Commission had initially set a goal of allocating $5.2 million for the project, with the additional $1.2 million (minus the $4 million in SPLOST and state funding) to come from a loan. That additional cost has some Commissioners at odds.

"I will not vote to borrow any money," Smithville/Chokee Commissioner Dennis Roland said Monday. "If the library costs $4 million, we should build it. If it costs less than $4 million, we should put the extra money back in SPLOST to use for other projects.

"If we're considering borrowing additional money (to build the conference center), I don't think we've done a good enough job of checking the will of the taxpayers in the county."

Muggridge, who represents the south Lee County Century District, said that while the new numbers he's seen on the project "are not perfect," he's ready to see it move forward.

"I've told everyone from the get-go that since this a project that has already been voted on and approved, I'd like to see it move forward," Muggridge said. "My only input (since the vote to approve funding for the project) was to make sure that Bob Alexander was involved in the (redesign) process. I felt he had a lot to offer.

"I looked at the new numbers about an hour ago, and I think we can get a consensus and move forward. The key is to get this done responsibly. Is this exactly what I'd personally do? I don't know. But as a politician -- and I don't think that's a dirty word -- sometimes you do what you can when the opportunity arises. That's how things get done."

Lee Library Board Chairman Eddie Hinman reiterated his position Monday that he's confident the library facility that will be built will serve the best interest of the county's citizens.

"It's like buying a car: Sometimes you want the Lexus, but you have to settle for the Camry," Hinman said. "Everyone had the grand idea to expand the seating capacity for the conference center from 300 to 400 and still get it in under budget. We all kind of wanted the Lexus. But that's not going to happen.

"I have great confidence, though, that the library will be fully funded and it will be what we want."

Crace was thrown into the middle of the ongoing fray on his first day in office as interim administrator, but he said he's confident the Commission will make the right decision.

"I kind of stepped right onto the race tracks," Crace said late Monday afternoon. "This is certainly a challenge for our elected officials. They have a nice library plan and the conference center, but there is a limited budget. So they have to make everything fit. It's one of those community value decisions that (the Commission) has to make.

"But the architects have given them some good ideas to work with. It's an important decision, and they'll need to move forward carefully."

Crace said he spent most of Monday "getting a sense of direction" and "getting electronically plugged in."