Officials ask for financial aid from city

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- Both the Newton County Recreation Commission and the Newton County Library Board of Trustees have reached out to the city of Covington for financial help in the face of a budget crisis.

The Recreation Commission asked the City Council to pay salaries and benefits of four employees at a cost of $308,655. At a budget work session Wednesday evening, the consensus of the council was to deny the request.

The Recreation Commission was a joint venture between the city and county until 1995 when officials signed an intergovernmental agreement to phase out the city's involvement over a five-year period, ending in 2000. Since that time, the county has been solely responsible for running the Recreation Commission.

When the county took over operations, eight employees remained on as city employees due to difficulties with transferring retirement packages, according to Recreation Director Tommy Hailey. As employees retired or moved on, those positions were converted to county employees. There are four city employees remaining, including Hailey. The county reimburses the city for those expenses.

"We wanted to see if the city would pitch in and help pick up the city employee salaries. If that were to happen that way we could cover the amount of the requests we're asking for to take care of additional facilities that are on us this year. We can't take another budget cut. If the city chooses not to participate, I certainly would understand," Hailey said.

The Recreation Commission has been burdened with additional facilities to maintain over the last two years, including Denny Dobbs Park, Nelson Heights Community Center, Fairview Community Park and Wolverine Gym, but funding has been slashed. The department requested an additional $290,000 this year from the county in order to continue to operate at the current level of service. If that request is not approved, "We will be looking at shutting down some facilities and laying off some additional employees," Hailey said. Seven part-time employees were laid off last December. Hailey said facilities affected will likely include those in the city of Covington.

Mayor Kim Carter said it's not fair for Covington residents to pay for recreation services twice; they already pay county taxes, she said.

"The well is only so deep and our obligation is to our city and the taxpayers," she said.

The city owns property that is used by the Recreation Commission, leased for as low as $1 a year. That includes the City Pond ball field, tennis court and parking lots; the police department firing range that will be converted to the Miracle League Complex; the Conyers Street Gym, which the city is paying more than $32,000 to repair, as the Recreation Commission does not have the funds; Legion Field and fairgrounds and the associated sheds and buildings; and the Jefferson Avenue playground, park and ballfield.

"We've done our part. It's not our fault they've built and built and can't fund their programs," said Councilman Chris Smith.

The consensus was unanimous not to provide additional funding. Councilman Mike Whatley was absent.

In addition, the Newton County Library Board of Trustees has asked the city to double its allocation from $15,000 to $30,000. The money would be used to purchase books for the public to check out, to assist children studying for homework assignments and to assist people looking for jobs, according to a letter sent by Interim Director Bob Halcums. About 48 percent of the public that uses the library are city residents, he said.

The council did not reach a consensus on whether to increase funding and will take up the matter at another budget work session.

Carter said many people who are out of work use the library as a job center. "It's not like playing ball. People are trying to make ends meet," she said.

The library opened a branch in the Oak Hill area earlier this year and remains short of books for that facility.

"What I don't want is to move $30,000 in books out to Oak Hill and then us pay for $30,000 in books for Covington," Smith said.

The city increased funding from $6,000 to $15,000 for fiscal year 2010-2011 so the library could remain open on Saturdays.