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April 23, 2014

MORRIS: City, county should come together on park

— The two are separated by just a few miles, but in terms of financial stability, they are years apart.

I am talking about the third floor of the City-County Building in New Albany — home of city government — and Floyd County’s  Pine View Government Center off Corydon Pike.

On the same day when the New Albany Plan Commission failed to give approval for the county to proceed with developing a park off Charlestown Road, the president of the Floyd County Council was kicking around the idea of selling the hospital to help generate income for the financially strapped county. To rub salt in the wound, the New Albany City Council later in the week found an extra $700,000 in a capital outlays line item that had yet to be appropriated.

City and county government are not even on the same financial map.

There are several reasons why the county is in serious financial trouble. Paying for the third David Camm murder trial was a factor. No matter what some politicians say, it was a factor.

The biggest factor was the 2013 budgets being zeroed out after the former county auditor, who resigned a year ago, provided incorrect figures to the council in 2012 during budget hearings. That catastrophe soaked up the county’s rainy day fund and the money set aside for the third Camm trial. The county, and its residents, are still paying the price for that mistake.

Now the county is looking to sell off assets. The hospital will never be sold unless its board wants to pursue a deal with a private company. Council President Jim Wathen brought the idea up, I believe, just as a way to get everyone’s attention that something needs to be done, and now.

More realistically, the North Annex and the property it sits on may be sold and I think the county should also consider selling Sam Peden Community Park to the city. With the city sitting on strong financial footing — and since its parks department has twice the number of employees as the county’s department with less acreage to take care of — why not offer the county money to take over the park?

County Parks Superintendent Roger Jeffers is the hardest working man I know, but trying to maintain a sports center and hundreds of acres of park space with four employees is impossible — especially when you have no idea if you will have a full operating budget from year to year.

This brings me to my second point: On the same week the city finds money, its plan commission tells the county “no” on a proposed park off Charlestown Road. I think eventually the city will allow the county to develop the land near Northside Christian Church, which will be the future home of the New Albany Little League. But there was no way the commission was going to pass the first request without making the county sweat a little.

That is just the political environment we live in.

The park calls for the construction of seven baseball and softball fields and a 1.2-mile walking track. It will fill a need in that end of town for a park and it will give the New Albany Little League a place to play, which it desperately needs. The Mount Tabor Little League facility is outdated and dangerous, and Mount Tabor Road will soon be widened, which will force the Little League to go elsewhere.

While people may criticize the county for some decisions, the new park should not be one of them. County Planner Don Lopp has been in constant contact with residents of the area and did his homework. Everything was order to move forward. All it needed was the city’s zoning blessing, which it didn’t get.

A city comprehensive plan from 30 years ago calls for a connector road to be completed on the county-owned site if the property were to be developed. A portion of it has already been built in the Highland Oaks subdivision. If completed under the city’s comprehensive plan, it would connect to Charlestown Road.  

But the residents don’t want it and obviously the county doesn’t want it. I don’t know of too many Little League facilities that have a road running through right field.

So why not just amend the comprehensive plan, which is not binding, and go forward with the development of the park? Why not do something that will benefit everyone?

I am hoping the four plan commission members voted no just until the comprehensive plan can be amended and city officials have time to study the issue. I hope it has nothing to do with New Albany Little League’s decision to decline the city’s plan to build a facility at the old Hoosier Panel site, which at the time made more sense to me. I hope this is not a way at getting back at the Little League and a way to stick it to the county.

There is no love between the city and county. There hasn’t been one for the last few years. The parks department split, the city said no to merging city and county dispatchers and there is basically no communication between the two.

But surely the four members of the plan commission who voted against the park and Little League facility will see how this will benefit thousands of children in the city. I hope New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan will step in and help this move forward. This would also be a great way to start mending wounds between city and county governments.

Politics are sometimes hard to understand, and so is the relationship between the city and county.

Republicans, Democrats — how about getting together to do something right for the citizens you represent. Let the park move forward.

— Assistant Editor Chris Morris can be reached via email at chris.morris@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2155. Follow him on Twitter: @NAT_ChrisM

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