Newton County needs more money for road projects and bridge repairs and a bigger judicial center, which means it needs to find new ways to make money. But county commissioners agreed at their mini-retreat Friday that they first need a better understanding of the county’s finances and how to create an effective strategic plan.
The Board of Commissioners met for five hours at the FFA-FCCLA Center with facilitators from the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission to kick off a strategic planning process that commissioners hope will help them get the county on sound enough financial footing to lower the millage rate within two years — a promise some commissioners made when they voted recently to increase the millage rate from 10.91 to 11.54.
In addition to strategic planning, the board discussed a few pressing issues.
Newton County owns 55 bridges, which could cost $1 million a year to keep up to grade, and 780 miles of roads, 10 percent of which received a failing grade in the most recent inspections.
"That’s not good," Chairman Keith Ellis said. "If you multiply the cost over a five-year period on the number of miles we need to work on, we can’t afford it. We couldn’t raise the millage rate high enough to do it. We have to find a way to preserve instead of replace."
Ellis said he and newly-promoted Transportation Director Tom Garrett are working on a long-term maintenance plan. Ellis said it’s important to repair roads sooner rather than later, because the worse a road gets, the more it costs to repair, increasing from around $146,000 per mile in some cases to $179,000 per mile. To rebuild a road, as in the case of Mote Road this summer, the cost is around $250,000.
While some work has been done, including restructuring and slightly slimming down the engineering, fleet and public works departments, Ellis said he still would like help to determine priorities.
Priorities he mentioned included fixing the notorious four-way stop at the intersection of Ga. Highway 81 and the Covington Bypass/Crowell roads, a project that might need only one more piece of property purchased to begin. Ellis also mentioned doing something about Elks Club Road, which he called the most dangerous road in the county.
Ellis said in most cases, widening roads is too expensive, so the county will look to relieve congestion and improve flow in other ways, by improving signaling and adding turn lanes.
Another issue is all of the substandard, abandoned roads left in subdivisions that were either partially or never built in. The county can’t formally abandon – give up ownership – of roads where there are multiple land owners, generally when a house has been built and sold.
But undeveloped subdivisions could be abandoned, which would take the county off the hook for maintaining or upgrading them. Commissioner Nancy Schulz suggested the county aggressively pursue that option to avoid future liability. Developers who went bankrupt during the housing collapse often left roads unfinished, without a final layer of asphalt. In some cases, the roads have only a quarter-inch of asphalt, said Commissioner Lanier Sims, and in other cases the roads are built with substandard materials.
Sims said the county needs to be more aggressive about requiring core samples of the roads to ensure that they meet standards. The county completely revamped its bond requirements a couple of years ago to require developers to set more money aside upfront to complete roads and amenities, and county attorney Jenny Carter said those requirements are already coming into play in some developments that are restarting, including the Silver Ridge Farms subdivision off Harold Dobbs Road.
Commissioner John Douglas, who represents rural District 1, said the large number of dirt roads still concerns his constituents, who want to see more roads paved.
Ellis said nearly $1 million a year is being spent on repairing vehicles, including parts and labor, and the county will continue to evaluate its operation to see what needs to be done in-house and what it might be more efficient to send to outside companies.
In addition, the county is going to emphasize preventive maintenance to make vehicles’ operators – whether their vehicles are autos or heavy road equipment – more aware of what their machines need to keep them running efficiently.
Ellis said the fleet department is getting a new computer system to replace the hand-written system it currently uses. The change should allow employees to better monitor work that is done and regular maintenance needs.
Last year, the county lost $27,000 on Gaither’s Plantation, located at 270 Davis Ford Road, because rental income was well below maintenance costs.
The county initially tried to bid out the property’s pasture for cattle farmers, but received no bids. However, Ellis said the county had recently heard from some people who are interested in paying the county to operate the property as a destination for weddings, events, tours and other activities.