The Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors has rejected a $1.27 million federal grant for sidewalks in the historic courthouse area.

The debate turned into a criticism of federal spending among some of the board's conservative members. Supervisor Timothy McLaughlin said "nothing burns me up more" in his job with the U.S. Navy than when he's told to spend money just so he won't lose it at the end of a fiscal year.

"Just because the money's there doesn't mean you have to spend it," he said of the federal grant. "This to me is the sidewalk to nowhere."

The grant was for about half a mile of sidewalks and other improvements, with much of the cost being to relocate public utilities. The sidewalks would have connected the Circuit Court Judicial Center to the Confederate Cemetery and the Holbert Building to Courthouse Village.

The county had allocated about $317,000 in local money--$70,000 of which must be spent on tourism efforts.

Spotsylvania will owe some of that money to a consultant--approved by supervisors in July--that started surveying the property last week. Becky Golden, director of capital projects management, said she thinks it will be less than $20,000.

Supervisor Benjamin Pitts, who supported the grant, asked County Administrator Doug Barnes to find out how much taxpayers have spent on the abandoned project.

"If they didn't want to move the project forward, they should've stopped it on July 10," Pitts said, referring to the date supervisors approved a contract with a consultant.

He said he thinks county staff has spent a "considerable amount of time" on the project.

McLaughlin and Supervisors Ann Heidig, Emmitt Marshall, David Ross and Paul Trampe voted not to accept the federal money at a meeting Tuesday. Supervisors Pitts and Gary Skinner voted to accept it.

"This is good for tourism and it keeps Spotsylvania a class act, which we've always tried to be," Skinner said of the improvements.

The work--initially approved by supervisors in 2010 and 2011--would have been the second and third phases of the Spotsylvania Courthouse Streetscape Project. It would've provided pedestrian access to county offices, courts, a fire station, the historical jail, the Spotsylvania Museum, the Confederate Cemetery, Robert E. Lee Elementary School and Courthouse Village.

The county spent $350,000 in federal money and $88,000 in local funds for the first phase, which was completed in 2007 and included sidewalks, crosswalks and lights in the historic courthouse area. "Now you have a project that's halfway done," Pitts said. "Spotsylvania is beginning to get a habit of starting programs and not finishing them."

Ross said he's not against accepting federal grants, but said the sidewalk work isn't the best use of the money.

"If everybody starts using the money as if it's their own, that's one of the solutions to the situation we're in at the national level," he said.

McLaughlin said the local money reserved for the project would be better spent on public safety and education.

"I don't think now is the time, with our economy and all that, to be spending $1.5 million in taxpayer money on a sidewalk that I don't think will be used all that often," McLaughlin said.

But Skinner said the sidewalks will enhance safety and tourism. The county is known for its Civil War history, he noted.

He and Pitts said the board's action won't stop the federal dollars from being spent.

"Somebody's going to get the money," Pitts said. "It just won't be Spotsylvania now."

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402


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