Originally created 07/27/06

Squabbling over needed projects stalls bond plan



Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle said he won't support a $40 million capital improvements bond proposal after a heated meeting with other county officials.

The sheriff's remarks came during a Wednesday work session called to examine a list of projects that could be funded by a $40 million bond. If approved by voters in November, taxpayers would pay an extra 1 mill in property tax, or about $45 on a $100,000 home, for 12 years to pay off the bond.

Sheriff Whittle, who previously supported the bond, instead voiced his opposition after observing a tense exchange between county Commissioner Steve Brown and Columbia County Probate Judge Pat Hardaway. Mr. Brown questioned the judge about the need for an accounting software upgrade for probate and magistrate courts.

Mr. Brown asked whether Judge Hardaway's office could function without the software.

"By law, I have obligations and as long as I am in office I will carry them out," the judge said, countering with a question about whether recreational projects, which accounted for about $8.8 million of the $40 million in projects on Wednesday's master list of projects, are necessary for the county to operate. Mr. Brown said voters would decide.

When it became Sheriff Whittle's turn to defend his requests, he instead abruptly told Mr. Brown and Commissioner Tommy Mercer to remove his department's two projects and said he would not support the bond.

"I was told that what I put in there was fluff," Sheriff Whittle said, referring to $450,000 for an administrative building renovation design study and an indoor tactical shooting range.

"I wouldn't have put it in there if it wasn't necessary, and neither would my probate judge," he told the commissioners.

Mr. Mercer said the sheriff had previously promised to support the bond regardless of whether his projects were included.

But after being told that his projects might be axed, the sheriff said he reviewed the proposal and could not support it.

Mr. Mercer criticized Sheriff Whittle's withdrawal of support as an attempt to sabotage the bond, saying he would not be "bullied or coerced."

Mr. Brown said he questioned the judge and sheriff just as he questioned all proposals, and he wanted more information to be sure the projects are necessary.

Ultimately, commissioners agreed to remove the sheriff's proposal.

Commissioners will consider, but will not likely vote on, updated bond proposals at their Aug. 1 meeting, county administrator Steve Szablewski said. The proposals must be finalized and received by the Georgia Secretary of State's office by Aug. 11 to be included on the Nov. 7 ballot, he said.

Reach J. Scott Trubey at 706-868-1222, ext. 109 or jeffery.trubey@augustachronicle.com.