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Commissioners deny SPLOST funds for west Newton community center
Funding was informally reserved for Boys & Girls Club building, officials say
Community center plan
Shown is Commissioner Alana Sanders' plan for a community center in Fairview Community Park. - photo by Special to The Covington News

COVINGTON, Ga. — Pushback from two separate groups last week likely helped end planned sales tax funding of a county commissioner's proposed west Newton community center.

Supporters of the Newton County Boys & Girls Club and residents of the area near the community center site spoke against District 3 Commissioner Alana Sanders' plan for funding the project in Fairview Community Park during the Feb. 16 Newton County Board of Commissioners meeting.

Commissioners voted 3-2, on Chairman Marcello Banes' tie-breaking vote, to deny using almost $500,000 of 2017 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds for the community center — which Sanders said would include programming area teens preferred and needed rather than the Club's "antiquated" programs.

The money is reserved on the 2017 SPLOST projects list for a "Westside Youth Outreach Facility." 

County Manager Lloyd Kerr said the county and Boys & Girls Club leaders had discussed using the funds for a county-owned building for the Club. However, no formal agreements had been reached, he said.

County Attorney Megan Martin said the SPLOST law requires the county to use the money for buildings it owns but allows it to lease to an organization it believes is doing work in the public interest.

"It is not abnormal to have such transactions," Martin said.

The two-year-old Newton County club is part of the Boys & Girls Club of North Central Georgia and serves 129 students in a temporary building on Brown Bridge Road near Veterans Memorial Middle and West Newton Elementary schools.

Sanders' predecessor in the District 3 seat, Nancy Schulz, and the late Judge Horace Johnson Jr. helped organize the Club.

Boys & Girls Club leaders described the organization's work and pleaded with commissioners not to use the money for a purpose other than a building the Newton club would occupy.

Club board member Carey Foster said the Club was a "pillar of the community" and its nationally-known name would be able to attract youth who are new to the area.

"I don't think that it would be a great idea to dismantle something that has been built and we've got motion with," he said.

Alfreda Durham said she was a mother of a club member and said the club was "very much needed" because it provided positive direction for young people like her daughter.

"If we don't have something for them to do, they will find something to do," Durham said.

Shakila Henderson-Baker, who is also a Newton County School Board member, asked that commissioners meet with Club board members before moving forward with other plans for the funding.

She said club officials had listening sessions with young county residents "rather than going full forward" to establish the Club. She said they found they wanted programs such as culinary arts and a recording studio and the board "wholeheartedly" was working to provide those services.

Sanders had proposed using the money to help begin work on an estimated $8 million community center in the county-owned park within the Fairview Estates subdivision off Fairview Road.

The county used federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds to build the park in 2011 as a way to increase property values in Fairview Estates after foreclosures swept through the neighborhood during the Great Recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s.

Wendy Rodriguez, president of the Fairview Estates Homeowners Association, said planning for the community center had been done without the community's knowledge. 

She said a community center would "impact the living spaces of our otherwise quiet neighborhood," while the center and an expansion of the park would increase the chances that traffic, noise and drugs would proliferate in the area.

Sanders countered that she did not understand why "some of the citizens that came here tonight think (she) was trying to dismantle the Boys & Girls Club."

"The Boys & Girls Club is a separate entity from the county," she said.

She said she also formed a focus group of teens in her district who said they wanted a facility offering such features as a swimming pool and STEM-related programs which the Boys & Girls Club does not offer.

Sanders said her research showed her the Boys & Girls Club had positively influenced people who are now 40 and older but it does not emphasize a number of programs that teens now find interesting and challenging, she said.

"When you're dealing with generation Y and with generation Z, which is our technology generation, we have to do more," she said.

"The (Club's) programs are antiquated," she said. "It has nothing to do with not wanting the Boys & Girls Club in this community."    

Sanders also said the Club only serves a fraction of the teens in Newton County and would be using a taxpayer-funded building without the county having input on the Club's programming, Sanders said.

The national organization also receives funding from numerous major corporations while programs she is advocating only have local funding as a source, she said.

District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan said the Club was part of Johnson's "vision" for the community and he did not want to "do a disservice" to his legacy. He said he wanted to keep the money reserved for what generally was understood to be a Boys & Girls Club facility.

After Sanders made a motion to use the money for a community center in Fairview Park, District 2 Commissioner Demond Mason said he was abstaining because he had been a Club board member in the past. 

The board then voted 2-2 and Banes broke the tie by voting to deny Sanders' motion.

Banes said he was a former Boys & Girls Club member and believed a plan previously discussed during the meeting could lead to funding for Sanders' project.