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Council speaks on trail grant opposition

COVINGTON -- City Council members in opposition to pursuing a grant to construct a trail system along the right of way of a rail line remained silent despite repeated requests from Mayor Kim Carter to explain themselves Monday night. But now, they're offering an explanation of their position on the issue.

Council members Keith Dalton, Chris Smith, Ocie Franklin and Hawnethia Williams voted against pursuing a grant from the federal Department of Transportation for construction of a portion of a trail system that would be located along the right of way of a rail line owned by Norfolk Southern and Great Walton railroads. The grant would require a match of $1,100 per acre by the city, or about $226,600.

City and county officials are considering purchasing about 14.5 miles of the rail line running through Covington to Starrsville and on to Rose Acres between Mansfield and Newborn.

The price offered to the county is $1.8 million. The county has a federal grant of $1.06 million to apply toward the purchase, and Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan said an additional $500,000 in federal money is available, leaving a local match of about $235,000.

But Dalton said the total cost to purchase, make usable and maintain the property hasn't been given.

"The county doesn't have the money and the city doesn't have the money to take on something that large and new. I don't think it's good in this economic time to be looking at something like this," he said.

Monday night, Councilwoman Janet Goodman made a motion to pursue a grant to construct the trail. When it appeared the motion would die for lack of a second, Carter repeatedly asked the council for rationale, but they remained silent. Grant writer Randy Conner then outlined the benefits of having the trail. Councilman Mike Whatley then offered a second, and the motion was denied 2-4. Carter again asked for rationale or comments, but the council was still silent.

Councilman Chris Smith acknowledged that in hindsight, it might have been best to explain his position, but added that he was stunned by the demands of the mayor, who appeared to be pushing for approval.

"I was very dissatisfied with the mayor calling us out on our vote the way she did. I thought that was very inappropriate. She's voted and broken a tie before and we haven't questioned how she voted. Once she asked for discussion that should have been the end of it," he said.

Smith said not having a definite cost of all aspects of the project is one reason he voted against pursuing the grant. Another reason was because he said the presentation was one-sided, and only gave the positives of the trail but no negatives.

"I just feel like we're going way overboard with spending now. I'm leery of putting a couple hundred thousand dollars out for grant purposes. I am for greenspace but the timing is not good, with the economy like it is," he said. "Every agenda packet I get it seems like we're spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. It needs to stop. I'm afraid we're going to wake up three years from now and be in a position like the county, not be able to provide services and start laying people off. We need to look at the whole picture down the road."

Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams said she was moved by the plight of dozens of residents who attended Monday's council meeting asking for help with paying high utility bills.

"How could we approve a grant to buy property and invest about $250,000 when we've basically told these people we couldn't do anything about their bills? Right now, people are struggling with getting their basic needs," she said.

Williams initially voted in favor of an increase to residential electric rates; a final reading of the rate change was removed from the council's agenda Monday. Williams said she will need to reflect on whether she'll change her vote should the issue come before the council again.

Franklin could not be reached for comment.

City Manager Steve Horton said the council will likely discuss the rail line purchase at its upcoming retreat.

"The grant money comes through Congressman (Jim) Marshall's office in the county's name; the county controls it. They have the ultimate up-front say," he said.

The City Council will need to decide if it wants to draft a letter to the county asking for the county's position, Horton said, and decide where to go from there. He said he doesn't yet know if the city would be asked to pay a portion of the matching funds.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan said the BOC discussed the rail line purchase at its recent retreat.

"I didn't get the impetus from the retreat to want to move forward on it, anything more than giving (County Attorney) Tommy Craig the authority to research a little bit more. It's not on my agenda for anything in the near future. I know the railroad will force us to make a decision at some point one way or another," she said.

Morgan noted that the county has spent just as much money improving some intersections as it would spend on purchasing the rail line.

"I feel like that price will never be better, but a lot of questions need to be answered," including if the price covers pulling up the rail line and the trestles, she said.

Commissioners have asked the county attorney to research whether the property could be purchased with the grant money and left as greenspace, she said. The grant money must be spent within three and a half years of the date it was issued, putting the current deadline at about two years.