Project ReNeWal struggling

COVINGTON - Project ReNeWal, a domestic violence intervention program and shelter serving Rockdale, Newton and Walton counties, is fighting its own battle, struggling to survive funding cuts from every direction.

The agency operates on an annual budget of $559,000, but is facing dire times due to governmental funding withdrawals.

According to Director Vickie Stevenson, Newton and Walton counties no longer participate financially in the organization, though residents in both counties are served by the shelter.

Funding from Rockdale County was recently slashed. Project ReNeWal received $129,006 from Rockdale County in 2007 - $60,000 from the county's general fund and $69,006 from the 5 percent fees generated from fines and court fees. Last year, funding dropped to $80,000 with $30,000 coming from the county's general fund. This year, no funding was proposed for Project ReNeWal, although Stevenson appealed Monday to the Rockdale County Board of Commissioners to reconsider that decision.

Rockdale Commissioner JaNice Van Ness said Project ReNeWal's budget was cut last year to help fund the opening of the Conyers-Rockdale Arts Council's Art Gallery in Olde Town Conyers.

Stevenson said state funding to her agency has been cut by 18 percent, and even though an additional $800,000 was allocated last June from the state for battered women's shelters, that funding was withdrawn a month later.

Stevenson said no funding has ever been allocated by Newton County government for the shelter, though state-mandated funds generated by fines and court costs had previously gone to Project ReNeWal. Now that funding has been cut off, as well.

Victims of domestic violence living in Newton County are routinely sent to Project ReNeWal by Covington and Newton County law enforcement agencies, residents, churches, the Newton County Department of Family and Children Services, mental health agencies and hospitals. Stevenson said the Newton County District Attorney's Office no longer refers victims to the shelter.

Stevenson said in 2008, there were 487 crisis calls from Newton County residents handled by her agency; 60 individuals were sheltered, amounting to 706 times a bed was used by a Newton County resident; more than 1,000 calls came from Newton residents who sought information, but never came to the shelter.

Last year, Project ReNeWal received 695 crisis calls from Rockdale County residents; 148 individuals sheltered, amounting to 2,201 times a bed was used by a Rockdale County resident; more than 991 calls from Rockdale residents who sought information, but never came to the shelter.

Van Ness said it is a concern to her that Rockdale appears to be taking a larger load of funding Project ReNeWal for services provided to residents of other counties.

She noted the budget concerns that are facing both counties and encouraged Newton County authorities to reconsider funding Project ReNeWal if they value the services.

"Newton County has the highest number, over 1,000, of people assisted or contacts made for last year which is higher than Rockdale or Walton," she said. "So that's disconcerting that we are footing the whole bill in Rockdale and they are not helping at all."

According to Stevenson there has been contention in Newton and Walton counties over what is known as the "5 percent funds," which is a fee tacked on to any fine received by the courts that is designated to go to certified agencies that provide victims' assistance and are recognized by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. Those certified agencies in Newton County include Project ReNeWal and the Victims Assistance services offered by the D.A.'s Office.

A meeting was held last year between Stevenson and her representatives, and D.A. Ken Wynne and Newton County Attorney Tommy Craig after Project ReNeWal's attorney Derek Bauer filed paperwork asking for the meeting.

Bauer contended Newton and Walton counties were "disbursing the funds to the district attorney to do what he wants."

After the meeting, Stevenson said, "We were told that they felt they were following the law and would reconsider, but we never heard anything back from them."

"There's a misperception that there is some contention between Project ReNeWal and myself," Wynne said. "I don't consider there to be any contention. The Board of Commissioners decides who gets the money and they've elected to fund, and properly so, the Victims Services Program that the D.A.'s Office is required to provide the victims of crime."

Wynne also pointed out, "The District Attorney's Office is mandated by law to provide the services we provide. We serve all crime victims, not just a segment of that community."

Wynne said that the only funds his office could legally use for the purpose of victims' services was the 5 percent funds and a grant known as the Victims of Crime Act grant; however, other agencies can obtain funding through solicitation, fundraising, private donations and grants, including the Victims of Crime Act grant.

He said that should the Newton County Board of Commissioners elect to shift the 5 percent funding to another entity, it would be necessary for the county to come up with the funding from the tax base as victims' services, by law, must be provided.

"Since the county just experienced a $5 million shortfall in the budget, I'm not sure where that money would come from," Wynne said.

Stevenson said she is only asking for a portion of the 5 percent fees.

"The last thing I want to do is sue the county, and I am trying to convince my board not to do that, but I believe it is cheating the community of Newton and Walton county not to participate in our program. I think we're a great asset to the community, and we need their support," she said, adding that individuals, churches and civic organizations from Newton County do support Project ReNeWal. She gave as examples United Way of Newton County and General Mills, which give funding, and smaller entities which supply things like paper products, canned goods and clothing.

"The county still needs us and its citizens are participating in our program," Stevenson said.

Staff Reporter Jay Jones contributed to this article.

Barbara Knowles can be reached at barbara.knowles@newtoncitizen.com