Bennettsville City Council once again took up the matter of Walker Park during a workshop on Monday.
Mayor Heath Harpe brought it up, saying he had received some inquiries about the status of a joint use agreement approved by a majority of the council more than a year ago, in April 2016.
The joint use agreement was to be between the city and the Marlboro County School District in order to make use of $20,000 in state Park and Recreation Development (PARD) funding which had been earmarked for Walker Park by S.C. Rep. Patricia Henegan.
Walker Park is located adjacent to the former Bennettsville Elementary/Eastside High School on North Cook Street, and is named for longtime educators, the late Floyd and Tomasena Walker.
The problem was that the park is owned by the school district, and the school district is not eligible to receive PARD funding. The city, on the other hand, is eligible for PARD funding, and was asked to serve as a financial pass-through for the grant. It is not uncommon for this type of arrangement to be made between eligible and non-eligible entities.
City council agreed to serve as the pass-through and, at their April 2016 meeting, voted to have the necessary joint use agreement prepared by their attorney and the school district's attorney. The vote was not unanimous, with two council members, Wilhelmina Pegues and Bernice Johnson, opposing.
At this week's workshop, Harpe asked the city attorney why the joint use agreement had never been formulated. The attorney, Greg Ohanesian, responded that, following the council's vote, he had sent a letter to the school district's attorney telling him the city was prepared to proceed, as long as certain provisions were agreed upon. He said he never heard back from the school district, and so no additional action was taken on his part.
Harpe said the council's directive from April 2016 needs to be followed, and asked Ohanesian to move forward with preparing a joint use agreement. Once that is done, he said, it will be in the hands of the school district to act or not.
But the matter didn't end with that, as the two city council members who had originally opposed the joint use agreement still do not want the city involved.
They said the $20,000 earmarked for Walker Park should have gone to Marlboro County government for renovations to the former Blenheim Elementary/Middle School gymnasium, which the county now owns and uses for recreation.
PARD funds are reimbursable matching grants available to local government entities and special purpose districts which provide park and recreation services within each county in the state. Entities apply for the funds for specific projects, and local legislative delegations ultimately make the decision on how the funds are distributed.
In 2015, Marlboro County government submitted a grant request for the Blenheim gym project and expected to receive $47,000 in PARD funds. Later, that amount was reduced to $27,000 so that $20,000 could be allocated to the Walker Park project. That is when the proposed joint use agreement between the city and the school district came into play.
Marlboro County Councilman Willie Gladden brought the matter up at the county council meeting Tuesday, having been at the city council workshop and heard the discussion the previous night.
He vehemently declared that the county should have received the entire $47,000 allocation and said the eventual outcome was a "political push" and a "back-door deal" among the other parties involved. He also questioned whether the money was even still available since he said there was a May 31 deadline for expending the funds.
Rep. Henegan, who made the allocations, told the Herald-Advocate that there was no "back-door deal" and her intent was to help as many people in the community as possible by awarding funds to all deserving projects. She said the funds are available to a number of qualifying entities, not just the county, and all are encouraged to apply.
In terms of the deadline, she said it is October 31, 2017, for this particular pot of money to be spent on Walker Park. The project cannot proceed until/unless the joint use agreement between the city and the school district is finalized.