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Politicos report on county's challenges

COVINGTON - Local county and city leaders gave the good news and bad news at the State of the County Address hosted by the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee at Newton County Library on Wednesday.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan, Covington Mayor Kim Carter, Porterdale Mayor Bobby Hamby and Oxford Mayor Jerry Roseberry all gave updates on the state of their respective jurisdictions.

A common thread running through all their statements was the need for residents to shop locally to boost sales tax revenues.

Morgan said retailers need to see that they will be supported by the community before they will locate here, and buying local is the best way of showing that.

Hamby added that sales tax revenues are down about 20 percent, cutting into revenues the cities depend on.

Here's what else they had to say:

Newton County

Chairman Kathy Morgan said the biggest challenge facing the county is its inverted tax base: 78 percent of the tax base is residential and 22 percent is commercial and industrial.

That means homeowners are bearing the brunt of the tax burden, she said. To change that, the county needs more commercial and retail development.

Retailers look at disposable income, or how much residents are spending at existing businesses, when deciding whether to open a location, so buying local is one way to address the problem, she said.

Other important issues include the purchase of the Norfolk Southern Railroad. Morgan said it is rumored that Norfolk Southern will abandon the line running from Covington through Porterdale on to Newborn and Mansfield, ending in Shadydale.

"That's a controversial topic, but what's not controversial is to preserve that corridor to protect our four municipalities ... Forget about what we do with it. Whether it's a railroad, greenspace, trails or for public transportation, what's more important is that we own it," she said.

Moving forward with the Bear Creek Reservoir project is also vitally important, as it's possible the state could mandate the county give excess water from Cornish Creek to the Atlanta area, she said.

In determining water use through the next few decades, the state recently estimated Newton County's population at 134,000 by 2040, which is contrary to the estimates in studies the county and cities have done putting that number at between 350,000 and 400,000, Morgan said.

"By working together, by collaborating, we were able to respond to the state and say not only are your figures wrong, but we have documentation to prove it," she said.

Morgan also reported that Georgia Perimeter College has partnered with Georgia State University to allow students to get a bachelor's degree in early childhood education. The four-year degree can be earned at the Newton campus for the first time.

"To have that opportunity here means that future is very bright," she said.

Covington

Mayor Kim Carter said Covington has "weathered the financial downturn quite nicely," thanks to prudent financial planning.

She said residents are seeing relief in summertime utility rates, which were the second highest in the state when she took office, and are now at "about the middle of the pack."

One of the most pressing issues facing the city is addressing the poverty level and housing blight through the recently adopted Urban Redevelopment Plan.

Carter said 25 percent of the city's population is at or below poverty level, and she emphasized that retailers will look at those numbers when deciding where to locate.

Another challenge is trying to meet federal and state mandates without more funding.

She said officials will look into privatizing the garbage service to save money, noting that while that may result in an outcry from citizens, "It would be foolish not to look at that."

The city is also focusing on economic development through Covington Municipal Airport.

She said the city may apply for a grant from the OneGeorgia Authority to build a new terminal at the airport, one component of improvements planned there.

City officials are currently considering terminating a contract with the current fixed base operator and potentially forming an authority to run the airport, she said.

Carter said she and Councilman John Howard have visited six other airports run by municipalities or authorities, noting that the FBO method is antiquated.

She said the airport will be a major boon to economic development in the future, noting that having one corporate jet there could raise as much tax revenue as a small subdivision.

Porterdale

Mayor Bobby Hamby said the city is looking into giving residents better access to the Yellow River for kayaking, fishing and other activities.

Residents may access the river via a trail system in the works. Discussions are also under way with Rockdale officials to allow kayakers to enter the river near the Georgia International Horse Park and paddle down to Porterdale.

The biggest challenge his city is facing is "money, or a lack thereof" he said, and maintaining current services with no additional revenue.

Another challenge is the high rental population - about 60 percent of people who live in Porterdale are renters, Hamby said.

"People never get a sense of community and never get invested," he said.

The city has applied for housing grants and is working on other initiatives to reverse that trend, he said.

Plans for a traffic light at the Ga. Highway 81/Crowell Road intersection have been postponed by the DOT due to lack of funding. Hamby said construction is estimated to begin in 2012, but noted that the deadline has been changed several times. Officials first requested a traffic signal in 1995, he said.

"I don't know what the excuse will be in 2012," he said.

He also said fundraising is still under way to rebuild the historic Porterdale gym that burned down several years ago. The hope is to turn the building into a community center. Porterdale was awarded a $200,000 grant from the state toward that end, but has yet to receive the money, he said.

Oxford

A $28 million new dormitory at Oxford College that earned an award for its energy efficiency and $500,000 in stimulus money to repair water lines is the good news Mayor Jerry Roseberry had to report.

In addition, an agreement with the county to provide fire service to the city is working well, he said.

Oxford's biggest challenge is aging infrastructure, he said, noting that some water main lines are 90 years old and will need to be replaced at a cost of $1 million.

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