Pelham council split on proposed park project

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

Members of the Pelham City Council shared conflicting opinions during a March 7 meeting on a proposed plan to add more Parks and Recreation land near Pelham City Park off U.S. 31.

The split came after Council President Mike Dickens conducted the first reading of several resolutions regarding the matter.

If passed during the council’s March 21 meeting, the resolutions would allow the city to purchase about 35.78 acres of land around City Park to use for future Parks and Recreation improvements and projects. The land would cost the city about $7.8 million.

After the first reading, Councilman Steve Powell said he was strongly opposed to the idea, and said the city has more immediate priorities than buying the land.

“I adamantly, in everything I believe is right, am opposed to the forward movement of this project,” Powell said. “We have a duty and responsibility to provide certain basic services to our citizens.

“We have the responsibility to maintain these services in the way our citizens demand, and that has been the foundation of our successful community,” Powell added. “I fear that any action to move forward on these proposals will represent a true lack of focus and discipline.”

Powell said there is “no master plan” for the project, and said the Parks and Recreation director “hasn’t been contacted by anyone” regarding the proposed land purchase.

Because the real estate purchase would include the Belle Vista mobile home park, Powell said he would be against the city using tax dollars to “enter into a private sector business enterprise.”

Powell said he did not know where the funding for the project would come from, and said more costs could come if the city develops the land after purchasing it.

“An unknown amount of money is needed to do an unknown amount of things to these properties,” Powell said.

Powell said the city has more immediate needs, such as maintaining public safety buildings, city services and roads.

“These are needs we have today that need to be addressed,” Powell said.

After Powell spoke on the matter, Dickens said he was “offended” by some of Powell’s statements.

“You said we have a duty to provide basic city services to our citizens. I have been on this for 13 or 14 years now, and I think we have done that,” Dickens said. “I think that is a disingenuous comment.

“And you said moving forward with this would show a lack of dedication to our leadership,” Dickens added. “I’m slightly offended by that remark.”

Pelham Mayor Don Murphy, who does not have a vote on the council, said the city should take advantage of the opportunity to purchase land on U.S. 31.

“Right now, we have a little windy road going back to our City Park. This would let us showcase our parks and recreation to our citizens,” Murphy said. “When you get a chance to purchase property right next to you, you better take it.”

In other business, the council approved changes to the health insurance plan for city retirees and the retiree’s surviving dependents.

The changes will affect only city employees hired after April 1, 2011, and will remove the earning cap for city retirees to be able to stay on the city’s insurance plan.

Through the changes, the city will pay 50 percent of a normal group rate premium of a standard city insurance policy for all retirees who are hired after April 1, as opposed to the 80 percent the city currently pays for retirees.

Employees hired after April 1 who work 10 years and leave will be eligible to receive 40 percent of the amount the city pays for standard employee insurance coverage. Currently, those who work with the city for 10 years are eligible to receive full city retiree insurance benefits.