Chairman responds to Henderson letter

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

COVINGTON -- Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan is denying Commissioner J.C. Henderson's recent claims that the county operates under a double standard on community projects and said that his attempts to cut off federal funding to

the county could have far-reaching consequences.

Henderson recently wrote a letter to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs alleging that the Board of Commissioners is not treating his district fairly by preventing community involvement in running the new Nelson Heights Community Center in District 4.

The center, located on Laseter Street, has been the cause of much debate and confusion over the last several months. Construction of the building was funded through the special purpose local option sales tax. According to some officials, the intent was for it to serve as a public meeting place, similar to the Almon and Mansfield community centers. However, Henderson has promised the community activities such as an afterschool tutorial program. He helped form a 501(c)3 to run the facility without board approval, according to Morgan.

Henderson has claimed that there is a double standard because residents in Fairview Estates, in District 3, are being allowed input into the Neighborhood Stabilization Program that is taking place there, and the community also has input and involvement in running Gaither Plantation, in District 1, through the Friends of Gaither Committee. He said individual commissioners have been allowed to "take the lead" on those projects, but he is not being allowed the same freedom.

Henderson wrote to the DCA asking that all federal funding to the county be stopped until the county can prove it does not have a double standard on such projects.

"We don't have a double standard. We try to treat everybody the same and all situations the same," Morgan said.

"Because we don't have another situation that mirrors what J.C. is proposing for Nelson Heights he is trying to fabricate circumstances that are not there," she said.

Henderson has named himself a member of the 501(c)3 board established for Nelson Heights. Morgan said none of the county's community centers or 501(c)3 organizations have a commissioner sitting on their boards.

"It may not be illegal, but it certainly is unethical for a voting commissioner to appropriate monies to a board he sits on himself," she said.

Both the Almon and Mansfield community centers have volunteer boards that raise money, mainly through rental fees, for the buildings' maintenance and upkeep, which is done with board approval, she said.

The comparison to Gaither Plantation is apples and oranges, because it is a county-owned facility with a volunteer board that raises money, plants the garden and completes other work at the plantation and makes recommendations to the Board of Commissioners, she said. All leasing of the facility is done through the county commission office.

What Henderson is asking for, Morgan said, is for the 501(c)3 to be allowed to make its own rules and regulations and decide how to operate the facility, while making the county responsible for funding it.

Henderson previously voted, along with the rest of the board, to allow the Recreation Commission to run the facility, but he later tried unsuccessfully to rescind that vote after the Recreation Commission raised concerns that there would be interference from Henderson and members of the 501(c)3 board. Recently, he requested that the 501(c)3 board and the Recreation Commission jointly run the facility, which Morgan said is a duplication of services and not the most efficient way to spend taxpayer dollars.

In his letter to DCA, Henderson alleges that the county is funding the formation of a homeowner's association in Fairview Estates as well as amenities such as a clubhouse and pool that will be maintained by the Recreation Commission. He also said the people of Fairview Estates need clarification on what the NSP money will fund and how much the residents of Newton County will have to pay for the promises that have been made to the community.

However, Commissioner Nancy Schulz, who represents Fairview Estates, said that IECDG, the nonprofit that is administering the NSP for the county, is helping the residents form their homeowner's association. The residents will be responsible for paying for any amenities, and the Recreation Commission's only involvement will be with the public park, she said.

Morgan said she believes Henderson is trying to derail the NSP program.

"We have one individual who is not happy with the results the majority of the board voted for, so he's trying to derail the program," she said.

Henderson's request that all federal funding be stopped won't just affect the NSP program. It could also affect funding for the cities, the school system, the Sheriff's Office, transportation projects, senior services, the health departments, the library and more.

"All of that funding is tied to the integrity and the credit of the Board of Commissioners," Morgan said, adding that the county receives between $25 and $50 million in federal funding annually. Without federal and state money, residents' taxes would have to be doubled to pay for services, she said.

Even if Henderson is not successful in stopping the flow of federal funding currently coming into the county, his letter could jeopardize future funding, especially if DCA perceives there is dysfunction on the board, she said.

Henderson maintains that he's just trying to get an even playing field for all residents.

"It's not (playing) hardball. It's fair," he said.

He said he has requested from the DCA and the county administration the numbers of all agencies that provide federal funding to the county, but has not received replies.

DCA is requiring that the county submit a written response to Henderson's letter within 30 days. Morgan said Senior Planner Scott Sirotkin and Jenny Carter with the County Attorney's Office are in the process of preparing a response.