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Posted: June 22, 2013 9:23 p.m.

Attorney: No conflict with Heights

Officials at the Nelson Heights Community Center are hoping for a fresh start, and while they won’t get the funding they requested, they did get some key questions answered last week, providing clarity as they move forward.

County Attorney Tommy Craig told the Newton County Board of Commissioners Tuesday that Commissioner J.C. Henderson is legally and ethically allowed to serve as both a commissioner and the chairman of the Nelson Heights Community Center Board of Directors.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz said at the June 13 budget work session she believed it was unethical for Henderson to both request money for the center as its board chairman and then vote on that request as a county commissioner.

However, Craig said there was no difference between a commissioner being a board member or the board chairman.
“There is absolutely, positively no conflict of interest, no ethical violation with respect to that activity,” Craig said.

Who runs the center?
The new director of the Nelson Heights Community Center is Christine Young-Brown, and she went before the Covington City Council Monday to request $40,000 per year for the next two years as seed money to get the center up and running successfully.

City Attorney Ed Crudup said the city cannot give money to private or nonprofit groups without receiving something tangible in return, because that would be considered an illegal gratuity under the Georgia Constitution. That rule also applies to counties in Georgia.

However, the status of the NHCC was not clearly stated Monday, and it’s actually run by the county. Its volunteer Board of Directors is a county entity, not a separate nonprofit.

Craig said the confusion likely stems from the fact a 501(c)(3) — Nelson Heights Community Services — was created years ago to raise funds for the center; however, that group has no authority.

There is no issue with the Board of Commissioners giving the center money, because it is only transferring money within the county.

“The county is dealing with itself in connection with that project,” Craig said Tuesday.

The center’s budget is created by the volunteer board; however, the county finance department officially approves any money being spent for the center.

The Board of Commissioners is expected to give the center $32,000 this fiscal year, though it may bump up the amount to $40,000 in December if the center is successful. Schulz had said she had an issue giving $40,000 to a new, unproven entity.

Cities and counties can donate to a nonprofit or other private group if they get a tangible benefit or product in return.

Crudup expanded on the original issue in a Wednesday email:

“The prohibition against municipalities giving away public money is grounded in Article 3, Section 6, Paragraph 5 of the Georgia Constitution, commonly referred to as the ‘Anti-gratuities clause,’ which the courts have interpreted as applying to cities and counties as well as the General Assembly. ‘Gratuity’ is defined as something given voluntarily without recompense or consideration, or a gift. Charitable donations by municipalities would generally fall within that proscription.

“It is otherwise, however, if the donor can show that it receives a substantial benefit in return for the expenditure. For example, payments to the (Covington-Newton County) Chamber of Commerce under a contract for defined services to be rendered by the chamber.”

Craig said a few local governments, like the city of Atlanta, have had a constitutional amendment passed to allow them to donate to nonprofits. Neither Covington nor Newton County has that ability.

Craig said the county can support recreational activities, arts and sciences, and he saw no issue in the county running the center, which, as far as he understood, had the purpose of educating young people.

He said he would leave it up to the city attorney as to whether the city could donate to a county entity.

Plans for the center
In her presentation to the city council, Young-Brown said she has several plans for the center, including after-school programs for students, Medicaid and Medicare-help seminars, GED classes, SAT and ACT preparation and reading programs.

She said the center already has a community garden and plans to have youth operate the garden with help from adults in the community.

While the city couldn’t help financially, council members did say they were willing to help in other ways.
Young-Brown hoped the center would be able to get grants in the future to support more programming.

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