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Center may change its management
Rec. Commission may take over Nelson Heights

COVINGTON - The Newton County Recreation Commission could take over management of the new Nelson Heights Community Center.

Commissioners agreed Tuesday night to have the Recreation Commission board decide if it can take on the project and identify funding sources for maintenance and operations of the facility.

The decision comes after several weeks of disagreement between board members over how the building should be used.

Commissioner J.C. Henderson, who represents District 4, where the center is located, has said he intended for the facility to be similar to Washington Street Community Center, with programs and sports activities for children, a computer lab for community use and a paid staff. Henderson said a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization was formed in December to run the center.

Henderson has requested the board approve payment of expenditures for the center totaling $55,240 - money that he said had already been appropriated in the fiscal year 2009 budget.

The expenditures include $37,000 for a director's salary and benefits, $6,240 for a part-time employee's salary, $7,000 for utilities, $2,000 for food and snacks, and $2,500 for a petty cash fund.

But Chairman Kathy Morgan said there is no record of commissioners ever approving the use of the building or formation of the 501(c)3. The board tabled the request in August and has yet to take further action.

At a work session prior to Tuesday night's meeting, Henderson said he has held public meetings regarding the center that were posted at the courthouse.

"I've always intended for there to be no secrets from the board," Henderson said.

He added that the project has been in the works for four years and said commissioners should have raised their concerns earlier.

"All these four years, I've never heard a complaint until this year, and it saddens me," he said.

But Commissioner Mort Ewing said the board agreed only to buy the land for the center and construct the building through special purpose local option sales tax revenues, and that's how it was presented to voters on the SPLOST ballot.

Ewing said though the board has had many discussions about the project, it never authorized the formation of a 501(c)3 or the changing of the center's name. Since it was approved by voters as the District 4 Community Center the name of the center has apparently changed twice - to Laseter Street Community Center and then to Nelson Heights Community Center.

"I feel the Board of Commissioners has fulfilled its obligation to the voters and taxpayers of Newton County by approving the purchase of the land and construction of the building," Ewing said, adding that he believes the building should be rented out for a fee to pay for maintenance and operations, just like the centers in the Mansfield and Almon communities.

While some have argued that black residents in the Nelson Heights area may not be able to afford to pay a rental fee, Ewing said that blacks account for more than half of rentals at Mansfield and more than 75 percent at Almon.

Morgan said the board has three options: To rent out the facility through the commissioner's office; turn it over to the Recreation Commission; or turn it over to the 501(c)3.

Henderson made a motion to let the Recreation Commission board decide if it can run the center, which was unanimously approved by commissioners.

"I serve at your pleasure ... if you so commission us to do that, we will run that facility just like we run Turner Lake and any other facility you've got," Recreation Commission Director Tommy Hailey told the board.

Hailey said the matter will be discussed at the Recreation Commission's Sept. 28 meeting and he will report back to the BOC.

Based on letters distributed to commissioners, it appears there has been confusion over the center's intended use from the beginning.

In January 2006, Melvin O. Baker, chairman of the board of Washington Street Community Center, sent Henderson a letter critiquing his actions regarding the proposed center.

Baker stated that Henderson met with the Washington Street board in 2004 and stated that they would manage the center and he would help them to obtain the land and funding through SPLOST and grants.

Baker said the board agreed and immediately began seeking grants and encouraging voters to support the referendum. A community meeting was held and fliers were distributed to residents stating the community center would by managed by Washington Street, according to Baker.

However, following passage of SPLOST, Baker said Henderson returned to Washington Street with members of the Nelson Heights community asking for a role in management of the center.

"On that same day I specifically asked you what the initial proposal said and what did our fliers ask the voters to support and you appeared to be evasive," the letter states.

"I feel that you are misleading the people in the Nelson Heights community and will cause a divisive spirit in the Afro-American community by straying away from the original proposal that you brought to our board," Baker said.

Baker goes on to encourage Henderson not to dilute county revenues by duplicating services and to continue to support Washington Street.

In February 2006, Henderson responded by saying that no grant money had been designated for the project and that a committee would be formed consisting of Nelson Heights residents and others to determine the management. He invited Washington Street representatives to be on the committee.

"It is the entire board of commissioners who will be the final say on the operation of the building," Henderson said, and apologized for any misunderstanding.

Henderson said Tuesday that he does not remember writing the letter.

In related news, the County Attorney's Office has withdrawn an invoice for $6,572.50 for work related to the formation of the 501(c)3.

Morgan recently made an administrative decision not to pay the invoice, because the work was not approved by the board and was apparently done at Henderson's request.

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