Stimulus funds pave way for road work

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By Michel Northsea

While there were more than 300 people interested in learning more about the name for a new county park, some others wanted to know what other activities for older youngsters could be added to the existing Liberty Community Park.

During the Monday afternoon State Road 200 Coalition Meeting, resident Mary Morgan asked why additional facilities, such as baseball diamonds or basketball courts, have not been added at Liberty Park, on 103 Street.

“Older kids need to have somewhere to gather without getting into trouble,” she said.

Acting Marion County Parks and Recreation Director Gina Peebles, who was in attendance at the meeting, said although Phase II development of Liberty Park did call for facilities suitable for older children, the public demand for such facilities didn’t support the expansion.

“There hasn’t been an outcry from the public for those type facilities,” said Peebles adding the public support for expansion was necessary to move forward with the project.

Just recently, the county purchased a 40-acre tract for a second county park in the State Road 200 area, behind Oak Run and Forest Glenn. Preliminary plans for the park suggest that it will be an “active” park with baseball and softball facilities, said Pat Gabriel, coalition president. She also serves as president of the county’s advisory board for Parks and Recreation.

County residents were invited to enter a contest and submit a name for the new park. The contest netted 421 entries with 309 different people suggesting names. A name for the park will be selected later this month, Peebles said.

Commissioner Jim Payton was the guest speaker at the monthly meeting.

Payton addressed issues of the general economy, the county’s share of the economic stimulus package and the “800-pound gorilla,” the controversy surrounding the hiring of County Administrator Dr. Lee Niblock.

He noted the county’s foreclosure rate was the third highest in the state but some of those homes were now being purchased.

Besides the high foreclosure rate, the county is also seeing a decline of property values of 10 percent for the last two years. The Rainbow Lakes community in Dunnellon has highest decline of property values at 51 percent followed by Marion Oaks with a 24 percent decrease, Payton said pointing out that history shows property values do come back.

The property appraiser, by state law, is required to re-evaluate property values every three years. The average home in the county is now appraised at $114,000 down from $170,000.

Despite a $50-million decline in anticipated revenue across the board, Payton said commissioners had held the ad valorem rate for their budget so residents would not see higher taxes.

Three projects in the county, widening the shoulders of County Road 484 followed by overlaying of asphalt, sidewalks in Marion Oaks and the widening of Southwest 80th Avenue, from State Road 40 to U.S.27, will be accomplished by stimulus money, Payton said.

Those projects are estimated to cost $10 million and should start in November. The county has $7.5 million in stimulus funds with the state providing the rest of the money.

Several in the audience suggested the expansion of the Freedom Library should have been the priority over the sidewalks in Marion Oaks.

Payton said stipulations for the money would not have allowed the expansion with federal dollars.

Payton assured the audience the hiring of Niblock was in the best interest of the county.

“I am absolutely convinced we have the right person for the job,” he said pointing out that Niblock had written a 100-page plan to improve internal and external communication, stimulate and encourage diversified and sustainable economic growth, long term disposal of solid waste, management of water supply, protection of the springs and improving transportation infrastructure for the county.

Payton admitted in hindsight, the county commissioners should have done things differently, process wise, and extend the debate for hiring the county administrator.

Resident Willard Higgins said by hiring Niblock, they had hired someone who was “off and running” because he knew the community and the job.

“Someone else would have been a lame duck for six months to learn the job,” he said.

Michel Northsea is the editor of the West Marion Messenger, a sister paper of the South Marion Citizen.