A potential bond to help fund park projects, making the courthouse more accessible for those with disabilities and the latest plans for a new juvenile justice center were among issues discussed at a Forsyth County Board of Commissioners’ work session this week.
All items were approved by a 5-0 vote unless otherwise noted.
A new parks bond?
Due to shortfalls in funding for nearly a dozen parks projects through SPLOST VIII and impact fees, commissioners are considering allowing voters to decide whether or not to approve a new parks and recreation bond.
The issue was raised by District 1 Commissioner Molly Cooper, who said the amount of impact fees – fees paid by developers for a planned increase in use of amenities, including parks – collected have lagged as building permits fell in 2019 and the first $100 million from SPLOST VIII went toward paying off debt from a $200 million transportation bond approved by voters in 2014.
“I want to be transparent toward all the citizens and taxpayers to understand why we’re low and that these park projections that we have, while they’re important and matter so much to our community, we’re just not going to be able to pay for it, as it stands right now we just can’t,” Cooper said. “So, with a lot of detail and a lot of transparency, I’d like us to have the discussion and open the idea if the citizens want to float a parks and rec bond or not to pay for them.”
Jim Pryor, the county’s parks and recreation director, said there were 11 projects to be funded by SPLOST VIII and impact fees:
- · Big Creek Greenway Phase 5 project;
- · Big Creek Greenway Phase 1 renovation and redesign;
- · Denmark Park development and master plan;
- · Sawnee Mountain Preserve development and master plan for Phase 4, at the former site of the Barker House;
- · Lanierland Park Phase 2 development;
- · Matt Community Park new recreation center;
- · Master plan and renovations for Bennett, Sharon Springs and Midway parks;
- · Renovations at Coal Mountain and Sawnee Mountain parks.
Along with less money coming in, Pryor said for many of the projects, the final price came in higher than expected.
“When we design a park, all of you know in your district, we get the residents involved, we get an architect that draws the plan, and sometimes the projections, with the economy the way it is now, come in higher than what you project,” Pryor said, “but what I always say is the key is to design a good park, and build a park for the future and money-wise, we’ll just have to phase it and do it with the resources that we have available.”
Commissioners took no action on the bond and will discuss it at their Feb. 11 meeting.
County officials estimated that for a $100 million bond, a home valued at $350,000 would pay an additional $60 per year and $400,000 home would pay about $75.
There was also discussion about when would be the best time during the 2020 election cycle to have voters decide the issue. County Attorney Ken Jarrard said the May primary would likely be too soon.
Forsyth County voters approved a $100 million parks, recreation and greenspace bond in 2008, which funded a variety of projects including Matt Community and Lanierland parks.
Making the courthouse more accessible
Attorney Rebecca Capes recently broke several bones in her foot after a fall, requiring a number of surgeries and for her to use a wheelchair, which she said has been an issue at the Forsyth County Courthouse.
Capes said she had either experienced or seen others with disabilities have problems at the courthouse, including issues with the nearby sidewalk not being level, not being seen by cars when crossing from handicap parking across the street at the Forsyth County Administration Building, a ramp at the courthouse and even getting into rooms once she gets in.
“Until one is in a wheelchair for a significant amount of time, you can’t appreciate how complicated and how difficult it is,” Capes said.
During the meeting, commissioners approved moving ahead with a new design for six handicap parking spaces at the courthouse and for a pedestrian crossing across East Main Street. The spaces would include a call button and parking control arm and would be on the same side of the courthouse as the administration building.
Officials said the courthouse had initially been planned with nine handicap spaces, which were scrapped after the 2014 courthouse shooting due to safety concerns.
“What’s concerning is I feel like we have let something like that, effectively a terrorist, because that’s what he was, affect our lives to a degree where it has made it very difficult for people that aren’t walking,” Capes said.
Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office’s Maj. Tom Patton said the new spaces would not present a safety issue and would be no closer to an entrance than existing spaces.
A plan for the project will come back at a future meeting.
New use for old school
A partnership between graduate students at the University of North Georgia and Forsyth County yielded some new ideas about ways to use the historic Matt School building, which was built in 1945 and is located at 5710 Namon Wallace Road. The county purchased the building in 2019 for $408,696.
After meeting with members of the community, the students recommended using the building for multiple functions, such as an alternative workspace in the old cafeteria, offering a coffee shop or café, using former classrooms for meeting spaces, giving local students a place to do homework and projects and using the school’s stage for performances, among other recommendations.
“That stage is just perfect to be able to do all kinds of drama, and letting the high school be the ones to teach it,” said District 4 Commissioner Cindy Mills.
Mills said members of the community have already offered to donate a new roof for the building, and she proposed allowing families to donate windows in memory of teachers at the school.
No action was taken at the meeting.
Moving ahead with Juvenile Justice
Local residents may have noticed work going on at the Forsyth County Juvenile Court building, located at 875 Lanier 400 Parkway, and more work is on the way.
During the meeting, commissioners were given an update on the new Forsyth County Juvenile Justice Center by officials with Jericho Design Group, the architect for the project. The project is estimated to cost $19.9 million in total.
The project will involve removing all buildings on the site, including one that has already been demolished, except the current juvenile court.
The project started in 2018, and construction is slated to start in March with a planned opening in the fourth quarter of 2021.
Several users of the space, including Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, have had to relocate for the project.
Doug Shaw, a principal with Jericho, showed a virtual rendering of the planned new building, which will include new parking, screening stations at the entrance, courtrooms, a training room, an information area, spaces for therapists and conferencing space.
Shaw said his team had tried to take a new approach to the building making it more modern than other courts to “destress” those involved in the legal process.
“From a juvenile court standpoint, a lot of them are very traditional in their ideas and their thought processes,” Shaw said, “and we were trying to do some things a little bit different, borrowing from health care and other types of facilities, having more wellness and more biophilic, which is a fancy word for nature inside the building, because this particular building is full of stress, it has family stress. Some of the kids are there not because they are a bad kid, [but] because they have family issues.”