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Rail line purchase up in air

COVINGTON -- Staff with Congressman Jim Marshall's office are asking whether the county will use $1.06 million in federal grant money allocated for the purchase of 14.9 miles of rail line, but Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan said she doesn't have an answer.

Morgan said Wednesday she had just received a call from Marshall's office but had yet to respond. The board has asked for additional information from the county attorney on the length of the grant, how it can be used and the future cost of maintaining the property and perhaps converting it to a trail system, but several commissioners and Morgan said they don't yet have the facts they need to make a decision.

"I'm going to have to be honest with him. I don't have support from my board, and I think that's a huge mistake," Morgan said. "Having this corridor that connects four of our five municipalities and having most of the funding provided by the federal government is a blessing for our community. But I don't have enough facts to make a decision on it."

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.

The county has a federal grant of $1.06 million to apply toward the purchase, and Morgan said an additional $500,000 in federal money is available, leaving a local match of about $235,000. The city of Covington's financial involvement, if any, has not been decided.

Morgan said getting control of the corridor has been part of the county's comprehensive plan for the past 10 years, though the use was not specified. Morgan said the project has been in the works for several years, before she took office. It was initiated when former Covington Mayor Sam Ramsey inquired about getting money to purchase a portion of the rail line running through the property where the proposed downtown civic center would be located.

The grant was applied for by the city of Covington but was awarded to the county, so it's up to the Board of Commissioners to take action. But the issue is not on any upcoming agendas, Morgan said.

"The Board of Commissioners has not indicated this is something they want to do. I will not move forward without the authority of the Board of Commissioners. I would have hoped the response from the Board of Commissioners would have been, 'Let's take the time and spend a small amount of money and look at all the facts and get professionals to come in and advise us ... and look at the advantages and cons of doing this," she said.

Though Doug Moore, a spokesman in Marshal's office, said if the money is not used, it will not affect the county's ability to get funding for other projects, Morgan said she believes it could hurt the county's relationship with the congressman.

"It's hard to ask somebody to continue to issue dollars if you don't use the dollars they issued you before," she said.

Moore said approximately $200,000 was allocated in 2008 and $800,000 in 2009, meaning those funds must be obligated by 2012 and 2013, respectively.

Moore said if local officials are unsure whether they will use the funds, they will need to decide by next year, as appropriations begin in early 2011 for fiscal year 2012, beginning Oct. 1.

"I just haven't got enough information on it as of yet to really make a decision on it. I'm still listening to the pros and cons," Commissioner J.C. Henderson said.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz also said she is lacking adequate information but added that she believes the board needs to consider the purchase of the rail line for economic development and job growth, noting that businesses need corridors to move their freight.

"Newton County is well positioned along the interstate to allow us to attract a fair number of people to look at investing in the county because we have interstate access," Schulz said.

"It's better for the citizens of Newton County to own it than some other entity to own it. Then you control how that corridor issues -- the citizens control it," she said.

But Commissioner Tim Fleming said he doubts anyone is ready to snap up the property if it's not purchased by the county.

"If the county and city don't buy it, those rails are still going to be there. Besides a municipality or county or state government, who wants these rails right now? No one else has the money to buy them either," he said.

Fleming said he's heard no concrete numbers on what it will cost to maintain the property and potentially convert it to a trail system. He added that the county is facing a 10 to 12 percent budget cut next fiscal year, and now's not the time to make such a long-term financial commitment without knowing the cost.

"Everybody is saying it's free money, it's free money. But it's not free money. There are other costs that come along with it. We might be getting $1 million, but what is the cost in the future and what is the cost to us in matching funds?" he said.

Commissioner Earnest Simmons said the county already has an existing trail system for residents to use. The matching funds requirement make it unlikely the county will be able to purchase the railroad, given the expected revenue shortfall, he said.

"When we go through the budget process next month, we will be in a better position to say whether or not we should go forward with it," he said.