Litigation against Newton County from a local domestic violence shelter may be pending on allegations that the county is not paying its share of funding, according to a letter sent out by the shelter's attorney.
Project ReNeWal - a domestic violence family victim assistance shelter serving Newton, Walton and Rockdale counties - alleges Newton County and Walton County have not been contributing their share of the "5 percent fees" collected from court fines to fund victims' assistance programs.
"We've been trying to sit down and talk with these folks for almost two years," before retaining the pro-bono services of an attorney earlier this year, said Vickie Stevenson, executive director of Project ReNeWal.
"(Project ReNeWal is) taking the position the district attorney has to give them some or all the funds that are collected for victim assistance, and we think they are wrong," said County Attorney Tommy Craig.
The disagreement hinges on what programs are covered in the legislation that set up the fund. Georgia Code 15-21-132 says in part the funds should be paid "if the county where the fine was imposed operates or participates in any victim assistance program certified by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council."
Attorney Derek Bauer of McKenna Long & Aldridge, representing Project ReNeWal, said in an April 1 letter, the shelter was the only CJCC-certified family victim's assistance program serving Newton County.
According to the CJCC, prosecutor's office victim assistance programs were automatically certified until recently. After April 30, all programs will have to apply for certification. The CJCC was not able to confirm the certified programs in Newton County by press time, but listed the Alcovy Judicial Circuit as the only recipient of the county's "5 percent fee" funds.
In the letter sent to the Board of Commissioners and Craig on April 1, Bauer requested Newton County to respond in writing by April 11 of their "intent to commence the funding of Project ReNeWal required by the statutory mandate."
The letter stated the shelter would be prepared to "seek the courts' enforcement assistance" and included a draft of a Writ of Mandamus - a legal filing to require public officials to do their legal duty, explained Bauer.
No response was received by April 11 from Newton County, according to Bauer, but Craig said he had not seen anything filed against the county as of April 18.
Walton County, which received a similar letter, replied that they were gathering information and intended to respond in detail, said Bauer.
Newton County officials hadn't responded to an earlier letter dated Feb. 19 inviting BOC Chairman Aaron Varner and Craig to meet informally with Project ReNeWal to "discuss Newton County's historical use of its '5 percent fees,'" said Bauer, and two previously arranged appointments with Craig had been canceled prior to sending the letters, according to Stevenson.
"It's beyond my understanding," said Stevenson, a Newton County resident of 53 years. "I can't understand how they can have a domestic violence problem in Newton County and they won't even talk to us."
According to the Newton County Sheriff's Office, deputies responded to 587 incidents of family violence in 2006 and 419 incidents in 2007. At least seven of the 17 homicide cases since 2006 have been domestic violence or family violence related, according to NCSO Lt. Bill Watterson.
Project ReNeWal assisted 1,805 victims from Newton County in 2007, or almost double the number from Rockdale County, 949, or Walton County, 999, according to Stevenson.
The shelter works closely with the DA's office as well as other agencies that refer victims to Project ReNeWal. Stevenson said the county participates in and makes use of the program's services in other ways, such as training workshops for the NCSO.
"Those victims need services beyond what the DA and courts can offer them," said Bauer. "There's only so much the judicial system and prosecutor's office do for them."
The program, which has a 20-bed facility, 24-hour hotline and is staffed by six full-time and six part-time employees, had a budget of more than $500,000 and would be about $90,000 in the red at the rate they were going, said Stevenson, although three fundraising events in July and August might help make up the difference. They were able to meet last year's budget because of Rockdale's contributions, said Stevenson, pointing out Rockdale gave half of its "5 percent fees" and also budgeted county funds to give to ReNeWal.
The shelter had received a $5,000 donation from the Newton County DA's office in 2007 and nothing in 2006, said Stevenson.
According to the DA's office, about $76,000 had been collected in 2007 for Newton County's "5 percent fees" and approximately $72,000 in 2006.
Alcovy Circuit District Attorney Ken Wynne, who oversees Newton and Walton counties' DA offices, said $20,000 had been donated to Project ReNeWal in 2005, $20,000 in 2004, and $6,000 in 2003 with similar amounts also coming from Walton County's "5 percent fees."
The "5 percent fees" funds the Victim Witness Assistance Program and its three full-time employees, along with a $35,000 Victims of Crime Act grant, said Wynne.
He declined to comment on the letter in light of the possibility of pending litigation and referred questions to Craig.
"We have not made a final opinion, but everything we've seen thus far, indicates everything the district attorney has done has been right and appropriate and in the best interest of the taxpayer and citizens of Newton County," said Craig. "Additionally, I think what he has done has been in the best interest of the victims that have come to his office."
When asked if the county was still open to talking with Project ReNeWal, Craig said he wasn't sure, but would be meeting with Wynne Monday to discuss the case. "I have not formed an opinion as to whether or not it'd be worthwhile to engage in discussions with them. We're not afraid of the litigation," he said.
Bauer said litigation was the last option the shelter wanted to pursue. "(Project ReNeWal) doesn't have the time or resources to battle with the very community it serves," said Bauer. "The shelter doors are open to members of community and county leadership to discuss any of these issues. That's what they asked for."
"I have no problem with the DA' office. I understand he needs the funding too," said Stevenson. "I know he's feeling the crunch... because we are, too."
"What we need from Newton County is just a pledge to help us with a certain amount of the funding so we can feel a little more stable in the community," she said.