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Year in Review: Government -- 2010 saw triumphs, tribulations for locals

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

COVINGTON -- Local governments experienced plenty of controversy and saw projects long in the works completed in 2010.

Newton County faced a more than $5 million revenue shortfall, resulting in more than 40 employees being laid off, and Chairman Kathy Morgan reported employee morale was low.

Later in the year, commissioners sparred over the list of projects to be funded through SPLOST 2011, if it is passed by voters during a March 15 referendum. All officials agree SPLOST is needed more than ever to avoid property tax increases in the lagging economy, but some said the list contains pet projects that will benefit only certain districts.

But the county also had some triumphs, including the reversal of public opinion on its Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which was at first opposed by residents in the targeted neighborhood, Fairview Estates, but ultimately won their favor. Construction of a public park there is currently under way.

Also, Denny Dobbs Park opened in the western part of the county and families have turned out in droves to make use of the new recreation area.

Finally, following a bitter battle over who would be in charge of operations of Nelson Heights Community Center that began in 2009 and trickled into early 2010, the center opened under management of Washington Street Community Center and the Newton County Recreation Commission.

The city of Covington didn't experience the financial distress faced by the county, but still cut expenses by leaving positions unfilled, offering early retirement to employees and slashing capital improvement projects in its budget.

The city also made giant strides toward improving housing through various initiatives, including the Neighborhood Stabilization Program in Walker's Bend. Covington was the first community in the state to complete its NSP.

The controversial roundabout at the intersection of Turner Lake Road and Clark Street opened in November, and public criticism seems to have died down, along with traffic congestion.

Early in the year, city officials canceled a planned retreat to a resort in the north Georgia mountains following media scrutiny and public outcry. The council itself was divided on the issue, with some saying it wasn't appropriate to spend taxpayers money to travel out of town when constituents are struggling to pay bills.

The council also agreed not to pursue purchase of the Norfolk Southern rail line, taking heat from Mayor Kim Carter for that decision. The issue divided elected officials and residents in 2010. Proponents say a trail in place of the rail line will provide needed recreation and a travel mode for pedestrians and cyclists and draw tourists and their tax dollars. Opponents say it will also draw a criminal element, maintenance will be a drain on county finances, and it will disturb the privacy of nearby residents. A citizens' opposition group sprung up in recent months and placed signs stating "No Rails to Trails" throughout the county.

Meanwhile, the town of Newborn and cities of Porterdale, Oxford, Mansfield and the Newton County Trails-Path Foundation Inc. have partnered to pursue the purchase of the rail line.

The county has a federal grant of more than $1 million to apply toward the purchase. A small portion of the funds must be obligated by 2012 and the remaining by 2013.

Rockdale County was already working on tightening its spending when the local government was shook with a budget crisis in May when County Commission Chairman Richard Oden announced an anticipated shortfall in property tax revenues.

Facing a $4.5 million shortfall, the county eliminated several positions in July that included laying off 16 county employees, eliminated unfilled positions and reclassified others that resulted in a savings of $1.18 million.

Holly Lafontaine, deputy Public Affairs director, Angela Robinson, a Public Affairs specialist, Bob Hunter, deputy director for the Code Enforcement Division, and Tyler Vansant, an assistant director in General Services and Engineering, were among those who lost their jobs.

Two additional full-time positions in Human Resources and the Public Works Division were also laid off. The remaining seven positions were part-time; six lifeguards and a Public Works employee. The Johnson Park pool manager was reclassified as a lifeguard.

The county also used a mix of furlough days, $1.1 million in spending cuts approved early in the year and an increase in the county's millage rate 1 mill from 14.53 to 15.53 mills to cover the reminder of the 2010 general fund budget.

Property values dropped following nearly two years of historic foreclosures across the county. Tax Commissioner Dan Ray released the tax digest in July that showed value for all real and personal property in the county dropped from $3.05 billion in 2009 to $2.81 billion this year. Two years ago, the value was $2.946 billion.

Motor vehicle values also dropped significantly. The value was set at $189.7 million this year, compared to $221.9 million in 2009.

Ray explained property values showed an "unprecedented drop" in property values across the county. Property values averaged an 8 percent decrease in value, but there were many situations where a property decreased in value by 10 percent or more.

Also, lawyers representing Lafontaine filed a lawsuit in federal court in Atlanta on Aug. 6. The lawsuit alleges Oden based his selection of Erica Fatima as the county's new Public Affairs director on race. Lafontaine, who has worked in the Public Affairs department for 8 years, including nine months as interim director, is white, while Fatima is black.

The lawsuit alleges Lafontaine was fired in retaliation six days after she sent a letter to Oden and the Board of Commissioners that stated she believed she was a victim of discrimination in the selection process for a new Public Affairs director.

In December, the Rockdale BOC approved a budget for 2011 at $52.88 million that commissioners JaNice Van Ness and Oz Nesbitt worried would have to be revised mid-year depending on where the county tax digest stands.

Chief of Staff Greg Pridgeon explained that county administrators were conservative in forecasting tax revenue but added the budget will need to be revisited again.

The budget represented an increase of about $1 million from 2010 which was attributed to additional spending for public safety and operations of the newly expanded county jail.

However, questions over funding to nonprofit groups caused the Rockdale BOC to separated $2.74 million funding for outside and nonprofit agencies and decided upon each one line by line during the final meeting of the year on Dec. 14.

That resulted in a savings of $98,200 from cut funds. Part of the savings included $35,000 earmarked for the nonprofit Ceek to Fulfill, which had its funding tabled.

The moves came about over allegations of improper operations by Ceek To Fulfill from county resident Sam Smiley. Smiley provided evidence during public comment time at Tuesday's BOC meeting that Ceek to Fulfill shared the same address as the Democratic Party of Rockdale County, and that Cheryl Board, a youth job program coordinator with Ceek to Fulfill, was organizing a Dec. 19 Christmas party for Commissioner Oz Nesbitt.

Board was also hired by BOC Democratic candidate Courtney Dillard earlier this year to be his campaign's youth programs director. Dillard lost to incumbent Commissioner JaNice Van Ness in the Nov. 2 General Election.

Along with tabling Ceek To Fulfill funding, the Rockdale BOC reset funding to other groups to 2010 levels.

News Editor Jay Jones contributed to this story.