City, county mull changes to Main Street

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- A committee will be formed to research the benefits and drawbacks of the city taking over the Main Street Covington program in exchange for the county accepting full responsibility for Keep Covington-Newton Beautiful.

The formation of the committee was recommended by BOC Chairman Kathy Morgan at a joint work session between the city and county Tuesday night. Covington Mayor Kim Carter recommended the swap in a letter to commissioners dated Sept. 21. Carter asked that the change go into effect Dec. 1. But commissioners said they haven't had time to research the matter and want a committee to investigate further. The committee will consist of two commissioners, two City Council members, two representatives of the Main Street board of directors and two representatives from the Keep-Covington Beautiful board.

City officials are proposing to take over full control of Main Street Covington, including finances. The county and city split funding 50/50. The city is willing to pay the full cost of the Main Street program in exchange for the county funding KCNB. The result would be a savings of about $11,500 for the county.

"We're not talking about a funding decision but a strategic decision," Carter said.

City officials are ramping up a commitment to revitalize the downtown area and have several initiatives they want to get rolling, Carter said. Those include redefining the Downtown Development Authority and implementing the Urban Redevelopment Plan and Opportunity Zone tax credits. The Main Street board of directors is also in the process of changing its bylaws, applying for a different nonprofit status and expanding the boundaries of the downtown district. All of this will be smoother if the reporting structure is simplified, she said.

"The executive director cannot serve multiple masters, and downtown development is too vital to miss a beat or have a hiccup," Carter said.

In addition, according to City Manager Steve Horton, Main Street Director Josephine Kelly is a city employee, but the board of directors has authority to hire and fire.

"That puts her in a precarious situation sometimes on who to turn to for answers," Horton said.

These issues all came to light following a request by the Main Street board earlier this year to increase funding for the program, including a raise for Kelly and creation of a new part-time position. The council had reached an informal consensus to increase funding but changed those plans when the county, facing a $5.2 million budget shortfall, did not agree to pay half the additional expenses. Horton said it's better for one entity to have full approval when it comes to funding and personnel.

"My concern is what's fair to (Kelly) as an employee," he said.

The city is proposing a contract for services with Main Street, with Kelly reporting directly to Horton. Though there is no signed intergovernmental agreement regarding Main Street, Morgan said the county and city have been operating under an informal agreement since the program was formed in 1987. The county has a representative on the Main Street board and "We consider ourselves a part of it because we have such a large footprint downtown," she said.

Morgan said she does not see any urgency in reaching a decision and recommended the committee have a deadline of March 1 to make a recommendation.

"It seems like to me this is a significant request and I don't want to do anything in haste," she said.

But Carter asked for the deadline to be the end of the year, saying the city is moving at a fast pace and wants to get initiatives rolling. Morgan said the committee may come back earlier than March 1 with a recommendation, but she doesn't want to rush the process.

"Y'all have studied this; we have not," she told city officials.

Commissioners also indicated they want more time to research the ramifications, especially since Main Street benefits from the hotel/motel tax.

But, Carter said, "There is no tax scenario in this for the county." Sixty percent of collections go to the Chamber of Commerce for tourism and 40 percent of collections go to Main Street. A hotel/motel tax increase from 5 to 8 percent was approved by the city, with half of the additional revenues going to the Chamber and half designated for the proposed downtown civic center. Further, all hotels and motels are within the city of Covington.

Main Street Covington was created by city resolution in May 1987 with the goal of revitalizing the downtown business district and is part of the Georgia Main Street program. The city and county began jointly funding the program about nine years ago. The budget for this fiscal year is $82,362, with the county reimbursing the city $41,181.

Keep Covington/Newton Beautiful was created by Newton County and an intergovernmental agreement was signed in 2004. The director is a county employee. KCNB's budget for this fiscal year could not be obtained by press time, but the city reports a reimbursement to the county of $29,604 for the program.