After two hours of emotional debate Monday night, the Covington City Council narrowly approved a proposal to spend a small portion of the proceeds from the sale of Covington Cable on purchasing property within the city for a homeless shelter.
Council members Janet Goodman, Ocie Franklin and Hawnethia Williams voted in favor of the proposal. Council members John Goodman, Roger Tingler and Mike Whatley voted against the proposal with Mayor Sam Ramsey casting the tie-breaking vote in favor.
After the vote an emotional the Rev. Clara Lett, director of Rainbow Covenant Ministries which will operate the Covington shelter, broke down into happy tears and was immediately swarmed by congratulatory friends, co-workers and family members.
"This is democracy in action," said an overjoyed Ramsey after the vote. "This is one of Covington's finer hours."
Monday night's debate was tense and saw the highest public turnout in more than a year with meeting overflow standing in the hallway outside of the council room. The large majority of attendants at the meeting appeared to be in favor of the proposal though there were some opponents in the audience as well.
The council voted to release approximately $1 million in funds to the Covington Housing Authority for the purchase of three buildings located on 7153 Turner Lake Circle. The buildings are owned by former Porterdale city council member Bill Norton. According to Ramsey, the buildings have been appraised at $980,000 and Norton is asking $1.1 million for them. The total square footage of the buildings is 17,000 square feet, said Ramsey.
Improvements to the Turner Lake property would be relatively minimal before Rainbow Covenant Ministries can move in. A new sprinkler system and showers for the restrooms are needed. However 3,000 square feet in one of the buildings is currently sitting empty and can be occupied right away by FaithWorks said Ramsey.
FaithWorks is a nonprofit supported by a coalition of 29 local churches which provides emergency financial relief to families who need help paying their rent and utilities.
Rainbow Covenant Ministries, FaithWorks and possibly the Community Food Pantry will pay a low monthly rent to the Covington Housing Authority said Ramsey. The city of Covington will not be contributing any operational expenses to the running of any of the ministries.
However, with its relocation to Covington, the homeless shelter stands a very good chance of becoming eligible to receive state and federal funding. Rainbow Covenant Ministries is currently ineligible to receive any government funding for operational expenses in its current location in Porterdale where it is under a court order from the city due to its location in a residential zone.
"This would be the ideal location for them to be," Ramsey said in his comments before the council and gathered public.
In its six year history at the Rainbow Covenant Church in Porterdale, the homeless shelter is estimated to have cared for between 4,000 and 5,000 individuals. A recent detailed count of Newton County's homeless population revealed that there are 175 homeless individuals living in the county though the count is so recent that it has yet to be verified as accurate by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.
Letters from the Director of Social Services at Newton Medical Center and the President of the Newton County Minister's Union were read in favor of the proposal at the meeting.
Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Covington Billy Wade gave an impassioned speech in favor of the shelter.
"It's going to get worse and worse," said Wade of the county's homeless situation. "We've visited building after building looking for a place."
Opponents to the proposal said they were concerned that the city was being hasty in spending $1 million of the $27 million that Covington received from Charter Communications Inc. for the sale of Covington Cable at the end of August. According to Ramsey after the city pays off the cable system's short term debt, the total proceeds from the sale will be closer to $22 million.
Opponents recommended instead using the $22 million to pay off the city's short term and long term debt. They also questioned the long term plans for the shelter and what would happen if voluntary contributions from the community - which have supported it thus far - were to drop off suddenly.
"I just question the wisdom related to the cost," said Billy Smith, owner of Newton Electrical Supply and a former Covington city council member. "What's going to happen down the road?"
Public opinion on the proposal has been divided. As of Tuesday afternoon, a Covington News web poll asking readers whether they were in support of the proposal has elicited 67 responses so far with 51 percent in favor of the proposal, 43 percent against, and 6 percent undecided.