Morgan looks to lobbyist for help

COVINGTON - Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan is considering hiring a lobbyist to try to secure more transportation funding for the county.

Morgan said there is money in the public works budget under the "professional services" category that she may use to fund the position.

"I'm investigating the facts to see what will be beneficial for Newton County and if the cost versus the return on the investment is beneficial to Newton County," she said, adding that she would like to meet with the newly appointed Department of Transportation commissioner and director of planning before making a decision.

"We need to see what the new program looks like before we make any harsh decisions or do any plans or projections for something like that," she said, adding that a presentation would also need to be made before the Board of Commissioners.

Morgan said other counties have lobbyists, including neighboring Rockdale County.

"I think there is a need for us to make that connection to make sure we get the full amount of tax dollars and DOT dollars that are due and earned by Newton County," Morgan said. "We've gotten minimal dollar amounts compared to neighboring counties in the last few years."

Newton County has $800 million in road projects that need to be done, and the county should be maintaining and repairing 10 percent - or 69 miles - of existing roads each year, Morgan said.

But this year, only 20 miles of maintenance work has been budgeted. Local funds could be subsidized with more state and federal funding, she said.

"Sometimes at the state Legislature, it's better if you have someone on the inside circle working on your behalf," she said.

Morgan's comments were left via voice mail on a reporter's answering machine late Friday afternoon. Morgan is away from the office this week and was not available to answer follow-up questions.

Initially, the lobbyist position was included in the fiscal year 2010 budget under governmental affairs/DOT advisors, at a cost of $100,000.

Commissioner Tim Fleming said the position was cut from the budget because a majority of commissioners were opposed to it.

"We felt like the position was unneeded at this time," Fleming said.

Commissioner Mort Ewing said the position has not been discussed by commissioners since an April budget work session.

"I assumed that was totally off the table," Ewing said, adding that the board agreed to strike all special projects and earmarks from the budget due to a shortfall in funds. Ewing said he would need to learn more about the proposal before commenting further.

With the county having recently laid off 16 employees, Fleming said he is opposed to hiring a lobbyist, adding that the local delegation of state legislators can speak on the county's behalf at the state level.

"I cannot look those 16 employees in the face and say 'We just let you go, but we're going to hire a lobbyist, somebody for $100,000 to do three or four months of work.' It's irresponsible," Fleming said.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz said she was not aware of how Morgan, who oversees the public works budget, planned to use the available funds.

"She would have that in her authority under the public works budget if that's what she feels is necessary. Look at the other counties around - many are getting money for transportation needs and we are not. Especially with the new DOT setup, we need to use every opportunity to make sure that we are front and center with the state," Schulz said.

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