Splash pad debate highlights Selectmen tensions

Staff Writer

Debate over the addition of a splash pad -- a mini water park -- to West Point's parks illustrates the sometimes tense power split on the Board of Selectmen.

A 15-minute discussion Tuesday night turned terse as Selectmen Leta Turner and Ken Poole sniped with Selectmen Keith McBrayer over who should make recommendations about the splash pad and where it should be located.

The issue centers on an October decision by Selectmen to let a new Parks and Recreation Committee made up of Poole and Turner recommend parks decisions and whether the splash pad, which has been under discussion for more than a year, fell into that category.

In December, the board took under advisement spray park bids of $69,000 from Planet Recess Inc. of Baton Rouge, La., and $79,950 from Great Southern Recreation of Murfreesboro, Tenn.
As proposed, the water feature, which would have a baseball theme, would be built at the Jesse Harmon Sportsplex on North Eshman because that's where funds generated by the city's 1 percent restaurant and hotel tax are designated to be spent.

But at the December meeting, some Selectmen worried the pad would not be used as much because the sportsplex is isolated. They also raised safety and security concerns. Turner and Poole said Marshall Park, which is located in the heart of the city just off Main Street, would be a better location. It would get more use there and would compliment a skate park and other features added there in recent years, they said.

Parks and Rec Director James Crowley agreed.

Turner and Poole even suggested getting the Legislature to modify the original restaurant tax to allow it to be used at all the city's parks.

When the issue came up at Tuesday night's meeting, Selectman Keith McBrayer motioned to go forward as planned and award the contract to Great Southern.

Turner noted the motion did not have the support of the Parks and Recreation Committee and asked to table it.

With Selectman Jasper Pittman absent, the board split 2-2. Mayor Robbie Robinson broke the tie, voting no.

That sparked debate over the role and authority of the Parks and Rec Committee and at times, a rehash of the issues brought up during the December discussion.

"This project has been under way since long before this Parks and Rec Committee was named," McBrayer said.

"The master plan says we need a splash pad at Marshall Park," Poole stated.

"It didn't say specifically at Marshall Park. It just said we needed a splash pad," countered McBrayer, citing his memory of the parks master plan.

"We need to have a public hearing and get input because ultimately the public is the one who is going to be using it," Poole said of his preferred plan of action.

"We have been contacted by constituents. We are supposed to listen to them," echoed Turner.

"What I remember was the committee was going to some other places and look at spray parks to compare them and see these bidders' work. Y'all haven't done that," McBrayer said, referring to the Parks and Recreation Committee.

"We can pay for it now with the tourism funds and then put another one in the budget for Marshall Park next year. If we proceed now, we can have it finished and enjoy it this year. I think that is the right thing to do," McBrayer continued.

"The right thing to do would be to give the Parks and Recreation Committee a chance to review it," Poole retorted, noting he prefers to go with the less-expensive bid because the "guy does good work, according to his references."

At one point Robinson gaveled down the discussion to restore order. He suggested proceeding with awarding the bids now for a splash pad at the sportsplex, asking the Legislature to change the restaurant tax limits, and then planning to build a second pad next year.

That prompted Selectman William Binder to suggest the board table the issue for more review. This time, it passed 4-0. The board will take the issue up again in February.

Binder, McBrayer and Pittman have been a three-person coalition on several issues in recent weeks, leaving Turner and Poole sometimes frustrated.

City leaders declined to discuss the rift, but the spirit of the debate was not lost on some long-time city government observers.

"It happens at all levels, you get voting blocks and the other side gets snippy. That's what we were seeing Tuesday night. That was as much about authority and recognition as it was the spray park. It'll all work out," said one person who has watched meetings for several years.