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Citizens show displeasure during BOC meeting
A large crowd gathered at the Newton County Historic Courthouse concerning the county's convenience centers and Solid Waste Authority Tuesday night. - photo by Bryan Fazio

The Newton County Solid Waste Authority (SWA) was granted the legal ability to work on the county’s solid waste stream after the board of commissioners (BOC) approved an intergovernmental agreement on Tuesday between the authority and the county. The SWA will vote on whether or not to approve the agreement at its own meeting Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the Newton County Historic Courthouse.

The Newton County Historic Courthouse was filled to capacity with a standing room only crowd stretching out past the doors of the main chamber. Many of the members of the audience were wearing stickers that read “Leave our Centers Alone.” Some were there to hear about the change in the county’s solid waste stream, and others were there for the BOC’s vote on the Newton County Agriculture Center.

However, during a public hearing prior to Tuesday’s vote, a vehement crowd expressed its displeasure concerning the possible closure of the county’s 11 convenience centers. The hearing, which was scheduled to be on an intergovernmental agreement between the SWA and BOC, stretched on beyond the time normally allotted for public comment.

The intergovernmental agreement concerning the SWA, which allows the authority to operate the county’s waste stream — including the convenience centers — independently, first came in front of the board in July and the document was posted online and in the Newton County Historic Courthouse, per state law. The law also required a public hearing on the agreement, which includes 10 minutes for those who wish to speak for and 10 minutes for those who wish to speak against the issue.

Prior to opening the public hearing, Chair Keith Ellis informed the crowd that the hearing was strictly about the intergovernmental agreement, and not a decision on the convenience centers. He then asked the crowd to raise their hand if they were at the meeting because they wanted to keep the centers open, to which a majority of the hundreds in attendance raised their hands.

Less than 10 people spoke during the public comment period in favor of the agreement.

“I think it’s imperative this board hand over the management of the waste stream of Newton County to the Solid Waste Authority,” said Covington resident Barbara Morgan.

Oxford resident Bill Meacham also spoke in favor of the agreement between the SWA and BOC, with a caveat.

“I would make legislation to require centers remain open,” he said.

Citizen Tonya Bechtler told the crowd that the authority was formed after professionals made recommendations to change the county’s solid waste model. “We want an enterprise fund that is self-sustainable,” Bechtler said during the second chance for people to speak positively on the agreement. “We don’t want a deficit which affects our credit rating.”
The SWA was re-formed in January, and per state law has to have three elected county officials serving on its board of directors. The board members consist of county chair Keith Ellis, commissioners Lanier Sims and Nancy Schulz, Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston, and appointed citizens Wayne Haynie and Bob Stafford. The board also includes two members of the Spring Hill community, Sharon Sawyer and Phillip Wise, where the landfill is located.

As the section of the hearing for people to speak in favor of the intergovernmental agreement came to a close, more than a dozen people lined up to speak against. However, many were eventually called out of order by Ellis for straying off topic and declaring their desire for the convenience centers to remain open.

“I don’t know anything about [the intergovernmental agreement], I only know I want centers to remain open,” said Trisha Bard.

Of those who spoke out against the SWA, many stated that they didn’t know about the agreement and that they didn’t want an unelected board making decisions for the county.

“I am opposed to your agreement primarily because it feels like you are trying to privatize this operation [of the landfill and convenience centers],” said Javon Brothers. “Also it lets this council off the hook should things go haywire.”

Since holding its first meeting in April, the SWA has so far issued a Pro Forma for Harbin engineering to review the convenience centers and retained Jarrard and Davis as its attorney. No other decisions have been made by the authority, pending the intergovernmental agreement.

In July, the BOC came to a consensus on charging a $50 fee for the county’s convenience centers through January, before closing them in February, in order to help balance the county’s budget for fiscal year 2017. That budget, which is depending on around $1 million in revenue from the centers’ fees and around $1 million in reduced expenses from the operation of the centers, was passed Monday night, with a crowd of around a dozen people in attendance.

When the public hearing closed, Schulz tried to assure the crowd that the SWA was working on studying how to proceed with the solid waste stream.

“Moving forward we want to hear from you what the best way for the solid waste stream is for this county,” Schulz said. “We can’t continue to operate at a loss but we want your feedback.”

District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson, who was the lone vote against the intergovernmental agreement, said he felt the SWA was a way around the will of the public.

“It’s more or less what the commissioners who are serving on that board want,” Henderson said. “With an issue this big, why don’t we put it on the ballot?”

The crowd erupted in applause after his comment, before showing their displeasure when the board voted 3-1 (District 1 Commissioner John Douglas was absent due to an out-of-state funeral) in favor of the intergovernmental agreement.