Fair share demanded by ReNeWal

CONYERS - Two of the three counties served by Project ReNeWal may not be bearing their share of the financial burden, according to an attorney hired by the organization that serves abused women in Rockdale, Newton and Walton counties.

Derek Bauer, an attorney with McKenna, Long & Aldridge in Atlanta, sent a letter Tuesday to members of the Newton County Board of Commissioners and the Walton County Board of Commissioners demanding that the counties disburse what are called "5 percent fees" to Project ReNeWal, claiming that the counties had not been doing so and are, therefore, in violation of state law.

"The legislative intent and statutory mandate of the '5 percent fee' program are clear that where a county or municipality refers to, relies on and is greatly served by a certified program as Newton County (and Walton County) refers to, relies on and is served by Project ReNeWal, the '5 percent fees' collected under (state law) are required to be disbursed directly by you ... to such programs," Bauer's letter states. "This is not occurring in Newton County" nor in Walton County.

According to the Official Code of Georgia Section 15-21-130, an additional 5 percent penalty is to be added to fines imposed by courts that are to be used to fund victim's assistance programs as approved by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Project ReNeWal is the only Criminal Justice Coordinating Council-certified family victim's assistance program serving Walton and Newton counties, Bauer said.

"Our intention was not to file any litigation; we just want to sit and talk," said Vickie Stevenson, executive director of Project ReNeWal. "We need their help, especially after all the homicides Newton County had in the past year, we wanted to make sure we're being of as much service to them as we can be."

Stevenson said that at least nine of the 14 murders reported in Newton County between September 2006 and November 2007 were "direct results of domestic violence."

On Feb. 19, Bauer sent a letter to Newton County Chairman Aaron Varner and Walton County Chairman Kevin Little "inviting" the chairmen and the respective county attorneys to meet informally with Project ReNeWal board members to discuss the counties' "historical noncompliant disbursements" of the 5 percent fees.

Bauer said the law requires that these fees be collected by the Superior Court Clerk's Office and transmitted to the Superior Court Clerks Authority, which then disburses the funds to the county commissions. The county commissioners are then required to distribute those fees to certified agencies that provide victims' services in the county from which the fees originate.

"What (the counties) are doing is disbursing the funds to the district attorney to do what he wants," Bauer said. "The temptation to misuse these funds is very strong."

After receiving no response to his "invitation," Bauer sent the Tuesday demand letter, along with a draft petition for writ of mandamus and complaint for attorney's fees, asking the boards of commissioners to respond by April 11.

A writ of mandamus is an injunction that only applies to public officials to compel a public official to perform his clear legal duty, Bauer said.

Ken Wynne, district attorney for the Alcovy Judicial Circuit, which includes Walton and Newton counties, declined to comment Wednesday due to the potential for litigation.

According to Mia Wilson, finance director for Rockdale County, the 5 percent fees collected in 2007 from fines collected in Superior Court, State, Magistrate, Probate and Juvenile courts amounted to $135,396. Of that, $64,852 was given to Project ReNeWal and $68,054 was provided to the District Attorney's Office to help pay the salaries of two victims' witness advocates. In addition, Wilson said that Rockdale County provided $60,000 in 2007 to the battered women's shelter out of the county's general fund.

Calls to the Walton County finance director were not returned as of press time. The Newton County finance director and executive officer were unable to return calls placed late Wednesday.

Information provided by Bauer's office shows that the Newton County District Attorney's Office paid $5,000 to Project ReNeWal in 2007 and the District Attorney's Office in Walton County paid $25,000 that year.

Stevenson said Project ReNeWal's income for the 2007-08 fiscal year - which runs from July 1 to June 30 - is $487,886. Anticipated expenditures are $555,195, putting them nearly $68,000 over budget.

Today, Project ReNeWal will be hosting a workshop for law enforcement officers in Newton County at the Newton County Sheriff's Office to instruct officers in handling domestic violence cases. Stevenson said officers will be trained on what to ask, what to look for, how to separate a victim from an abuser, how to talk to children and how to determine whether a family pet has been repeatedly harmed.

"These are some of the outreach programs we conduct," Stevenson said. "We just want them to sit down with us and talk to us. We just want a working relationship with the county."

Aimee Jones can be reached at aimee.jones@rockdalecitizen.com.