BOC adopts plan to help non-English speakers

COVINGTON -- Commissioners recently approved a federally mandated program to assist those doing business with the county who speak, write or understand limited English.

As a recipient of federal funds, the county is required to adopt a Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Plan under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Newton is required to provide these services for Spanish language speakers, based on estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2008-2010 American Community Survey indicating that 3.6 percent of the county's population speak Spanish or Spanish-Creole, which is considered a significant proportion of the population. Of those, 49 percent are reported as speaking English less than very well.

The extent of the county's obligations to provide LEP services is determined by four factors: the number or proportion of LEP persons eligible or likely to be served by the departments of the BOC; the frequency with which LEP persons come in contact with county departments; importance of the activities of the BOC to people's lives; and the county's resources and expected costs to implement the plan.

Because contact with LEP persons is currently infrequent and due to budget restrictions, the county will implement the LEP plan in phases, starting with providing access to Language Line Services, an over-the-phone interpretation service. The line will be used on an as-needed basis at a cost of $3.29 per minute. Department heads will be trained on how to use the service.

The county will also post notices on its website and in county departments alerting Spanish speakers of LEP services and have language assistance cards available in each department. As funding is available or the need arises, key documents will be translated into Spanish.

"As we go forward with the implementation of the program, we do have county staff that will be helping with special language needs, such as Spanish notices and translation as needed," said County Manager John Middleton.

Commissioner Tim Fleming said the mandate "gives me a little heartburn."

Fleming said that even though people like to call federal grants free money "it's not -- it's taxpayers (money). There are so many strings attached it ends up costing states and local governments more money in the end."

Fleming said that given that English is the official language of the state of Georgia, it should be the same for the county.

"It gives me heartburn to think the federal government is going to push these regulations on us ... I don't think it's fair to the citizens of this state or this county," he said.

The LEP plan was approved 3 to 1 with Fleming opposed. Commissioner Mort Ewing was absent.