Confusion continues on center

COVINGTON -- The future of the new Nelson Heights Community Center remains unclear following a work session held by the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night.

Members of a 501(c)(3) board vying to run the center did not show up to make a presentation to the board. R.J. Fields, president of IECDG, a nonprofit that was to assist the group with formulating a business and management plan, said members were no longer eager to be involved.

"In our discussions over the past couple of weeks, they have declined to make a proposal, so there is nothing for us to facilitate," Fields said.

District 2 Commissioner Earnest Simmons suggested the board give the 501(c)(3) group another two weeks to formulate a proposal.

But Chairman Kathy Morgan said the group has known about the work session since December. The work session was originally scheduled for that month, but was postponed for two months to give the group adequate time, she said.

"We can't just keep prolonging this. I think the Board of Commissioners has done everything we can to work with this group," she said.

Just who is on the 501(c)(3) board at this point seems to be a point of confusion. District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson, who spearheaded the project, is questioning that himself. On Tuesday, he indicated he didn't know who was involved in the discussions with IECDG, and Fields declined to give those names publicly.

Several of the members of the original board, formed last year by Henderson without county approval, are no longer involved. Henderson said he gave Morgan a list of potential board members in December but didn't know if those people had been contacted.

Morgan said Wednesday that only three or four of the dozen or so people on the list live in the Nelson Heights area and several told her they never agreed to serve on the board. However, the 501(c)(3) board is entirely separate from the county and the county has not been involved in appointing members, she said.

The Rev. Willie Smith, who has been involved with county and community discussions on the project, said Wednesday that he was given authority to hand pick board members, but he wouldn't say who those members are or who gave him that authority.

Smith said he was not aware that the group was supposed to make a presentation Tuesday night.

"We were not informed that we were to make a general presentation to commissioners. If they've made up their mind to give it to the recreation department, there's no need for us to come back and have a board meeting; only if they're going to work fairly and give us an opportunity," he said.

But Morgan said that Smith and Henderson were given a sheet listing the date of the work session back in December and were told that the 501(c)(3) would need to come before the Board of Commissioners with a business and management plan, to which they both agreed. She also had the county clerk call Henderson two weeks before the work session as a reminder.

"Why J.C. did not see a need to have his group come make a presentation, I do not know," she said. "There doesn't appear to be an energized group of people that have a plan of action together, and I'm reluctant to turn over a $500,000 facility to a group without a plan."

Smith said he will be meeting with the group this week because, "We haven't yet decided which way we're going to go."

He said the group will make a presentation when they're ready, not at the board's behest.

"They don't call the shots. They don't tell us to come. They ask us. We don't have to do anything. This is a volunteer thing -- we don't get paid for this," he said.

In addition to letting the nonprofit board run the center, the other two options would be to let the Newton County Recreation Commission take over or to leave the building vacant and rent it out through the Board of Commissioners office, Morgan said.

The Recreation Commission has agreed to run the center and was present Tuesday to make its presentation.

Commission Director Tommy Hailey said that in order to run the facility, the commission needs assurance that there will be no outside interference from the 501(c)(3) board; that the $64,000 allocated by commissioners in the 2008 budget is available to use for maintenance and operations, with $32,000 to be used this year and $32,000 next fiscal year; that the Recreation Commission will determine programs that will take place at the center and would apply rental fees for uses such as meetings, baby/wedding showers, family reunions. The building could also be used for county/city and recreation sponsored functions and as a voting precinct, he said.

In addition, the Recreation Commission is asking that the position of program coordinator, which was funded in the current budget, be changed from an hourly to salaried position of between $35,000 and $40,000 due to the abnormal hours the employee will work, including nights and weekends.

Hailey pointed out the Recreation Commission is taking over operations of three other facilities in 2010 and 2011: the Cousins Gym, Denny Dobbs Park and the public park planned for Fairview Estates. If funding is cut any further, Hailey said he has doubts as to whether the commission can afford to operate all those new facilities.

Commissioners are expected to vote on management of the Nelson Heights Community Center on March 2.