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Posted: November 26, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Town hall sees utility, housing concerns

Hotel/civic center financing on hold

The ongoing need for more aid for residents hurting financially and efforts to improve sub-standard housing were reoccurring themes at the city of Covington’s second town hall meeting on Thursday.

Held at the Turner Lake Complex, the meeting was one of a series of quarterly events the city recently began hosting. The well-attended event included Mayor Kim Carter and five of the six members of the city council, as well as City Manager Steve Horton and all of the city’s department heads. Event moderator Bea Jackson of the Washington Street Community Center, took questions from the audience and also offered pre-submitted questions to the panel of speakers.

"It’s no secret that we have some sub-standard housing out there," Carter said, adding that the city was currently pursuing state grant money that would encourage redevelopment in some of Covington’s most blighted areas.

Councilmember Hawnethia Williams said she was excited about the city’s plans to pursue things like Community Housing Improvement Program funds and Community Development Block Grants for the improvement of dilapidated housing.

She said the city needed to enforce more its existing nuisance ordinance so that things like vacant housing and slummy front-yards were no longer allowed to bring down the characters of neighborhoods.

"We have not had enforcement as tough and rough as it could be," Williams said.

Horton said in hindsight one of the best things the city has recently done was the decision last year to purchase a building on Turner Lake Circle for $1.08 million to be used as a homeless shelter by Rainbow Covenant Ministries at the beginning of 2009.

Grey Shy, a member of the city’s Planning Commission and a community activist, said he has been contacted or heard from roughly 150 people in the last week in need of financial aid.

"Now I think is the time to lay away all of the differences and get the people some food and houses," Shy said.

Carter said she also has been contacted multiple times in the last week from residents seeking help with paying their utility bills or in finding food and housing.

Horton said he was recently surprised to learn that not as many residents as he thought had signed up to participate in the city’s new utility Round-Up program. Only 700 of the city’s roughly 12,000 electricity customers have signed up to take part in the program he said.

The program rounds up to the nearest dollar amount a participating resident’s monthly electricity bill with the proceeds going to a fund that assists qualifying residents with the payment of their utility bills.

"The most it’s going to cost you is 99 cents [a month]," Horton told the audience, urging them to take part in the program and to encourage their friends and family to take part in it as well.

Responding to a question on the status of the hotel/civic center, Carter said the project was on hold. With Wall Street still in a tailspin and banks hesitant to loan to one another, the bond market has "gone crazy" she said, with rates higher than 10 percent. Prior to Wall Street’s collapse the city and county had planned on taking out $23 million in bonds to pay for construction of the civic center.

Additionally Carter said with the credit market still in flux she did not know if the project’s private partner, P.R. Hospitality, would be able to secure the $12 million loan it was expected to take out to build the hotel.

Carter said she was looking forward to learning the results of a countywide economic development study that the city council has undertaken along with the Newton County Board of Commissioners. A second draft of the study will be finished this week she said. The study is expected to include recommendations for the development of the Covington Municipal Airport.

"That’s a very large initiative," Carter said of the study, which she first asked for upon taking office at the beginning of the year. "The airport is a huge part of our economic development strategy going forward."

Carter was briefly joined in speaking by County Chair-elect Kathy Morgan, who told the audience she looked forward to working with the city on economic development issues.

"I feel like I did get a mandate for change in this community," Morgan said.

Carter, who is almost finished with her first year in office as mayor, said the city council had a very productive year during which they passed six new ordinances dealing with alcohol, gas rates, water rates, moving to a fiscal year budget, motorized carts and zoning codes and regulations.

The city also passed new policies for human resources and purchasing. A new parking ordinance is currently being studied and an ordinance for the operation of the city’s Public/Education Government channels is expected to be approved at Monday’s council meeting.

"I just think that there has been a change of attitude in the whole council arena," said Councilmember Mike Whatley of the amount of work accomplished by the council this year.

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