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City Council still sparring over railroad

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- The Covington City Council has attempted to put to bed discussions regarding the purchase of the Norfolk Southern rail line twice before, and some members are hoping the third time will be the charm.

The topic came up again at the council's Monday night meeting, resulting in some tense moments as Councilman Chris Smith tried to stymie any future discussion and Mayor Kim Carter fought back.

Smith initially brought up the matter during the budget discussion, saying he does not want the city's more than $700,000 in reserves to be used on the rail line and asking the council to agree not to revisit the issue.

Attorney Ed Crudup said officials cannot bind a future council, so Smith said he would like a consensus not to discuss the matter at least through Dec. 31. It's possible new members could be elected in November and take office in January.

"My constituents are tired of talking about it ... I want to move on," Smith said, noting that the council has voted twice not to pursue purchase of the rail line. The first vote came in spring of 2010 and the second this past May, when the council rejected Carter's proposal to send a letter of intent to the railroad.

Councilwoman Janet Goodman said the item should be an agenda amendment and added to the end of the agenda, rather than the budget portion. There is no money budgeted for the purchase of the rail line in fiscal year 2012. The council voted 4 to 1 to amend the agenda with Goodman opposed. Councilwoman Ocie Franklin was absent.

When the subject was revisited later in the meeting, Carter cautioned the council not to tie the city's hands, as there are still some questions up in the air, like whether steel that is removed could be sold to offset part of the purchase cost, noting that steel is selling at a record high. The city has made no attempt to negotiate with Norfolk Southern to see if the purchase price could be reduced, she said. She also said it has been confirmed that the city is eligible to have a grant previously awarded to the county transferred to the city for the project.

"I would hope we would have open ears and eyes and at least listen and then make a decision," if new information is available, she said.

The council voted 4 to 1, with Goodman again opposed, not to discuss or pursue the matter through the end of the year.

"I think it violates my civil rights for me not to be allowed to talk about something because somebody made a motion not to talk about it," Goodman said after the vote. "I've never heard of anything like this."

"I've never heard of anybody that will not leave it alone," Smith responded. "Just will not leave it alone. We've already voted twice to leave it alone, and it's still coming up. I'm tired of it."

Carter then vetoed the council's vote, saying it is a disservice to the residents to vote on the matter without it being on the agenda and giving all sides an opportunity to have their say. She asked that it be placed on the council's July 12 agenda, but Smith quickly made the motion to override her veto, which passed 3 to 2, with Goodman and Whatley opposed.

Norfolk Southern gave an asking price of $1.2 million for the portion of rail line running through the city, not including an additional $500,000 in SPLOST funds that would be allocated by the county as approved in SPLOST 2005 for property downtown.

The Board of Commissioners has also voted not to pursue purchase of the rail line.

Meanwhile, Newborn Mayor Roger Sheridan said he still wants to keep discussions going.

"(The city and county) are not looking at the future. They are only looking at today. Whether there is a recession or not, we do have a future in this county and we're looking at that," he said. "We're proceeding with the discussion on it and looking at ways to move forward."

Though Oxford and Porterdale joined Newborn officials last year in approving a resolution supporting the project, mayors of those cities said that's as much help as they can provide.

While Porterdale Mayor Bobby Hamby said it's a good opportunity to secure right of way, "The city of Porterdale wouldn't be able to do anything financially; we just don't have the funds."

Oxford Mayor Jerry Roseberry said officials there support the idea of a trail, "but we're not in a position to do anything financially ... I wish a non-profit would find the resources to acquire it since it looks like government is out of it now. Unfortunately, it's an opportunity that came at a bad economic time."