COVINGTON -- County commissioners tabled a proposal to move forward with the expansion of the Newton County Judicial Center at their Dec. 18 meeting.
Commissioners expressed concern about the fact that budget estimates for the project exceed the SPLOST allocation.
Voters approved the 2011 SPLOST with a $7 million allocation for the expansion. The construction budget is estimated at less than that, at almost $6.9 million. However, that does not include the cost for furniture, fixtures and equipment, audio and visual equipment, security systems, architectural and engineering fees and other components of the expansion, plus a $900,000 contingency to cover any additional unforeseen costs, which would bring the budget to almost $9.9 million. Without the contingency, the budget would be reduced to just shy of $9 million, and excluding furniture, fixtures and equipment, it would come in at about $8.6 million. County Manager John Middleton noted that there is a shortfall of funding in all of those scenarios. Middleton previously said the source of the additional funds has not been identified.
County Attorney Tommy Craig previously suggested the county use a certificate of participation to fund the project, noting that commissioners agreed not to issue revenue bonds for any SPLOST project. Craig said a certificate of participation works like a mortgage. The county would borrow the money from a bank or other entity, like the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, and finance construction over five years at a low interest rate. The budget for the project does not cover interest rates, he noted.
District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing said that while additional space is needed at the judicial center, the board promised residents it would not borrow money for any projects. He noted that SPLOST 2011 includes debt service that is being transferred from the general fund to SPLOST for other projects.
Ewing recommended tabling the proposal for 90 days and having the new chairman and board, along with the county attorney and county manager, "go back to the drawing board and come up with a proposal that falls within the money that has been allocated."
"We thought we were dealing with good numbers when we placed the $7 million in the proposal. With the downturn in the economy, and construction as slow as it is, I have a difficult time understanding why a $7 million project has all of a sudden become $9.8 million," he said.
District 5 Commissioner Tim Fleming said he agrees the expansion is a good project, but said it's not fair to approve a project that is over budget with no identified source of additional funding for the next board heading into office.
"It's not a good time to move forward with this project. We made a commitment we wouldn't bond or borrow any money. This further gets us in the hole and creates further expenditures that the county doesn't have at this time ... to me what's wrong with this country today is politicians make commitments to voters, to citizens, and don't hold up their end of the bargain. They tell them what they want to hear and do exactly the opposite."
Fleming said if the board does not keep its word to voters, it may be difficult to pass another SPLOST.
The board unanimously voted to table a resolution to authorize the expansion.