St. George residents like Lindy Hower just want a place for their kids to play.
But to county officials, the issue is much bigger.
They are afraid that by the time the state Supreme Court decides whether the county was right to combine parks and libraries in one question on 2016 ballots, rising costs will affect the building of new parks and libraries.
“We don’t have enough fields in the upper county and we desperately need more,” said Hower, a mother of two. "Today – not whenever the Supreme Court decides.”
The plans could be in jeopardy because federal grants intended to help build the $4.4 million Courthouse Park has to be spent by August, officials said. The county stands to lose $75,000 or more if the case is not settled in time.
“The delay is definitely jeopardizing some funding that has strings attached,” said council Chairman Jay Byars. “It is really frustrating. This is only costing the community. If they would drop the lawsuit today, we could get moving on things right away.”
The delay has cost the county millions, Byars said. He estimated that construction costs have risen $6 million — about the cost of a new library — while the legal wrangling has been going on.
The lawyer who filed the lawsuit said the delays could have been avoided if the county had put two questions to voters instead of one.
“The two issues should have been voted on separately,” said Mike Rose. “If they can put those two things together, what’s to stop them from putting 30 things together in the future?”
In 2016, county voters were asked if they wanted to raise their taxes to fund $30 million in new libraries and $13 million in new and improved parks, and 61 percent of voters said “yes.”
Weeks before the election, Rose filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of residents and the Dorchester County Taxpayers’ Association to stop the referendum or have the results declared illegal, saying that combining the two issues was unconstitutional and citing an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office. Attorney general’s opinions do not carry the weight of law.
County officials countered the two could be combined because they are both related to quality of life.
In December, the lawsuit was dismissed by Circuit Judge Edgar Dickson, and the issue now lies with the state Supreme Court.
“The attorney general, very significantly, agrees that they can’t be combined, and there’s case law to back it up,” Rose said. “Some people say, ‘That’s just an opinion.’ Well, the only opinion that’s going to matter in the end is the Supreme Court’s opinion.”
In the meantime, the county has pressed forward with plans. The Courthouse Park's design has been ready since October, Park and Recreation Director Eric Davis said. The county is ready to put the project out for bids and issue the bonds for it as soon as the legal issues are settled, officials said.
In May, Lester Dempsey, who ran unsuccessfully against Byars in Tuesday's Republican primary for the District 7 Council seat, suggested that council put the issue to voters again this November, but this time as separate questions.
“People need to understand that if council members are sincere about stopping the delay, they have the power to stop it,” Rose said. “All they have to do is put it back on the ballot in 2018. The failure or refusal to do that makes one wonder why. People should not be complaining that citizens are causing the delay when council could stop it but refuses to do so.”
The measure will add about $48 to the annual property tax bill of a $200,000 owner-occupied home, but the county will not start collecting the money until the issue is settled.
Byars points to Tuesday’s election results, which mirror the referendum vote. Voters returned to office three incumbent council members — Byars, David Chinnis and George Bailey — each by a nearly 2-to-1 vote over their challengers.
“Those are hefty wins,” Byars said. “It looks like a big community mandate that people want to move forward.”