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Mayors give updates on railroad, other issues

OXFORD -- Local mayors met Friday at Oxford City Hall to update each other on various projects and issues facing their governments.

Mayor's meetings are held every two months, with locations rotating between the municipalities. Elected officials in attendance were Covington Mayor Kim Carter, Oxford Mayor Jerry Roseberry and council members Frank Davis and Jim Windham, Porterdale Mayor Bobby Hamby and Councilman Robert Foxworth, and Newborn Mayor Roger Sheridan.

Railroad

Sheridan is heading up an effort to investigate the purchase of about 14 miles of the Norfolk Southern rail line. The town of Newborn, cities of Oxford, Mansfield and Porterdale and the nonprofit Newton County Trails-Path Foundation have all signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to pursue the purchase. Two attorneys have been retained to investigate the project, including the difficulties that could arise now that Norfolk Southern has discontinued the line as opposed to abandoning it, Sheridan said. Several meetings with Norfolk Southern have already taken place and another meeting to inspect the tracks will occur soon, he said.

A Norfolk Southern spokeswoman told the Citizen in June that discontinuance means that though trains are not operating on the line, the track will stay in place and the railroad will retain operating rights. If the rail line was abandoned, the tracks would be removed and there would be no future rail service.

Carter said the local Geographic Information System department has largely completed mapping of the land in question that will be available to officials. The map will be interactive and include some 532 parcels. Carter said she will inspect the work next week and electronic copies will be available to local governments soon.

SPLOST

Officials said they must prepare for upcoming discussions with Newton County regarding the 2011 SPLOST. The 2005 SPLOST will sunset in June 2011 and the county is expected to soon begin making a list of projects for the next round. The county will hold a work session later this month and Carter urged her fellow mayors to attend and get involved with the process. She said she would like to see some consideration given to parks, greenspace and greenways.

"As we're getting more and more urban and more dense in our municipalities, we need some more passive parks and recreation space," she said.

If the Board of Commissioners chooses to pursue another SPLOST, a referendum would need to be held March 15, 2011, to allow for uninterrupted collections. The county will need to negotiate an intergovernmental agreement with municipalities that have a combined population that accounts for 50 percent of the county's population. City involvement increases the allowed collection period from five to six years.

"This is going to probably be one of the hardest SPLOSTs to pass. We've really got to sell the public on it. We don't want one project to kill the whole thing, so that's why projects are so important," said Foxworth.

Roseberry agreed. "You don't want to put one thing on it that will bring out all the negative voters," he said.

Roseberry said Oxford needs improvements to 80-year-old water lines running into the city -- a $1.1 million project that the city hasn't been able to find a grant to pay for -- and he has asked the county to include that on Oxford's list of projects.

Covington

In other news, Carter said the city is working to reinvigorate its Downtown Development Authority, which "has been kind of dormant in recent years."

The last major work done by the authority occurred several years ago when the old Smiley's on the Square collapsed. The authority helped to secure financing to rebuild what is now known as The Lula Building. Some members have terms that have lapsed and that needs to be addressed, Carter said.

Plans to extend the boundaries of the Downtown Development Authority and of Main Street Covington to include the Pace Street corridor are also in the works, she said. The corridor, which includes Morgan Plaza and the old Walmart shopping center, is "ripe for redevelopment," she said. If it is included under the DDA's purview the corridor would be eligible for various financial tools such as grants and low interest financing to improve buildings.

Carter said the Main Street program's economic development efforts will be aligned with those of the DDA and the Covington Redevelopment Authority and she will have more information on that in the near future.

Oxford

The new City Hall is complete, with move-in set to occur by the end of the month, Roseberry announced. The council will hold its first meeting there on Sept. 13.

Amenities will include laptops for the council and large flat screens that will display documents the council is viewing for the audience. Windham said the city is trying to "go as paperless as possible."

"We'll save a tree or two along the way," he said.

Also, Roseberry indicated Oxford is considering changing from a defined benefit retirement plan to a defined contribution plan. Employee retirement costs have doubled in the last five years, from around $46,000 to $80,000, he said.

The city of Covington is considering a similar switch. If approved, Carter said new hires as of Jan. 1 would fall under a defined contribution plan. Most current employees would have the option of staying with their current plan or switching, she said.

Oxford may also change its current policy of paying 100 percent of employee health care insurance costs, Roseberry said.

"If you pay 100 percent, sometimes you wind up with employees that don't need it signing up for it because it's free," he said.

Porterdale

Business is booming in Porterdale. The local hydroelectric plant has been purchased by a company that is looking to market its water purification system, Hamby said. The building is being refurbished, a process that could take up to a year. Once that is complete, a portion of the plant will be devoted to a full scale model of the purification system to prove the technology is working and then the owner hopes to get it on the market, Hamby said.

A Family Dollar store and a dance school have also recently opened in the city.

Officials are also hard at work on the city's comprehensive plan, with the first steering committee meeting having taken place this week, Hamby said.

Finally, Hamby invited everyone to attend the fourth annual Yellow River Jam, scheduled for noon to 8 p.m. Oct. 16 in the downtown district. The festivities will include food, arts, crafts, music and children's activities. The public can call 770-786-2217 for more information.

Newborn

Sheridan said two national retailers have shown interest in locating in Newborn: Dollar General and another that he said he couldn't name.

"They feel that it's an area that could use a retail store and we're interested," he said.

A new taxi service recently opened in town, as well.

Work on the historic schoolhouse in Newborn is almost complete, with a grand opening set for Oct. 2. The town is also holding a county-wide contest to find a slogan for the town, with the winner to receive $100.