New city hall proposal ruffles council feathers

COVINGTON -- Not all City Council members are pleased that the city of Covington's SPLOST wish list submitted to the county included a $3 million city hall.

Some council members said they were not consulted on the list and are opposed to the proposed city hall.

Councilman Chris Smith said with citizens struggling to pay utility bills and property taxes, a new city hall should not be a priority, adding that the city has infrastructure needs that are more important.

"The six of us (council members) didn't have anything to do with it," Smith said, adding that he doesn't believe the majority of the council is in favor of the project. "I don't know why the council wasn't involved. I don't understand that."

Councilman Mike Whatley also said he had not been consulted on the city's SPLOST list.

"I have never been informed or asked my opinion," he said. "To me, SPLOST is a very important deal. I just wonder why as a team we were never informed or had a voice in what our thoughts were or what some of our district needs were."

During the last SPLOST preparation period, the council was kept informed of all projects proposed, he said.

Whatley said he's opposed to a new city hall because, "We've got a perfectly good one, in my opinion."

Councilman Keith Dalton said he is "very adamantly opposed" to the project.

"With the economy like it is, we don't need to be spending money on something like this. I don't think it's a necessity. We've got infrastructure that needs to be replaced, and I'd like to see that. With the economy like it is, it's tough to make a SPLOST even pass once it gets on the ballot. With stuff like this, I don't know if anyone will vote for it," Dalton said.

Councilwomen Janet Goodman, Ocie Franklin and Hawnethia Williams could not be reached for comment.

Mayor Kim Carter said the SPLOST list falls under the responsibilities of City Manager Steve Horton and his staff. The city hall is one of nearly $17 million in projects submitted by the city, and Carter noted that she doesn't expect all will get county approval, as the county is currently in the process of paring down requests.

"It's not a done deal yet. There's plenty of opportunity for folks to weigh in," she said.

Carter added the law does not require a council vote, and that while municipalities without a city manager may do things differently, in Covington's case, it's the city manager's job to determine the capital infrastructure needed to meet day-to-day operations.

"I do think there's a need there, but I want to get the expert advice of our city manager and his staff. They are the ones who are there 24/7," she said. "The jury's still out on whether we need (a new city hall). We have an old, old building with no natural light except at the front. We've outgrown it with our customers -- we serve customers far out into the county. But before we say we need one, we need the advice of planners and Mr. Horton."

Horton said the SPLOST list is on Monday night's agenda and will be brought to a vote before the council. He said he asked his staff to provide a list of projects that would be SPLOST eligible, which amounted to around $37 million. That list was then trimmed to just under $17 million.

Horton said he intended to get council approval before submitting the list to the county but before he could do that, a meeting was planned between the mayor, himself and county officials and at that meeting he was asked to submit the list of projects to be presented to the Board of Commissioners at their Wednesday night work session. Horton said he made it clear that the list could change following the council's review.

"There was no intent on anybody's part to not give the council the chance to weigh in on that. But that meeting Monday they had put the cart ahead of the horse on me," he said, adding that nothing is final until it is brought before the council.

"The city hall building is one of those things, it's no secret, the mayor has voiced concern over the state of during the last two years. She has said to the council publicly and not publicly she wants it on the list, so there should be no surprise there," he said.

Horton said the city's top priority is replacing its aging infrastructure. The city has requested $5 million to replace water lines. It also requested funds for a new terminal building at the Covington Municipal Airport, airport equipment and numerous transportation, sidewalk and drainage projects.

"My opinion is if you need to cut something, you should start with the city hall building," he said. "I never anticipated the council would support the building, but because it was brought up, we put it on there."