COVINGTON, Ga. – The Covington City Council voted Monday evening to approve its 2019-2020 fiscal year budget, with the caveat that the $13,000 earmarked for Newton County Tomorrow would be held until a presentation could be made by the board.
Councilman Michael Whatley made the original motion to approve the budget, and Councilman Josh McKelvey asked to make the amendment, stating the money would not be distributed to Newton County Tomorrow until a plan was presented to the council.
Councilman Kenneth Morgan clarified that the $13,000 was still allocated to Newton County Tomorrow, but a hold was placed on the funds until a more informed decision could be made.
The council discussed this change to the budget during the work session prior to the meeting.
“I think the quick answer is 'I’m not sure it is the wises use of those funds,'” Mayor Ronnie Johnston said. “I will also say this, it is, right now, the only opportunity the municipalities and the county government have to discuss anything.
“Every time I say that someone goes, ‘So you have to pay to be able to do that?’ and it’s a good point. I can’t really argue that at all.”
Johnston said a portion of that allotment goes to pay the rent associated with The Center and the salary of an administrative person. He said every participating entity – Newton County and its cities – provide a portion of the funding.
“I will also say, I think there will potentially be a lot of change this year,” Johnston said noting the November election.
The council had this same conversation in August 2018 after the council toyed with the idea of pulling funding from the 2018-2019 budget. After a presentation from Newton County Tomorrow members, the council agreed to provide funding at a lower rate of $13,000.
“I can’t honestly sit here and try to justify to y’all that that $13,000 is worth every penny but we get some great stuff out of it,” Johnston said. “I do see it as one of those things that’s trying to keep this community together and municipalities trying to work together for the common good of everything. That doesn’t mean it is always going to hit a home run by any stretch of the imagination.”
Councilwoman Susie Keck said she wants to see a plan to justify the city’s contribution to Newton County Tomorrow.
“From what I hear right now, nothing is developed, there’s just promises,” she said. “It seems like ‘One Newton’ should cost nothing.”
McKelvey echoed Keck’s comments.
“My thing is, why do we need to pay to have a meeting with our community leaders,” he said. “Why can’t we just say, ‘Covington would gladly host you in our new council meeting room and you guys can meet there once a month.’”
Johnston said the mayors of Newton County’s municipalities already do something similar to that with monthly meetings rotating between the cities.
Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams said she knows of several communities that struggle to get the city officials and county officials in the same room and encouraged the ongoing meetings, however, she questioned the cost as well.
Morgan said the funding needs to be continued.
“At the end of the day, we’re trying to bring everyone together on one page and right now that is not happening,” he said. “If that’s the only group where we happen to actually get together and have a good blend where we actually communicate, I don’t think that’s a tool that we can allow to just go away right now.”
Interim Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce President Debbie Harper called Newton County Tomorrow a “neutral meeting ground.”
Councilman Anthony Henderson suggested making the notation that any funding from the city for Newton County Tomorrow cannot go to renting space.
"I'm fine with striving for 'One Newton.' I'm not fine paying for rent," he said. "We should still show them that we want to actually work together."
The council agreed in the work session to leave the $13,000 budgeted for Newton County Tomorrow on the 2019-2020 budget, but with a hold that a presentation must be made to show how the money will be spent.
“Bring me a plan or show me some proof that you’re doing something and I might fund it,” Keck said.