After some initial enthusiasm toward the possibility of acquiring foreclosed homes and redeveloping them, the Newton County Board of Commissioners is now engaged in an ideological skirmish over whether local government should be involved.
In October the BOC agreed to apply for a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that would provide emergency funds for the purchase and redevelopment of foreclosed residential properties.
Prior to voting to apply for the funds several Republican commissioners said they would like to receive more information on how the funds would be used if the county is awarded the grant. At the time the board voted to give conditional approval toward the application with a final decision to be made if funding was awarded.
At their board meeting last Tuesday the BOC was presented with the requested information by County Senior Planner Scott Sirotkin. He said the county had been allocated $2.1 million by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, which is overseeing the distribution of the $77 million awarded to Georgia from HUD's Neighborhood Stabilization Program.
Sirotkin stressed that just because Newton County had been allocated $2.1 million under the program did not mean that the county would be awarded the funds. He said the $2.1 million could probably purchase 14 or 15 foreclosed homes.
To be awarded any funds Sirotkin said the DCA must decide that Newton County meets a yet-to-be determined threshold on the demonstration of need and the demonstration of a capability by the local government in terms of implementing a program to purchase and redevelop foreclosed homes.
That the city of Covington and Newton County jointly applied for the grant shows need, said Sirotkin, but that since neither government currently has an active program in place for the purchase and redevelopment of homes could hurt their application.
"When it comes to these types of activities, Newton County and Covington are somewhat beginners," Sirotkin said.
Outgoing District 3 Commissioner Ester Fleming, a Republican, said he didn't think it proper for government to get involved in housing.
"Let free enterprise and the market take care of that," Fleming said.
District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing, a Republican, agreed saying "I fail to see where county government can do better than private enterprise."
District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson, a Democrat, responded back that there may be no vacant homes in District 3 but there certainly were in District 4, which encompasses the majority of the city of Covington and the city of Oxford, and the BOC should accept whatever grant money it could get.
"This is free money," Henderson said.
Fleming disagreed with Henderson's assessment, noting that there are foreclosed homes throughout the county and saying "it's not free money. It's taxpayers' money."
District 2 Commissioner Earnest Simmons, a Democrat, questioned whether some funds from the program could be used for downpayment assistance for prospective homeowners.
Sirotkin said there may be the possibility of doing that.
Newton County and Covington should find out if they have been awarded any funds by the DCA by mid-January.