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Posted: March 6, 2011 12:00 a.m.

Looking at the need for 2011 SPLOST

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This is the third part in our Sunday SPLOST series leading up to the SPLOST special election on March 15. Today's story will examine six of the larger projects included in the 2011 SPLOST list, and tell you why officials believe they’re needed.

The idea behind a SPLOST project is that it will benefit a large portion of the population, and county officials believe the 2011 SPLOST projects will do that.

Whether it’s an expansion to the much used emergency room, a special-needs recreation complex for the county’s youth or an agricultural facility for the 1,300 children in various county programs, the SPLOST is designed to enrich the county.

However, in a difficult economic climate, some residents believe that the county should hunker down and cut costs, including the additional one percent sales tax that is SPLOST.

Read the descriptions of a handful of larger SPLOST projects below and see what you think.

1. Hospital Emergency Room

ER expansion would add 12 treatment rooms

Price: $4 million

Location: Newton Medical Center, 5126 Hospital Drive N.E., Covington

 

Why needed?: The hospital had nearly 25,000 more emergency room visitors in 2010, than it did when it was built in 1993, and space is running low.

 

The hospital is constantly working to lessen emergency room waiting time, but the number of visits has increased from 18,159 in 1993 to an estimated 43,047 in 2010.

 

Improving the emergency room process, including signing patients in, identifying their level of need and treating them, can reduce waiting times, but the hospital also faces a lack of physical treatment space, said hospital CEO Jim Weadick.

 

The emergency room has 16 treatment rooms and an expansion would add an additional 12 treatment rooms, for a total of 28 rooms.

 

About 41 percent of emergency room visitors required immediate care, while 12 percent of visitors had to be admitted to the hospital.

 

Why SPLOST?: Put simply, the hospital doesn’t have the money to expand the emergency room, Weadick said.

 

The physical buildings that comprise Newton Medical Center are operated by Newton Health Systems, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which actually operated at a loss during its last fiscal year.

 

“The hospital is a community resource,” Weadick said. “We have a facility which meets the needs of every citizen in Newton County, not just a select category of individuals. It’s a widespread resource available to all of our citizens.”

 

The hospital and all of its assets are owned by the Newton County Hospital Authority, which was originally formed in 1954. The authority leases the assets to Newton Health Systems. The ongoing mission of both organizations is to meet the health care needs of Newton County.

2. Agricultural Facility

Center would be used for ag education, livestock shows

 

Price: $1.1million

Location: Unknown, but a facility would likely be located on 25-35 acres that officials believe could be donated

 

Why needed?: Nearly 1,300 children participate in the wide variety of Newton County 4-H programs, and hundreds of agriculture-minded adults participate in local organizations, but they don’t have a central meeting place.

 

The groups often have to rotate between family farms or the facilities of other civic groups, said Ted Wynne, coordinator of Newton County’s University of Georgia extension office.

 

An educational facility with meeting rooms and a livestock arena would be the first phase of an eventual multi-use, multi-building agriculture center. The cost could still be greater than the $1.1 million allocated by SPLOST, but officials hope land for the center is donated and other contributions are received. Newton County Farm Bureau President Brent Galloway said some land donations have already been offered. He said the facility could be around 30,000 square feet.

 

Wynne said the center would be used by 4-H, the Master Gardeners program and the Georgia Cattleman’s Association and be used to host local and regional livestock shows and other events.

 

The facility would be operated by the county, but Todd Teasley, director of Newton County’s FFA-FCCLA Center off Ga. Highway 36, said agriculture centers in Carroll, Oglethorpe and Walton counties are rented out by local groups and state-wide event coordinators. He said the hope is that the rent and tourism dollars brought in by the center would cover maintenance costs.

 

“If you figure 200 families would come to the county for some of these shows, staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, that would be a boost to the economy,” Teasley said.

 

Why SPLOST?: The Newton County Extension Office and 4-H program are currently run by the county, and the facility would, first and foremost, expand these programs. Because of the number of adults and children who participate in agriculture activities, officials believe it has a clear community benefit.

 

3. Debt Service

County would pay off $8.5 million of debt

 

Price: $8.5 million

Debt projects: Newton County’s administration building, detention center and landfill

 

Why needed and why SPLOST?: Newton County issued bonds to pay for its main office building, a jail expansion and a landfill expansion. Each year, under its bond agreement, the county pays back part of the principal and part of the interest accumulated on the loan.

 

Because those projects are all considered SPLOST-eligible projects, paying off debt for those projects is also SPLOST eligible, and the county has chosen to use this revenue to pay off debt.

 

Governments borrow to pay for capital projects, such as buildings and equipment, or to cover budget shortfalls, according to the Government Finance Officers Associations. The approach is used instead of ratcheting up tax rates during any one given year.

 

In 2003, the county issued $6.18 million in bonds, or Certificates of Participation, for the jail expansion, and in 2006 it issued $13.2 million in bonds for the administration building. The remaining principle on those two projects at the end of this fiscal year, June 30, will be just more than $13 million, while the total interested would be $4.11 million.

 

The interest rates for the jail vary annually between 1.35 percent and 3.6 percent, while the interest rates fro the administration building vary between 3.5 percent and 5 percent, according to county documents.

 

The county also received a $4 million, low-interest loan for the landfill expansion from the state.

 

In order to cover its annual share of debt service during the next 6 years, the county will need to spend more than $9 million, just more than the money allocated by SPLOST.

 

4. District 4 Improvements

Main project would be a workforce development center

 

Price: $1.1 million

Location: Unknown except for somewhere in District 4

 

Why needed?: Rev. Willie J. Smith, president of the Newton County Minister's Union, said the county needs a workforce development center to train employees for any new industries or business that locate locally.

 

He said Friday that the workforce center could either be an independent building or could be added on to an existing facility.

 

“We need this because of the economic situation we’re in. Jobs are going to come back and when they do come back, we’ll have somewhere to train our people for different jobs,” he said.

 

He said he believes the center would be eligible for state and federal labor department funding, but the woman who had the specific grant information was not available for comment Friday.

 

The facility would be run by the county, not by the minister’s union or any other organization, he said.

 

Other aspects: Commissioner J.C. Henderson’s request also included the purchase of playground equipment for the Victoria’s Station neighborhood, the purchase of property for parks in the Dinah Pace and Settlers Grove neighborhoods and the money for an indigent cemetery.

 

Commissioner Mort Ewing’s, who SPLOST list was approved by the Board of Commissioners, said previously that he included the money for District 4 with the understanding that any and all plans will have to come back to the board for approval.

 

5. Miracle League field

Money would pay for special needs baseball field, other amenities

 

Price: $1.5 million

Location: Expansion to City Pond Park on City Pond Road

 

Why needed?: There are about 2,500 special needs youth between the ages of 3 to 22 in Newton County, and the specially designed rubber Miracle League field would draw from a 60-mile radius, said Tamara Richardson, consultant for the Miracle League field.

 

While that is the main draw, the facility would also include special needs playgrounds for children aged 2-5 and children aged 5-12, in addition to two traditional baseball fields. The special-needs playgrounds will be the only such playgrounds in Newton County, Richardson said. They will be different from simple handicap-accessible playgrounds.

 

The total cost for the projects is about $2 million and the fundraisers have already gathered more than $100,000, including a recent $25,000 grant from a private donor. Richardson said the effort will continue colleting grants and the Friends of Newton County Miracle League is working to gain 501(c)(3) status.

 

The county had pledged support for the project previously, and it meets the definition of a SPLOST-eligible project.

 

6. Fire Station No. 8

Northern fire station would expand coverage

 

Price: $1 million

Location: On the Ga. Highway 81 North corridor

 

Why needed?: Newton County has a plan to eventually make sure every county property is within 5 miles of a fire station, and this north-central section is next on the list.

 

The building of a fire station in the area would lower fire insurance ratings for surrounding property owners.

 

The $1 million would pay for both land acquisition and the construction of the station, Fire Chief Mike Satterfield wrote in an e-mail.

 

In addition, $100,000 will be devoted to purchased self contained breathing apparatus, which are the masks and air tanks firefighters use.

 

Money for these projects would traditionally come out of the county’s fire fund, but that fund has experienced cuts like all other parts of the county budget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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