DECATUR — Plans for a $7.5 million "sustainability campus" on Decatur's west side are at a standstill as Macon County officials say they are working to determine whether the county can afford to build and operate it.
The campus would include a drive-through recycling, county environmental offices, a compost center, a solar farm and community gardens. Former Macon County Sheriff Howard Buffett donated $1.2 million last year for the 109-acre site, and the county board in October agreed to rezone the land in the 1100 block of North Wyckles Road near Harristown to accommodate it. In January, the proposal was approved by the board's Environmental, Education, Health & Welfare Committee.
But the plan doesn't appear on the agenda for Thursday's county board meeting, and it's unclear when the board might take it up.
Kevin Greenfield, chairman of the county board, said Monday that the entire county is undergoing its annual audit. Once accounting firm May, Cocagne and King finishes the audit, he said, the board will consider next steps with the recycling center proposal.
"You don't go out and buy a new car when you can't make your house payment," Greenfield said. "That's kind of the situation we're in ... once we get our finances in order and get our audit to see where we're at, we'll be able to make an educated judgment."
The campus has come under scrutiny since Republicans took a 12-9 majority on the county board in November. Several members, including Greenfield, have expressed skepticism about the plan and annual operating costs, which are estimated to be in the mid-six figures. The $7.5 million estimated cost to build the facility has grown from an initial estimate of $4.5 million. The additional cost was attributed to steps needed to comply with regulatory requirements, among other factors.
Buffett, a frequent financial supporter of Decatur-area projects whose term as sheriff ended in November, in February offered to pay for a consultant to determine the financial feasibility of the project.
He previously told the Herald & Review that he was not involved with the overall plan for the recycling center, but bought the land to help the county move forward with the project.
It's unclear how long the feasibility study will take. Buffett said the county board can start the study whenever it is ready, according to Greenfield.
"We're not really under the gun," Greenfield said.
The audit comes as the county prepares for a budget shortfall that could be over $1 million in the coming fiscal year. The recycling center project was expected to be considered by the county's finance committee in February, but was tabled as conversations continued on how to manage the cost associated with it.
The lack of progress regarding the recycling center has concerned Decatur resident Reed Sutman, who started an online petition encouraging people to support the proposal. As of Tuesday afternoon, 146 people had signed the petition on Change.org, a petition-hosting website.
"I'm hoping that (the petition) leads (the county board) to move forward," said Sutman, adding that he'd at least like to see the proposal brought to a vote. " ... I understand that the budget is a concern, but hazardous chemicals and trash in our community is a problem, too."
The county currently rents two facilities on North 21st Street for its recycling center, but officials have said space limitations have made operations unsustainable there.
Laurie Rasmus, director of Macon County Environmental Management, said that in the meantime, her department is working to make its current services more accessible to residents despite not having a bigger, permanent facility.
To do so, she said, the frequency of collection events for items like paint and electronics has been increased in recent months.
"Without a permanent facility, it will be difficult for us to offer new services, such as collecting household chemicals or refrigerant-containing items like dehumidifiers and appliances," Rasmus said in an email. "Even so, we are keeping those goals in mind as we work with the resources we have."
Greenfield said the audit is expected to be completed by the middle of April. What comes next, he said, is that the proposal must be brought to the county's finance committee, an audit committee and a building subcommittee before it goes to the county board for a vote.
"It's a long process," Greenfield said. "And it should be with something this big a magnitude."