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BOC brainstorms on county threats, potential

COVINGTON — Commissioners continued their strategic planning Thursday evening, identifying strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities to the board and the county.

The nearly three-hour brainstorm was prompted by facilitators with Northeast Georgia Regional Commission in preparation for commissioners to set goals and craft vision and mission statements. The strategic planning process was triggered by the motion to adopt the fiscal year 2014 budget and increased millage rate, which was conditioned on planning with the ultimate goal of reducing the millage rate in two years.

Commissioners identified member diversity, fresh ideas, willingness of the board to work together, improved communication and less partisanship than in years past as strengths of the current board. Willingness to seek and act on citizen input was also noted.

Commissioner Lanier Sims said the Salem Overlay was a turning point for the board. When it was presented to a packed room of unhappy citizens who needed more information on the purpose of the overlay and said they lacked trust in elected officials, Sims said commissioners were willing to take a step back, educate the public, get their input and alter the ordinance based on that input.

The firearms discharge ordinance was another example of incorporating public input, he said. “That was nothing anybody on this board wanted to tackle, but it was something that was laid on our plates. We did the best we could getting citizens from each district involved.”

Sims reported up to 100 people attend his town hall meetings held every three to six months, and Commissioner Nancy Schulz said her quarterly fireside chats draw between 30 and 75 residents. Chairman Keith Ellis also holds the Chairman’s Chat at 4 p.m. on the first and third Mondays of the month, where citizens come to his office to talk about their concerns. Board members agreed they’d like even more public input and Sims said the board can do better communicating with citizens about important topics. The new county website in the works could help with that, he said.

A major weakness for the county is the reliance on residential property taxes for revenue, the board agreed. “It’s a threat to our solvency to have so much hinging on that millage rate,” Schulz said.

She said there’s public misunderstanding of tax bills and how much the county has control over. The county does not set the millage rate for the school system for instance; that’s up to the Board of Education. Ellis noted that during the budget hearings, there was a graphic showing that just 22 cents of every $1 of taxes is tied to the county millage rate, but it’s a message he doesn’t believe sank in with the public. He said not many residents take advantage of homestead exemptions offered.

Douglas said many residents don’t realize that though Rockdale County offers a HOST — Homestead Option Sales Tax, a voter-approved penny sales tax that has eliminated the residential tax portion of county maintenance and operations — it also has the highest school taxes in the state.

Douglas said the county needs more retail, noting that residents on the west side of Newton County have no reason to come into Covington when they can find more variety of shops in Conyers, and residents on the east side can go to Madison or Athens.

Walmart at Brown Bridge Road has kept some shoppers at home in District 2, and there are plans for a Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s there. But Sims said poor planning means his district is not living up to its potential.

“If the planning was there prior to there being a boom in that district, it would have been a model district, but there was no planning. Developers were allowed to do whatever they wanted, where they wanted and we’re paying the price for it now,” he said.

County Manager John Middleton said the county needs a longer-term vision, a two- or three-year budget versus starting the process over each year.

Sims said the board needs regular reporting from entities that receive appropriations.

“If we’re going to give you the funding, you should be coming to us once a month, once a quarter, and tell us what we’re getting for X amount of dollars we gave you. That’s being responsive not only to the board but to the citizens as well,” he said.

Commissioners lamented the inadequate pay for county employees, which is causing a retention problem, particularly in law enforcement.

“We have great employees and we’d like to pay them more than what we’re paying them because they’re worth more than that, and we lose people because of that,” Douglas said. “But if we don’t have it, we don’t have it.”

On a positive note, state tax incentives for filming present a great opportunity for Newton as the Hollywood of the South, Schulz said. Ellis noted the county received $1,000 for a stunt filmed recently at the Historic Courthouse for “The Vampire Diaries.”

While Baxter International is a huge opportunity for the county, the competition for the resulting economic outfall from Walton and Morgan and other nearby counties is a threat, commissioners said.

“Our neighbors are threats,” Sims said. “They’re threatening to get the crumbs and they may not get the crumbs, they may get the bread.”

Douglas added that Social Circle “is an aggressive annexation city.”

“If they jump over I-20, there’s nothing to keep them from going down (U.S. Highway) 278,” he said.

Commissioners also identified approval of liquor by the drink in overlay districts as an opportunity for revenue, but Commissioner Levie Maddox said existing business owners are raising concerns. While he said he’s not advocating countywide liquor by the drink, “Some business owners are asking, ‘I’m already here, I’ve been paying taxes 10 years, so how can the government tell me (that a business) one mile up the road can serve,’….It goes back to property rights.”

Sims agreed. “It’s something to revisit sooner rather than later,” he said.

Commissioners said they want to work with the city of Covington to improve the downtown district. Maddox said city officials have the enthusiasm and “I think they need to run that vehicle,” though some commissioners said they’re not willing to give up complete control. The county owns the Square Park and has a large facilities footprint downtown.

“Drive to Madison on Friday night and drive immediately to downtown Covington and it’s a ghost town,” Sims said.

“They’re the model for downtown Main Streets across the state of Georgia,” Ellis added.

Middleton noted that Madison has a larger downtown footprint and suggested Covington’s footprint needs to expand and additional locations be identified for festivals and events besides the Square Park.

Commissioners will identify goals and an action plan along with crafting a mission and vision statement at their next strategic planning meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, at the Newton County Historic Courthouse.