Nelson Heights Center creates confusion

COVINGTON - A certificate of occupancy will soon be issued for the new Nelson Heights Community Center on Laseter Street, but commissioners say they need more information about who will run the center and what will take place there.

District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson, who has spearheaded the project, sought approval from commissioners Tuesday night for expenditures totaling $55,240 - money that he said had already been appropriated in the fiscal year 2009 budget.

The expenditures included $37,000 for a director's salary and benefits, $6,240 for a part-time employee's salary, $7,000 for utilities, $2,000 for food and snacks, and $2,500 for a petty cash fund.

Henderson said a 501(c)(3), or nonprofit organization, has been formed to manage the center and that a director has already been hired.

However, Chairman Kathy Morgan said she has no record of a management agreement, lease agreement or discussion by the board as to how the center should be used.

Morgan said commissioners who served when the project was approved as part of the 2005 SPLOST indicated to her the building was to be used as a community meeting place, similar to the Almon and Mansfield community centers, with any additional uses to be discussed at a later time.

District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing, who was on the board at the time, agreed. Ewing said his understanding was that the building would be rented out with the intent that it would be self-sufficient.

"As it has evolved, from my perspective, it has become a great deal more complicated in that we're talking about county employees, programs and activities," he said.

Henderson has said he envisions a computer laboratory, an after-school tutorial program and ballfields at the site.

He also said he wants the director of the center to be a county employee, but Morgan said she has concerns about hiring an additional employee during a hiring freeze and also noted that there could be legal ramifications to the county hiring someone to head up a non-profit organization.

If a 501(c)(3) has been formed, the board of directors should come before the board with a business plan, Morgan said.

"I don't think it's unreasonable as a Board of Commissioners to ask to how this is going to operate, how it will be managed ... before we turn the keys over," Morgan said.

Ewing suggested the board hold a work session with members of the community center board within 40 days. He asked that county staff research records to determine the original intent of the project and the amount of funds that has been earmarked for it so far.

At least $500,000 in SPLOST funds were allocated to the project, and some additional monies have been allocated from the general fund.

Ewing said Wednesday that he learned of the 501(c)(3) formation for the first time Tuesday night.

"If, in fact, a 501(c)(3) has been formed, and I take Commissioner Henderson's word that it has, whoever is on that board needs to come up with a plan, and if they want county funds they need to come before us and we can look at that in the next budget," Ewing said.

Henderson said that the county attorney's office would not have assisted in forming the 501(c)(3) without approval from the Board of Commissioners. He said the project has been in discussion for five or six years and that it's time to move forward.

District 2 Commissioner Earnest Simmons agreed, adding that it's time to let the center's board of directors "do its job."

But Morgan said allowing an organization to say, "Give me the money and I'll come back to you with a plan," isn't a good idea.

"I don't think any of us want to conduct county business like that. I certainly don't," she said.

Commissioners agreed to table the issue and hold a work session to obtain more information.

Later, Henderson requested a similar work session regarding the rehabilitation of Brick Store. The work is being undertaken by the Newton County Historical Society at no cost to the county, with assistance from the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center.

The county is acting as a fiscal agent for a grant received by the Historical Society, which owns the property. A county employee is acting as a liaison between the involved parties.

Commissioner Tim Fleming said that while he would participate in a work session, he noted that the two projects can't be compared, since there is no county property or funding involved in the Brick Store project, and no county employees required to staff it. There are plans for Brick Store to be converted into a stagecoach museum, which would be staffed by volunteers.

He asked that if a work session is scheduled, it be put off until the county can deal with more pressing matters first.

"It's pretty cut and dry," Fleming said of the request to approve the Historical Society's selection of an architect for the project.

"It seems like some projects are pretty cut and dry and other projects we discuss for five or six years and then they go back and change on you," Henderson responded.

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