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Posted: December 30, 2009 12:01 a.m.

Year in Review: Newton County

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Monetary concerns facing the nation and state were no less pressing for local governments.

Budget crunch

Thrifty residents cut spending which reduced sales tax revenues. A saturated housing market met decreased demand, which deflated home values, causing property tax reductions. When the county’s Board of Commissioners began looking at the budget in April, they were left to stare at a projected $8.6 million budget deficit.

Debates raged about how to balance the budget, with tax increases, employee layoffs and reduction in county services, including public safety, being discussed. Rallies and automated phone calls fanned the fiery debate, and residents and commissioners faced a no-win situation.

When the dust finally settled, 16.5 county employees lost their job. No public safety employees lost their jobs, but the Sheriff’s Office was not granted the 10 additional employees they had requested. In addition, most county departments cut their budgets by 20 percent or more, all employees took an additional 15 unpaid holidays and additional district projects were cut out.

Better than expected property tax estimates spared some cuts, but the relief was short lived, as the BOC found out months later that a software glitch left had overvalued estimated property tax revenue by $900,000. The county is taking a wait-and-see approach with the quarterly revenue figures before making any more cuts. The next quarterly revenue update is scheduled for January.

Railroad

Against this dreary financial backdrop, entered the railroad discussion. With only one remaining customer in Newton County, Norfolk Southern considered abandoning its railroad line that ran from Porterdale through Covington and Newborn all the way to Machen.

The county and city originally wanted to purchase a half-acre piece of property, including part of the rail line, for the civic center project. Because of their intentions to possibly abandon the line, NS offered to sell the whole 27-mile line. The last part of negotiation to become public had the county discussing purchasing the 12-miles of line from Porterdale to Newborn, at a starting price of $1.8 million.

While the city has expressed some interest in potentially turning the rail into a trail, County Chairman Kathy Morgan said she was more interested in future rail use, and preventing the line and land under it from being purchased by anybody else.

Nevertheless the debate raged on about whether to buy the rail and about converting any rail to trails. Residents around the county amongst themselves and a group of several county landowners regularly attended BOC meetings to speak out against the purchase.

At one BOC meeting, a group of nearly 20 residents spoke in favor of buying the railroad and putting trails in Covington, but were followed a group of 20 more residents who were dead set against the purchase.

In subsequent interviews, Morgan has said the county is still in the fact-gathering phase and has not made any decision. As of early October, NS confirmed they were in the process of abandoning the railroad and had rerouted the lone customer using the line in Newton County elsewhere.

The 12.5 miles in Newton County sit vacant, but no updated negotiations have been released publicly.

NSP and Fairview Estates

The year of 2009 was also the year of federal stimulus money, and no stimulus project was more thoroughly debated than the county’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program. The NSP was designed to stabilize neighborhoods by providing local governments with money to purchase, rehabilitate and resell foreclosed residential properties.

However with such a saturated housing market, Newton County officials thought that simply selling more houses would really solve any problems. They decided to target a neighborhood struck hard by foreclosures, but instead of only buying, rehabbing and selling houses, they would spend some of their $1.74 million to buy vacant land and build a simple, mainly greenspace, park. The thought was an amenity like a park, would be an attraction to homeowners and would raise surrounding property values.

Many of the residents of Fairview Estates, however, thought that was one of the worst ideas they had ever heard. Neighborhood residents were angry because they weren’t told about the proposed park until months after the plans had been determined. They were also angry because in their view, a park would cause more harm than good, by attracting troubled youth, drugs and crime.

Four months and 20 some odd meetings later, the neighborhood is split. A strong group supports the park, and another strong group continues to oppose it. In the meantime, investors have purchased the majority of the original foreclosures.

The park is tentatively scheduled to move forward, though the county and its non-profit partner, IECDG, are still negotiating to buy the vacant land from SunTrust. Because so many homes in Fairview Estates were purchased, the county is planning to purchase the majority of its homes in other neighborhoods.

District 4 Community Center

District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson added to the debate by writing a letter to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, the state group administering the federal stimulus money for the NSP. In the Nov. 3 letter, Henderson accused the county of mishandling NSP money and attempting to force the park on the residents.

He also accused the BOC of having a double standard. In his opinion, while the board had made continual efforts to get approval for the NSP park, they had neglected to move forward on the Nelson Heights Community Center.

The Distinct 4 community center was completed this summer, but as it was preparing to open some commissioners raised concerns about who would run the center and how it would be funded. The center was built with special local option sales tax dollars, and Henderson had asked that the county pay to fund it with county appropriation money.

However, the chairman and some commissioners did not want to fund the center if it going to be run a 501(c)3 board of directors that had been set up by the county attorney’s office.

Work sessions to discuss the matter have been delayed, and the center remains locked and empty.

New Park and Library

Amid all the debates, were two positive county projects that had been years in the making. District 2 had grown tremendously over the past decade and residents were clamoring for amenities.

Newton County broke ground on the first phase of Denny Dobbs Park in July and two months later broke ground on the Porter Memorial Branch Library.

The park will be located at the corner of Ga. Highway 212 and Richard Chapel Road, directly across from Oak Hill Elementary, and is expected to open in spring 2010. The first phase is expected to cost just under $1.48 million and will include basketball courts, multiple playgrounds, pavilions, restrooms, a baseball field and a life trail, which has different exercise areas and machines along its path.

The library will be located at 6190 Highway 212 next to the fire station. The library is expected to have the latest technology, books, movies and music and will be energy efficient. The total cost is expected to be around $6 million for the building and library materials, and the library is expected to open in early 2011.

Most of the cost for the park and library was paid for by county impact fees.

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