Big growth may have subsided
Census says population up, but housing slump hit hard

COVINGTON - Newton County is still one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, but numbers released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau may not reflect a recent decline in growth, according to local sources.

The Bureau reported that the county was the 10th-fastest-growing in the nation from the April 1, 2000, census to July 1, 2007.

During that time, the county's population increased from 62,001 to 96,019, a growth rate of 54.9 percent, according to the Bureau.

The county's ranking drops to 15th from the period of July 1, 2006, to July 1, 2007, with a growth rate of 5.8 percent, representing a population increase from 90,728 to 96,019.

But those numbers are "ancient history," according to Bob Goucher, president of the Newton County Home Builders Association.

The local housing market tanked in the summer and has yet to recover, Goucher said.

"We're hurting really, really bad," he said.

In 2007, 816 building permits were issued for new residences, compared to 1,569 in 2006 - a 48 percent decrease.

For December, January and February, Goucher said permits are down 15 percent from where they were during the same period a year ago.

Goucher attributes the decline to a number of factors, including the increased cost of housing, subprime lending that resulted in a steep rise in mortgage foreclosures and perhaps a little too much excitement by developers over the growth boom that has been occurring in the county for the past several years.

"People get over-exuberant and put too much on the ground," he said.

Goucher said the county has about a 19-month supply of new homes right now. "People are afraid to buy," he said.

"No doubt about it, Newton County housing is in a depression. We're in really bad shape."

Board of Commissioners Chairman Aaron Varner said a recent decline in growth will affect next year's budget, which goes into effect July 1.

"I think the growth rate has probably slowed significantly in the last 12 months and that's affecting all segments of the economy and also the operating capital at the county," he said.

As a result, the county is facing a "budget flat line" for the upcoming fiscal year, he said, meaning the growth in the tax digest is falling flat.

In the past, the county has seen a 10 to 13 percent increase in the tax digest, but this year, that will likely be around 4.5 percent, Varner said.

"I think the challenge is to fit our operating budget under the revenue coming in with the declining growth rate," he said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 70 of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the country are in the South.

Three Georgia counties made the top 10 list: Forsyth, Paulding and Jackson, ranking 8th, 9th and 10 the respectively.

St. Bernard and Orleans, two Louisiana parishes hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, were the nation's fastest-growing counties, the Bureau reported.

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

SideBar: By the numbers

Newton County:

Population April 1, 2000: 62,001

Population July 1, 2007: 96,019

Growth rate: 54.9 percent

Rank: 10th in nation

Population July 1, 2006: 90,728

Population July 1, 2007: 96,019

Growth Rate: 5.8 percent

Rank: 15th in nation

Number of building permits issued for new residences in Newton County:

2004: 2,225

2005: 1,908

2006: 1,569

2007: 816

Courtesy: Newton County Home Builders Association