Parking change denied

COVINGTON - County commissioners balked Tuesday night at paying an additional $38,000 for secure parking at the Newton County Judicial Center.

In December, commissioners awarded a contract for $228,972.10 to Sunbelt Builders to construct a secure 20-space parking area and separate entrance for judges and other staff at the Judicial Center. The original plans also called for walkways and lighting for the public to better access the center from the current parking lot.

However, County Engineer Kevin Walter said he had recently been alerted by judges that security staff at the jail had concerns about the design.

Based on suggestions made by security staff, Walter had initially recommended the board approve a change order for the project for $78,158.30, bringing the total cost to $307,130.40.

Recommended changes included the addition of two movable security cameras to allow full view of the current parking lot, the full length of Hunter Avenue and the main building entrances; inclusion of a landscaped, fenced-in area for the public to congregate and replacement of high trees and shrubs with an open patio to provide a full view for security; and moving handicap parking away from the main entrance. According to Walter, security was concerned a driver could lose control of a vehicle and drive through the building.

However, with the county facing a more than $5 million budget shortfall this year, and following the recent implementation of a spending and hiring freeze by commissioners, Walter said some improvements could be delayed. He recommended moving the handicap parking spaces and installing the security cameras, but delaying construction of the patio, which would bring the additional cost down to $38,158.

District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz pointed out that even with the reduction, the project cost would increase by 17 percent.

District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing added that it is unusual for a change order to be requested by the county - they are typically requested by contractors.

Ewing said the project has been under discussion for three years and these additional measures were never mentioned.

"My concern is, we worked extremely hard to fund that $228,000 out of the general fund to ensure that were doing exactly what we were asked to do by the judges and the sheriff's department," Ewing said. "It's only been 60 days, and we're already being asked to come up with additional money out of the general fund."

District 5 Commissioner Tim Fleming asked if the entire project could be delayed until after the budget cycle.

But Jenny Carter with the County Attorney's Office said a notice to proceed had already been issued to the contractor, who has 200 days to complete the work.

Fleming then asked if the changes could be delayed until after the budget is finalized.

"It would not be as correct as it should be. It would be a bad investment and I would recommend not to build it at all," Walter responded, adding that it would require more work and money later on.

Chairman Kathy Morgan asked the board to remember the public safety aspect of the project.

She said as many as 70 jurors are in the courthouse every day and often have to walk to their cars late at night.

She said the security cameras could be a cost-savings to the county, versus having to pay deputies to work overtime and walk jurors to their cars.

District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson made the motion to approve the changes, at a cost of $38,158, which was seconded by District 2 Commissioner Earnest Simmons.

The motion failed by a vote of 2 to 3, with Schulz, Ewing and Fleming opposed.

During residents' comments at the end of the meeting, Capt. Doug Kitchens with the Newton County Sheriff's Office told commissioners the head of security at the Judicial Center and the Sheriff's Office were not aware of the design plan until mid-January, after the board had already approved the contract. He said they requested the changes as soon as they learned of the plan.

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