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Governor Perdue tours Covington plant
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Gov. Sonny Perdue visited Covington on Wednesday to congratulate General Mills and the city on their work together to reduce water consumption - an issue that has received statewide attention due to the ongoing drought.

At a small ceremony at the General Mills plant, Perdue toured the water treatment facility with Covington Mayor Kim Carter and other local officials, installed in August 2006. The governor even drank a glass of treated wastewater from the plant.

Since going online, the treatment facility has recycled about 100 million gallons of water, cutting the plant's water use in half, according to Mark Bible, manager of the Covington plant.

"What we've seen today is an example of a major corporation...doing the right thing for the world," Perdue said.

According to a release from General Mills, the treatment facility cleans the plant's food processing wastewater so thoroughly that the water can be used for any purpose, including for cooking and drinking. However the Covington plant chooses to only use the treated water for non-food contact uses, such as dust removal and cooling.

The treatment facility cost $5 million to build. The Newton County Industrial Development Authority issued bonds to cover the total cost of the facility. General Mills is repaying $4 million of the bonds and Covington is repaying the remaining $1 million, according to Frank Turner Jr., a member of the IDA.

Covington is repaying the $1 million in bonds at a rate of $100,000 a year for 10 years Turner said. So far $300,000 has been repaid.

General Mills will own the title to the treatment facility once it is paid off said City Manager Steve Horton. He said the city pursued the partnership with General Mills because of the return on wastewater treatment capacity it offered to Covington.

"The old wastewater stream coming from General Mills took up a lot of the city's capacity," Horton said. "We invested in their process because it does give us capacity and that capacity becomes more valuable over time."

With construction prices on the rise, Horton said it was less expensive for the city to free up some extra capacity at their Williams Street treatment plant by partnering with General Mills than it would be to construct a new plant.

"What's happened right here has not only met a specific need that Covington/Newton County and the state had but it truly is a public/private partnership that we believe we'll be able to use as an example in the future," Perdue said.

Bible said the cost savings the water treatment facility has provided have made the Covington plant more competitive with other General Mills facilities, both nationally and internationally.

"We could not ask for a better corporate partner in this community than General Mills," Carter said. "General Mills was green before it was cool to be green. They walk the walk."

Carter extended thanks to former Covington mayor, Sam Ramsey, who helped shepherd the project to completion during his last term in office.

Perdue briefly addressed the Homeowner Tax Relief Grant, a $428 million statewide program that reimburses local governments that provide a homestead tax exemption. In the wake of a huge budget shortfall, the governor has said he would like to see the program cut. The Georgia legislature is hoping to work out a compromise for the program when they reconvene in January.

Perdue said local governments "should be able to take the steps to make sure they're living within their means and not relying on the [Homeowner Tax Relief Grant]."

He said the grant has not succeeded in lowering property taxes as it was intended to and that fact would be taken into consideration going forward in his negotiations with the legislature.

If the grant is eliminated, it could cost Newton County as much as $1.8 million in state funds that have already been included in the county's FY 2009 budget. Covington stands to loose $132,000 if the grant is eliminated.