Editorial: Dalton officials breaking promise to voters for new recreation center

As we've previously reported, for almost five months in 2019, 16 residents from across Whitfield County met to determine the details of projects they believed should be funded by a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST). Committee members were appointed by members of the county Board of Commissioners as well as the city councils of Dalton, Cohutta, Tunnel Hill and Varnell.

The result was a four-year, $66 million SPLOST proposal that was on the June 9, 2020, ballot.

"I believe that the SPLOST is virtually unchanged from our proposal," said Chris Shiflett, who chaired the citizens advisory committee.

The SPLOST proposal as presented to the public included that the city of Dalton would receive some $19 million, including some $11.2 million for a new John Davis Recreation Center and for soccer fields and other work at Heritage Point Park.

"The City Council plans to build the new recreation center through its general fund and reimburse the general fund from the SPLOST if it passes," we reported in May 2020.

Well, the SPLOST did pass, so voters and city of Dalton residents had the right to expect that a new John Davis Recreation Center would be on the way. After all, the original section of the current building was built in 1957.

So a new recreation center was not only favored by the citizens advisory committee but also by the voters who approved the SPLOST.

A done deal, then, right?

Not so fast.

Unfortunately, this is government we're talking about. What seems right often goes by the wayside when it comes to government. What is promised often gets taken away.

Such is apparently the case with a new John Davis Recreation Center. We report in today's paper that the project is on hold as the city moves forward with other projects, including an aquatics center.

"It isn't that we aren't going to do that project (the rec center)," Mayor David Pennington said. "But these other projects are a higher priority."

Dalton Communications Director Bruce Frazier said the plan now is to renovate the existing building, not to tear it down and replace it.

That is no doubt news to the members of the citizens advisory committee and those who voted for the SPLOST with the understanding that it would result in a needed new John Davis Recreation Center.

Pennington said with plans for that facility being scaled back, the city may be able to use some of that money to help pay for the aquatics center.

"That money was just earmarked for recreation, so that shouldn't be a problem," he said.

It's not a problem unless you were relying on the city to use the SPLOST funds as the citizens advisory committee intended, and as the voters approved, for a new rec center.

That's a problem.

But city officials have another problem.

They are paying a consultant $16,500 to review the city's operations, with a focus on communication and engagement with the community.

"Open communication and transparency are vital," said City Council member Annalee Harlan.

"We have to be thinking ahead of any acute event that might happen," she said.

This is not what she had in mind, but leading city residents to believe you're going to build a new recreation center and then changing course because what you apparently consider a better option -- a donated lease for land that can be used for an aquatics center -- presents itself is an acute outcome for many city residents, who were not told about this change but will read it about in their local newspaper.

So what else from the 2020 SPLOST list for the city won't be happening?

Maybe our elected council members will let city residents know. That would be improved communication.

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