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Newborn council wavering on fire contract

COVINGTON - The Newborn Town Council remains undecided on whether it will pull funding of Fire Station No. 6, according to Mayor J.W. Cummings.

The town has yet to pay the approximately $28,000 in insurance premium taxes owed to the county for maintenance and operation of the station, Cummings said.

The matter was not on the agenda for discussion at the council's regular Monday night meeting, but it was brought up by concerned citizens during the public comment portion of the meeting.

"We told them at the meeting (Monday) night it was tabled until we figure it out," Cummings said. "When the county taxes us twice, that's double-dipping."

Though the council approved a contract with Newton County and the city of Mansfield committing its annual insurance premium tax to maintenance and operations of the fire station, some council members would now prefer to use that money for other purposes, Councilwoman Wanda Cummings told the Citizen in February.

Wanda Cummings said the council was considering purchasing a garbage truck to pick up fallen limbs or a bucket truck to do in-house tree maintenance.

The council approved the purchase of a $28,000 dump truck Monday night, but Mayor Cummings said it will be paid for through the street and water department funds, not from the insurance premium tax.

The tax is past due, "but the county has never said a word," he said.

Meanwhile, the city of Mansfield has paid $25,000 in insurance premium taxes toward the fire station, as previously agreed, said Mayor William Cocchi.

The full-time, paid station located on Ga. Highway 213 opened last year.

A contract approved by all three governments states that the county owns the land and structure and is charged with staffing and operating the station, while Newborn and Mansfield are obligated to pay two-thirds of operating costs of the station through proceeds from fire district taxes and insurance premium taxes.

The fire district taxes come from a separate millage levied by the county to the Newborn and Mansfield fire districts. Those taxes, collected by the county annually, were previously used to fund volunteer fire services in the district but are now earmarked to fund station operations.

About $9,000 is collected annually from Newborn in fire district taxes, according to John Middleton, the county's executive officer.

Insurance premium taxes are collected by the state on insurance premiums sold within a district, a percentage of which is disbursed to local governments.

According to the Georgia Department of Revenue, the insurance premium tax may be used for fire protection; curb-site or on-site residential or commercial garbage and solid waste collection; curbs, sidewalks and streetlights; police protection, except protection provided by the county sheriff; and other services provided by the governing authority for the benefit of residents.

Wanda Cummings told the Citizen in February that the Newborn council didn't realize it also would be turning over the insurance premium tax until the last minute.

"When it came down to the final signing, Newton County commissioners demanded we also give the insurance premium tax, which does not cover fire, it covers all insurance premiums within the city. Because of citizens thinking they would not be covered by fire protection, the council went ahead under duress and agreed to that," she said.

Because "the insurance premium wasn't mentioned until the last minute," Mayor Cummings said, he insisted that a clause be included allowing the involved parties to terminate the agreement with 90 days notice.

However, District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing, who negotiated the agreement with Mansfield and Newborn, said both the Mansfield and Newborn councils had the chance to review a draft contract and make revisions before approving the final document.

He said discussion began with both mayors in early 2005 and the project took nearly two years to negotiate and plan.

"The agreement was signed and worked out over a long period of time. The cost to each city was discussed from the beginning so nothing was ever hidden," Ewing said.

On Tuesday, Ewing said he had yet to be contacted by any member of the Newborn Town Council.

Cocchi also said he had not heard from any council members and did not know of any plans to pull out of the contract.

"That's Newborn's decision. That doesn't affect us in any way," he said.

Cummings said the county was planning to build a fire station in that area with or without Newborn's participation and the town is entitled to fire protection since the service is covered in the fire district tax.

"The sheriff's department doesn't stop at city limits and we don't pay them," he said.

"This town for once is making a reasonable profit. We've put in a water system, and we're buying and selling water, and we're making a moderate profit," Cummings said, referring to a recent upgrade to the town's water system. "Prior to this, we lost a lot of gallons and we paid the county for the loss of water we didn't get to collect on."

Newborn citizen Martha Ellwanger said she and others are concerned that if the town pulls the promised insurance premium tax funds, the county will increase the fire district tax.

She said citizens have asked the council to hold a public meeting to discuss the issue but, so far, have not received a response.

"You can't please everybody," Cummings said, adding that citizens often don't realize how hard the council is working on their behalf.

"It sure would be nice to come to City Hall and compliment the council on what they've done rather than come and fuss," he added.

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