Plans for a splash pad at Mary Ross Waterfront Park have been put on hold indefinitely after business leaders expressed reservations about the impact it would have on large events held there.

Now, city commissioners may have come up with alternative location for the splash pad if they act quickly.

The commission will meet at 6 p.m. Wednesday to vote on a recommendation unanimously approved Monday by the city’s finance committee.

City Manager Regina McDuffie will ask commissioners to approve a referendum that could make the city eligible for a Georgia Department of Natural Resources grant to install the splash pad at Orange Park and make other park improvements. The pre-application must be submitted to the state by Saturday.

Commissioners will request $199,000 in funding with a requirement by the city in matching funds, McDuffie said.

The total of $398,000 would pay to install the splash pad, pump room and bathrooms at Orange Park, along with playground equipment, picnic sheds, more parking and improvements to the basketball court, lighting and signs.

“We’re hopeful we can get the funding we’re asking for and settle the splash pad question,” McDuffie said. “We want to make it very nice for the people living in that area.”

The only downside is the city will have to reimburse any SPLOST 5 funds spent at Mary Ross Park for the splash pad, she said.

City Commissioner Felicia Harris, a finance committee member, said she was “elated” after McDuffie’s presentation.

“We have a solution to two existing problems,” she said. “That park has been overlooked for too many years.”

An old public swimming pool at the park was abandoned by the city and filled in with dirt in the late 1980s.

City Commissioner Vincent Williams, also a finance committee member, expressed support for the new proposal.

“I’m excited where it’s headed,” he said.

A proposal for long-time plans for improvements to Wright Square will likely have to wait. City engineer Garrow Alberson presented a proposal to return Wright Square to its original design. George Street would no longer divide the square in half under the plan.

The lowest bid for the work was about $147,000 and was within the estimate projected by engineers.

After listening to Alberson explain how traffic would have to be rerouted around the park and the road improvements that would be needed, Harris asked a question that took the conversation in another direction.

“Why is this a necessity?” she asked. “There are other things more pressing right now. Lots of streets in the city need work.”

Alberson said plans for the square have been on the books for years and he was making the recommendation on behalf of the Signature Squares Committee. But Alberson agreed the $191,000 in DOT funds held by the city could be spent elsewhere.

“I don’t see it as a necessity,” he said.

Williams said he didn’t know why a road was built through the middle of one of the city’s squares, but he agreed there are more pressing road construction needs in the city.

McDuffie said an assessment of all city roads is ongoing and it’s likely there will be higher priorities than removing the road once it is completed.

“There is probably a necessity that will warrant this money more than the square,” McDuffie said.

Committee members voted unanimously to recommend waiting for completion of the road study before deciding where to spend the funds.

Commissioners will also be asked to consider a recommendation to hire another three-man crew to help maintain ditches in the city. The city has not had a three-man crew from the state Department of Corrections to help with the maintenance since the COVID-19 outbreak last spring and the lone city crew is overwhelmed.

“We need help,” Albertson said. “A single ditch crew is not keeping up.”

Alberson said a second crew would cost $105,000 for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2021. The city has $45,000 in an account intended to pay for inmate labor and additional funds in a contingency fund to pay the rest if needed.

In following years, he estimated the cost for the crew at a little more than $107,000. The higher cost for the remaining seven months of the current fiscal year is because of the money required to purchase a truck, equipment and uniforms for the employees.

McDuffie said the city is trying to identify the location of every ditch and drain.

“We want to make sure we have a good inventory to identify areas we may have missed over time,” she said.

The new city pay scale, with an $11 an hour starting pay with benefits, will help with recruitment and retention of the new city workers, she said.

When asked how the city will handle its agreement with prison officials, McDuffie said it will likely be until mid 2021 before the resumption of inmate labor. When inmates are allowed to participate in the work programs, McDuffie said there will be plenty of ditch work to keep them busy.

“We don’t see the corrections crews coming back anytime soon,” she said. “These crews are so inconsistent. Even if we get them back we’ll probably still need the other crew.”

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