City votes against railroad purchase

COVINGTON -- The city of Covington will not be involved in the purchase of the Norfolk Southern rail line, the council voted Monday night in a surprise 5-1 outcome.

The controversial item was not on the agenda for discussion but was added at the beginning of the meeting as an amendment at the request of Councilman Keith Dalton.

Dalton made a motion that the council end all discussion of purchasing the railroad and possibly converting it into a trail.

"I don't want to pursue it with the current economic conditions," Dalton said. "I'd like for us to back off and not be in the railroad purchasing business."

"Even before we have our informational meeting?" responded Mayor Kim Carter, referring to an April 29 work session the council had scheduled to learn more about the project. "I would ask you all to keep an open mind to learn the facts. We had said at our retreat we wanted to have this (meeting). It's kind of closed-minded."

Carter asked to have the motion repeated before calling for a vote.

"I would caution this council to have an open mind to hear the facts and at least have them presented to us. It's hard to make a good decision when you don't have the facts," she said.

The vote was 5-1 to not pursue the purchase, with Councilwoman Janet Goodman the only one opposed.

"You guys have got to be kidding me. I am stunned. You don't even want to get the facts?" Carter said.

"It's done. We're done with it," responded Councilman Chris Smith.

Carter said she still wanted to hold the informational meeting.

"I'm not interested in that," Dalton said.

"I'm interested in that. A lot of folks in the county are interested in hearing that and there are a lot of concerned citizens interested in that," Carter said, adding that the meeting will remain scheduled for 5:30 p.m. April 29 at City Hall.

After Monday's meeting, Dalton and Councilwomen Ocie Franklin and Hawnethia Williams said they see no point in holding the informational session since the council has already made its decision.

"She's the mayor and she has a right to call the meeting, and I have the right to stay home," Franklin said.

All three said the bad economy influenced their decision.

"In these hard economic times, I couldn't in all good conscience rationalize it to my constituents," Williams said.

"Now is not the right time," Franklin added.

Dalton said fewer than one out of every 10 people he talks to are in favor of purchasing the railroad.

"I don't see taking taxpayer dollars to do that now. If we were in different economic times, I might think differently," he said.

County and city officials have been discussing the purchase of the railroad for a possible trail or public transit system. The rail line runs 14.9 miles through Covington to Starrsville and on to Newborn. The purchase price offered to the county is $1.8 million, but Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan has said that could be negotiated. The county has a federal grant of $1.06 million to apply toward the purchase. The city's potential financial participation was never publicly stated.

"I am sure that whatever the City Council does, the Board of Commissioners will take into consideration, but our consideration of preserving that corridor has never revolved around the city of Covington and their intent and plans," Morgan said. "We weigh everything by its impact on the county in total, we don't separate into municipalities or individual property owners. We look at projects based on their benefit and liabilities as a whole."

Morgan said the budget is taking top priority at this time, as commissioners are grappling with how to balance this year's budget in the face of a $5.2 million shortfall, and with requests for next year's budget coming in at $8 million more than projected revenues.

"I'm disappointed with the city's decision personally, but the railroad is not even on my radar as chairman at this time," she said.