When Covington Mayor Kim Carter took office in 2008, she wanted to run the city more like a business. A budget reduction of $20 million since that time and the reduction of 35 city positions through early retirement and not filling vacant positions, speaks to a businesslike response to the economic downturn.
Despite those reductions, the city has had many accomplishments and it has many big plans for the future, Carter said at Thursday's state of the city address, held at the Turner Lake Complex.
She celebrated the city's successes, including purchasing a larger supply of electricity, which is helping save homeowners an average of $141 per year over what they were paying during the "devastating utility rates" in the summer of 2007.
Despite a previous 17 percent decline in the tax digest, and an expected 12 to 15 percent decline again this year, the city has not raised its millage rate. Out of an expected $120 million budget for next year, the city will only collect about $5 million in property taxes, Carter said. Public safety expenses alone cost more than $11 million.
For a $150,000 house, that equates to $490 in property taxes.
"You're getting a very good return on your investment," Carter said, noting that city has award-winning police, fire and E-911 services and an accredited public works department.
Despite seeing 88 percent more calls for service during the past few years, the police department has not grown, instead increasing efficiency through technology and using best practices.
The city has also worked to combat poverty through the promotion of affordable housing. A 60-unit affordable senior housing complex is being built in downtown Covington, while the same developer is also going to build 32 affordable single-family homes in the Walker's Bend subdivision off Ga. Highway 81.
In the last 3 years, the city has purchased 261 acres of land around the airport as it prepares for future industrial growth in the area. The runway was lengthened to 5,500 feet in 2006 and it was resurfaced last year. The city took full control of operations in 2010 and recently appointed members to an airport authority to eventually hand over control to more experienced people.
"We want our airport to be know as first class airport. We want it to be know for excellent customer service," Carter said, noting past problems under third-party management. "We feel we're on the right path."
In another effort to further economic development, the city increased funding to the Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce, which recently hired a economic development leader to bring new industry to the county.
While the economic climate figures to remain challenging, Carter said the city has many more promising projects on the horizon.
The city is going to continue to invest in the airport, another $7 to $10 million over the next few years, in an effort to attract industry and business. The city is working on a new entrance to the airport on the Ga. Highway 142 side, and it is seeking grant funding to place a new terminal building near a new entrance. This would provide greater access to industries.
The city has a list of $60 million in road projects it hopes to pursue over the next several years, including the widening and rehabilitation of Industrial Boulevard at a cost $5.4 million if the 2011 SPLOST is passed.
The council has also agreed to explore the beginnings of a public transit system in the city, which would increase transportation options for residents.
One item that Carter mentioned in a follow-up e-mail on Friday, is the possibility of creating a Utility Authority. Because of the complexity of electricity and gas systems, she said a utility authority could be a way to have more experienced residents deal with those issues.
She's also hoping to pursue a new city hall at some point in the upcoming years, because the current building is both too small and outdated, including a lack of any natural sunlight to most of the building. The city will also continue to pursue the use of technology and looking for services that could be outsourced to improve efficiency and save money.
"We have a vision for the future and we're going to keep pushing ahead," Carter said.