VALDOSTA — On July 1, all control and oversight of the Valdosta/Lowndes County Parks and Recreation Department will transfer to a group of seven citizens as part of the agreement reached over House Bill 489 by the city and county.

Since 1999, the first round of negotiations over non-duplication of services, the county has funded the department, but it has remained housed in City Hall, and the city has maintained all decision-making authority over the department. Negotiations which began more than two years ago have culminated in a new Authority being created, with full legal control over the more than $25 million in parks and facilities and a $4 million annual budget.

The new Authority met Friday for a long orientation session at the James H. Rainwater Conference Center as County Manager Joe Pritchard and City Manager Larry Hanson attempted to bring the citizens up to speed — quickly — considering the amount of work they are facing in a very short amount of time.

The citizens, four appointed by the county and three by the city, will serve staggered terms, with one appointment rotating every four years between the city and county. The members are Russ Mast of VSU; Larry Tobey of the YMCA; Dave Christian, retired city employee; Mike McDowell of Georgia Power; Robert Jefferson, Moody AFB; Hoke Hampton, former city councilman and private businessman; and Jenne Brandon, nurse in the city school system. Brandon did not attend the meeting Friday.

Eric Hahn, interim director of the department for nearly two years since the termination of former director Brockey Brock, introduced the Authority to the department by presenting a comprehensive overview of all parks, facilities, programs and capital-improvement projects already planned, including a large expansion of the softball fields at Freedom Park, a new swimming pool at the Senior Center, and a new tennis center at McKey Park.

Hahn stressed the quality of life aspect that the department provides for citizens, asking, “Wouldn’t you rather pay for kids to play than be in prison?” as well as the economic aspect, with the department stimulating more than $1 million in economic impact on the community each year as well as bringing in revenue from the programs it runs.

Hahn gave the example of the new expansion into Lowndes County Schools to operate the after-school program, which he stated would more than double the revenue for the program and also add a number of new employees to the staff.

In his presentation, Pritchard introduced the more practical aspects facing the new Authority, from the need to set a regular monthly meeting place and time, hiring an attorney and financial advisor, and hiring a new executive director. “The county will front the funds to you to run the department until the Authority has an accounting system in place and the tax money starts coming in to support the operations.”

He explained that the funding will now come from 1.25 mills collected from the countywide digest, beginning July 1, and it will take several months for the department to accrue enough funds to support its operations.

According to Pritchard, the Authority will have $4 million in county SPLOST funds already set aside for a soccer complex as well as $1 million set aside for general recreation, which has been suggested as seed money for an equine facility, but it’s now up to the Authority to decide on its fate.

In addition, according to Hanson, the Authority will have to oversee $12 million in city SPLOST funds, dedicated to the current capital projects already planned and under way. He reminded the Authority members of the department’s long history with the city; of how intricately linked to the city the department currently is through human resources, finance, budgeting and purchasing; and informed the members that if they choose to leave the department and employees housed at City Hall, the city would be willing to work with them to reach an agreement.

Mayor John Fretti gave a brief overview of his vision for the new Authority, stating that they should be free from political influence, either from the city or county, and that they should seek advice from other resources, such as other authorities. He also said the city has a long track record of running the department and would be happy to provide guidance when needed.

Consultants from Lose and Associates, the organization hired in 2003 to conduct a Master Plan for the Parks and Recreation Department, presented an updated version of its recommendations to the members, also walking them through the legal issues of forming a new Authority, down to creating bylaws and formulating official policies.

Authority members asked city and county officials to leave the room at one point so that they could discuss some issues among themselves. They cannot legally take action until July 1, so the discussions were informal and served to allow them to get to know one another and share their concerns and questions over the task ahead of them.

When the Authority meets again the second week of July, their first order of business will be to elect a chairman, vice chairman, secretary and treasurer, and to begin the process of transitioning the department from the city, the facilities from both the city and county, and the employees to the Authority’s control.

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