COVINGTON — Tempers flared at the Board of Commissioners SPLOST work session Thursday night as questions emerged over whether three commissioners had brokered a deal and possibly held illegal meetings prior to the discussion.
Some officials took comments by Commissioner J.C. Henderson to mean that he and commissioners Mort Ewing and Tim Fleming had met prior to the work session to discuss Ewing's proposal. The comments came after the three commissioners reached a consensus in favor of the proposal, with Commissioners Earnest Simmons and Nancy Schulz objecting. The BOC cannot officially vote in a work session, but Chairman Kathy Morgan asked for an informal consensus on which way the board was leaning. After the consensus was reached, Morgan continued the meeting and Henderson objected.
At a glance
The following is a list of projects to be funded through SPLOST 2011 that was informally agreed upon by commissioners Thursday night, based on projections of $57.6 million collected over six years:
• Retirement of debt for jail pods and administrative building: $8 million
• Expansion of judicial center: $7 million
• Upgrade of parks: $1 million
• Miracle Field: $1.5 million
• District 4 Improvements $1.1 million
• Animal Control: $100,000
• Juvenile Facility: $500,000
• Historic Jail: $1.2 million
• Agricultural Facility: $1.1 million
• Fire Station No. 8: $1.1 million
• Expansion of hospital emergency room: $4 million
• Landfill debt service retirement: $500,000
• Public works equipment: $500,000
• County vehicle replacement: $2.5 million
• Fire services: $100,000
• Road improvements: $17.28 million
• City of Covington: $6.97 million for transportation; $500,000 for airport
• Porterdale: $394,000 for transportation; $400,0000 for Porterdale Gym; $36,000 for recreation
• Oxford: $1.23 million for water line improvements
• Mansfield: $252,630 for transportation
• Newborn: $336,840 for transportation, recreation, community center
"I may be wrong but I thought that we had a consensus. It used to work where we had three commissioners agree on something we worked toward it, we worked it out, we got with the county attorney and worked out whatever we need to do," Henderson said.
"I'm sorry. Back up. Did the voters elect three commissioners to meet and get with the county attorney and work out what they want to do?" Morgan responded.
"Every time it came up and I was on the lesser end, the consensus ruled. We went on. We didn't sit and argue about it. So why aren't we moving on now? That's why we have an attorney, to work out the differences in what we want to do," Henderson replied.
By law, a meeting between a majority of commissioners must be open to the public and announced 24 hours in advance. Ewing said that he "categorically denies" any improper meetings. He said Henderson was trying to say that once there is a consensus, it's time to move on and the county attorney makes sure every action taken by the board meets the law.
"I may be dumb, but I'm not stupid. I never met with Mr. Henderson on SPLOST, period," Ewing said. Ewing said he drafted his proposal alone and met with Schulz, Fleming and Morgan individually to discuss SPLOST, but never had a joint meeting with Fleming and Henderson.
Fleming also denied any meetings, though he said he had met with commissioners and the chairman individually. He said he believed Henderson was stating that when the board cannot reach a consensus, the county attorney will help them reach a compromise. Attempts to get clarification from Henderson were not successful.
But Schulz said Friday that while she doubts the three met together, she believes a deal was made prior to the meeting, which she said is "a violation of respect and trust."
"It was fairly apparent that three commissioners came to the meeting with a pre-arranged plan. The people need to decide if they're willing to put up with back room politics and deal making," Schulz said Friday. "This is not the first time Mr. Henderson has alluded to Mr. Craig's influence beyond the scope of legal services. During the budget process, he suggested submitting a budget to Craig for approval. The last time I checked, Mr. Craig's expertise is for legal matters."
Before commissioners left a Saturday SPLOST work session, they agreed to each submit a list of projects to Morgan, who was to consolidate those lists into a single document for consideration Thursday night. Ewing and Fleming were the only two commissioners not to do so, Schulz said. Instead, Ewing passed out his proposal at the work session.
"I think they are astute enough not to meet in private but did they craft a deal and circumvent the process we all agreed upon Saturday? Absolutely," she said.
Schulz and Simmons objected to Ewing's proposal because they said it included pet projects requested by individual commissioners, such as a $1.1 million agricultural center requested by Ewing and $1.1 million in improvements for Henderson's district. It also included $1.1 million in funding for a new fire station, requested by Fleming. Morgan noted during the meeting that the county has a fire fund, which can be used to construct new fire stations. But Fleming said the fund is not adequate to pay for construction of a new station, as it is now being used to pay for day to day operations of the fire department, which used to come out of the general fund before the economy turned.
"There are no pet projects for District 5," he said. "Any commissioner that wants to call Fire Station No. 8 a pet project can go talk to the citizens of north Newton and tell them that. It's needed for that part of the county for fire protection."
Ewing denied any special interests, saying he was elected to serve the entire county. But Simmons said it's clear certain districts are getting special attention, and District 2 deserves the same treatment.
"I also took an oath of office to bring things back to my district. That's only fair. They pay their fair share of taxes just like everybody else," he said.
Schulz said she is concerned that the proposal calls for new infrastructure with no explanation of how the county will operate and maintain it. She also said it's bad business to only partially fund a project. The judicial center expansion, for example, was projected to cost $15 million, but Ewing's proposal has funding at $7 million. The civic center and historic jail are projects that were only partially funded on the prior SPLOST and have yet to be completed.
"My philosophy is whatever projects we undertake, I want to fund them entirely and do them right and in total. I'd rather have fewer projects and do them in total rather than a lot that are funded a little," she said.
Schulz also questioned the wisdom of funding the emergency room expansion without a comprehensive health care plan that could be arrived at through discussion with the hospital authority and board of health. Schulz said Hospital Administrator Jim Weadick told commissioners the trouble is that people with behavioral problems and other non-emergencies were using the ER. She said she's not sure the expansion will address the real problem.
SPLOST is a 1 percent sales tax used to fund capital outlay projects or pay down general obligation debt. Collections can occur over five or six years, depending on whether the county has an intergovernmental agreement with the municipalities. If approved by voters, SPLOST 2011 is projected to generate $57.6 million, if collections take place over six years, or $50.7 million for a five-year collection period. A referendum is scheduled for March 15.