COVINGTON -- The year 2009 was a historic one for politics in Newton County, as the first female Board of Commissioners chair, Kathy Morgan, and the first black sheriff, Ezell Brown, took office. It was also a year that marked a shift in power on the Board of Commissioners, with Democrats holding a majority of the seats when District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz took office in January.
Schulz, along with the other newly elected commissioner, Tim Fleming, found themselves welcomed into office with one of the worst financial crises in county history.
A $5 million budget shortfall had commissioners and all county department heads struggling to cut costs. Ultimately, they did so by laying off 16.5 employees -- some part-time -- requiring remaining employees to take 16 unpaid holidays, eliminating overtime pay on holidays and making cuts to department budgets in various areas.
After passing a $48.4 million budget in June, commissioners were notified in August that the county would suffer an additional $929,000 shortfall in property tax revenues due to a computer error resulting in miscalculation of revenues. Proposals to make up the shortfall never came to a formal vote, with commissioners instead opting to get regular updates on the state of county finances.
The county received $1.7 million in federal stimulus money to purchase, rehabilitate and resell foreclosed properties through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Officials targeted Fairview Estates on the west side, where they intended to use all the money to buy homes and create a public park. The neighborhood and surrounding residents remain divided over the park.
Publicity about the project and an improving housing market resulted in most of the foreclosed properties being snapped up by investors, prompting the county to seek an expansion of the NSP program to include most of southern and western Newton County.
The long-planned community center for Nelson Heights was completed in 2009, but it's still sitting empty as commissioners wrangle over how it will be used and who will manage it. Commissioner J.C. Henderson helped form a 501(c)3 to run the center without board approval. The board unanimously agreed to let the Recreation Commission determine if it could manage the center, then Henderson unsuccessfully tried to rescind his vote after the Rec Commission raised concerns about outside interference from him and the 501(c)3 board. Henderson then wrote a letter to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs alleging that the county has a double standard when it comes to community projects and requesting that all federal funding be pulled from Newton County until officials could prove otherwise. The county wrote a response to Henderson's letter denying those allegations.
Ground broke on the new Porter Memorial Branch Library in November. The library will be located on Ga. Highway 212 between Oak Hill Elementary School and Oak Hill Fire Station. At 18,000 square feet, it will be slightly more than half the size of the Covington branch. It is expected to open in January 2011.