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BOC debates community center funding
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With the Nelson Heights Community Center finally set to open after a few years of delays, several of the county commissioners realized they had a lot of unanswered questions about the purpose and operation of the center.

On Tuesday, District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson asked the board for approval to use $55,240 of appropriation money devoted to the center and left over the Fiscal Year 2009 budget. The money was going to be used to hire a director for $37,000, another part-time employee, pay for utilities, pay for security and pay for some food throughout the year. Henderson said James Griffin, an attorney in County Attorney Tommy Craig’s office, suggested the director be paid as a county employee to receive county benefits.

At that point, District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz asked how the center would be organized and managed, because she didn’t know since she was joining the BOC in the middle of the project. She said she didn’t understand why the county would hire an employee for the center if the center was an independent 501(c)(3) with its own board of directors.

Henderson said the center, which is located at the intersection of Laseter and Puckett streets, would be similar to the Washington Street Community Center. Schulz said that Washington Street has its own board of directors and simply receives appropriations from the county, it doesn’t report to the center nor are its personnel county employees.

"Why are we taking on the responsibility for the director?" Schulz asked.

District 2 Commissioner Earnest Simmons said Griffin suggested the director be a county employee temporarily, and the center would receive appropriations just like Washington Street or Senior Services. Griffin was on vacation this week and could not be reached for comment.

Chairman Kathy Morgan said she was reluctant to add a 501(c)(3) employee to the county because of legal concerns. Morgan suggested that the Nelson Heights center board construct a business plan, listing items like expenses and possible revenues. She said besides the director, the larger question of how the center will operate needed to be decided.

District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing said he thought the original plan was for the center to operate like the Almon Center or Mansfield Center, which are self-sufficient because of the revenues they bring in by renting out their facilities. However, he said it appeared the center’s plan had grown more complicated with expanded programs, and therefore, perhaps a work session was appropriate to determine the original and future intent for the center.

Simmons suggested that the center’s board decide on a funding plan and then present that to the BOC. Morgan said this is what Griffin told her the center’s board would do.

Henderson said the original plan and intent was approved by a previous BOC.

"James would not have been working for two to three years unless he had the direction of the BOC," Henderson said.

However, in the end the center’s request for the $55,240 of appropriation of money was tabled until a work session was held. The center has cost around $556,000 and funded through a 2005 Special Local Option Sales Tax.

Henderson said officials need to get the center up and running soon because vacant buildings are subject to vandalism. He said the center should receive its Certificate of Occupancy soon.

After the meeting, Henderson said the community is very excited about the center and he’s already had several requests from groups to be allowed to hold functions at the center, including the NAACP and the Newton County Democratic Party. He said the eventual plan for the center and it’s 8.5 acres of land, if it officials can find all the money it needs, is to have: after-school programs, a baseball or football field, a vehicle to be able to provide transportation to and from the center and a soup kitchen.

"We believe it will be a very valuable service to community; it’s something that’s been needed for a long time. People voted for it and are looking forward to it opening. I feel confident we’ll get together and take a deep breath and it will get it worked out," Henderson said.