County won't charge youth groups to use Gaither

COVINGTON — By a vote of 3 to 2, county commissioners decided Tuesday night they will not charge nonprofit youth groups to use Gaither Plantation for activities.

A divided commission rejected recommendations from the County Attorney’s Office, county manager, the director of facilities maintenance and the fiscal officer who handles reservations at Gaither. The group drafted proposed recommendations at the request of commissioners. The discussion was initiated two weeks ago due to a conflict with a Boy Scouts meeting and wedding at the plantation the same weekend.

Although rental fees apply for weddings, reunions and other events, some commissioners said they would prefer to continue not charging youth groups such as Boy Scouts, 4-H and FFA clubs.

The recommendations they considered included: Allowing only one event at the plantation at a time; limiting times to non-peak usage periods for nonprofits; limiting the number of times per year a nonprofit could use the grounds; considering alternative locations for those groups, including Factory Shoals and Lake Varner; establishing a $100 to $250 daily fee to cover preparation, monitoring and cleanup; waiving of fees if the group does an approved service project; applying a regular rental rate for full use of the plantation’s grounds, buildings and pavilions.

“I’m discouraged that we’ve got to do this to those kids because the youth of America, as we know, are having problems,” said Chairman Keith Ellis. “I’m discouraged we’re having to do that to 4-H and FFA clubs and school trips and field trips as well.”

Commissioner John Douglas made the motion to approve the recommendations, which was seconded by Commissioner Nancy Schulz.

The motion failed 3 to 2, with Levie Maddox, Lanier Sims and J.C. Henderson opposing.

Maddox said allowing youth groups to use Gaither for free is a local tradition.

“If someone was irritated enough with us to take us to court with them having to pay and (others) not having to pay, would we have a leg to stand on?” Douglas asked.

“I think there are rational distinctions that can be made between various groups,” said County Attorney Tommy Craig. “Groups involved in continuing education and development of youth ought to be singled out and given preferential treatment, if you will, as opposed to the Newton County political party, or whatever it is, that’s going to meet down there. I think we can discriminate in favor of groups that we think are carrying out an essential public function and for that, I guess in my mind, it’s the education and development of our youth.”

Douglas then questioned who would decide which groups are charged and which are not.

Craig said the board can establish distinctions based on the mission or activities of the groups, the nature of their activities and who benefits, and can require groups to clean up grounds or leave that to the county in the interest of facilitating youth meetings at Gaither.

“This is a facility that’s underused right now. It belongs to the county and certainly anybody from the county ought to have preferential treatment. If there’s an outside group, it may be different,” Ellis added.

Douglas said he wants a list of “who’s in and who’s not in.” He asked if young Republican and Democrat groups would be exempt from paying.

“We’ll make a list, how about that?” Ellis said. “Let’s move on.”

Ellis has said the county lost about $27,000 on Gaither last year. He has recommended that the board look at ways to revitalize the plantation and generate additional revenue, possibly including privatization.