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Utilities the focus of Covington town hall meeting

COVINGTON - Utility rates were the topic on most folks' minds at the town hall meeting hosted Thursday afternoon by the city of Covington at the Turner Lake Complex. Specifically, people wanted to know how and when rates would be lowered.

One resident asked what had happened to campaign promises by the mayor and council to lower rates.

"We didn't make any promises," Mayor Kim Carter said. "We're certainly aware of the situation. I also want to cry when I open my bill, too. It's as bad as everybody else's."

City officials said they are looking at ways to get additional power in order to stabilize costs.

The city is falling short by 25 to 30 percent of power needed to meet demand and so far has been unsuccessful in attempts to find a provider for extra power, Carter said.

As a result, the city is forced to buy power on the market for a higher cost.

Expenses are passed on to the customer through the power cost adjustment rate, or PCA, a charge used to collect variations in the wholesale power cost that exceeds the amount allocated in established rates.

With the volatility of the market, there can be big swings in the PCA. The first step is to try to stabilize the rate, which can be accomplished by purchasing power through a provider, said City Manager Steve Horton.

Horton said negotiations to purchase additional power from the cities of Marietta and Moultrie are ongoing, though he added officials are not happy with Marietta's initial price.

The increase in fuel costs, which impact the cost to operate petroleum and natural gas used to fire electricity turbines, has also had an impact on rates.

The recent decline in fuel costs should result in customers seeing a reduction of 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour on their September electric bills, provided suppliers don't increase prices in reaction to recent hurricanes, Horton said.

The city's utility rates in the summer are among the highest of the 92 cities with comparable systems, Horton said, but it falls in the 50th percentile or lower during the rest of the year.

"That's why we want additional power to level that out," he said.

The following topics were also discussed:

Elimination of property taxes for seniors

One resident asked if the city would support elimination of property taxes for seniors aged 70 and older.

"No," said Carter. "With all due respect to our seniors, we all have to share the load."

Carter pointed out that education taxes makes up the majority of tax bills. The city collects just $5 million in property taxes per year, with about $900,000 coming from residents and the rest from the commercial and corporate worlds. Utility payments help pick up the shortfall.

She said relief for seniors would mean even less money for government operations.

Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams agreed.

"If we eliminate taxes it would be a real liability for our community," Williams said.

Economic development

The city is currently participating in a joint economic development study with Newton County that is expected to be completed by October, Carter said.

"Unlike some studies, we're not going to put it in a fancy binder and put it up on a shelf," she said, adding that the study will include an actionable strategy for economic development.

While the city works with developers and the Chamber of Commerce on economic development, the bottom line is the disposable income of city residents is not enough to draw retailers and restaurants, Carter said, adding that one in four citizens is at poverty level.

Retailers and restaurants won't come in until they have proof there is an income level to support their services, she said.

The trick is to get more high-paying jobs that will raise the income level and in turn draw more commercial development, she said.

Sidewalks

In the past, the city has split the cost of sidewalks with property owners, but a new system is in the works whereby neighborhoods will be picked at random to get new or improved sidewalks at the city's expense, said Horton.

Cooperation from all property owners will still be needed, as the city will need to acquire right-of-way for installation, Public Works Director Billy Bouchillon said.

Deteriorating sidewalks will still get priority when it comes to repairs, said Horton.

Parking for hotel/civic center/conference center

While the parking strategy for the hotel/civic center/conference center to be located adjacent to the Newton County Administration Building has not been fully determined, Main Street Covington Director Josephine Kelly said there are a total of 1,800 public and private parking spaces downtown, including 500 in the central business district.

The city has also acquired the AT&T parking lot for additional parking through a property swap. AT&T will park its vehicles on city property behind Mamie's Kitchen off Industrial Boulevard. Additional parking will likely be located near the railroad, and the parking authority is considering construction of a second parking deck downtown as well, Carter said.

Public safety response times

Fire Chief Don Floyd said his department has set a goal to answer calls within six minutes 90 percent of the time. The goal was met for two or three years, but last year's average time increased to 7.3 minutes, he said.

Floyd attributed that increase to more traffic.

He said an additional station is needed on Ga. highways 36 and 142 within the next two to three years.

Police Chief Stacey Cotton said officers typically respond to calls within two minutes, though the response time has increased to three or four minutes in some instances.

The main problem isn't traffic, but an increase in the number of calls, he said.

Big calls such as a recent armed robbery can tie up the majority of his staff, leaving little time to take reports or respond to less serious incidents, such as keys locked in a vehicle.

Turner Lake Roundabout

The project is expected to be put out to bid in early November and will take between 120 and 180 days to complete.

The city's three top priorities

The economic development strategy, improving service delivery to customers and improving information technologies and human resources are the council's top three goals, Carter said.

The city will soon update its Web site, making it more interactive to allow customers to pay bills online, report complaints and obtain police accident reports, Horton said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.