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Commissioner: Board holding east Newton fire station funding 'hostage'
Democrat members seek action on long-delayed projects in their districts
Newton County Fire

COVINGTON, Ga. — The county’s new Public Facilities Authority indicated it may not allow a financing plan for a new east Newton fire station to move forward until projects Democratic members favored also were funded.

Authority members on Tuesday, Jan. 19, voted 3-2 to delay action for 30 days on recommending the only funding source available for the planned Station No. 4 for Newton County Fire Services.

The Authority, comprised of the five members of the board of commissioners, voted along political party lines to table the request for almost $5 million in revenue bonds to finance the construction and equipment for the station planned for Big Woods Road in the Starrsville community.

District 1 Commissioner Stan Edwards was visibly angry after the vote.

“We’re going to hold District 1 hostage,” he said.

The board of commissioners must vote to guarantee the bond issue financially before it can be issued. It was scheduled to consider approval of the bonds at its regular meeting that followed the Authority meeting but removed it from its agenda.

Bond attorney Brian Huskey said he believed delaying issuance of the fire station bonds for 30 days would not affect the interest rate the county would pay.

County Fire Chief Mike Conner said officials had proposed using revenues from the county’s fire district tax to repay the bond financing for the station.

Edwards asked Authority Chairman Demond Mason of District 2 to move a vote on the bond issue to the top of the agenda. 

The chairman refused and said projects he and members J.C. Henderson of District 4 and Alana Sanders of District 3 proposed for their commission districts would be considered first. 

Mason said he supported construction of an aquatic center for about $35 million that could include an Olympic-sized pool, fitness center and other facilities.

Sanders advocated for a $13 million project that included a new community center and park on county-owned land adjacent to the Fairview Estates subdivision off Fairview Road.

Henderson supported a list of projects totaling more than $16 million. 

Among them were a $9 million renovation of the former R.L. Cousins school building off Geiger Street; expansion of Nelson Heights Community Center and new construction of athletic fields and an indoor swimming pool at the same location; and a $2 million addition to Porter Memorial Library.

Each list was approved with the three Democrats favoring them and Republicans Edwards and Ronnie Cowan of District 5 voting against them.

County Manager Lloyd Kerr estimated the cost of debt service on bonds for the three commissioners’ projects to be about $2.6 million annually for 20 years.

Mason said he wanted Kerr to research the various funding options available — such as grants or corporate sponsorships — other than bonds for recreation projects. The authority then could decide how to fund them at a later date, he said.

“I’m hearing there are a lot of dollars out there,” he said.

Kerr said if he could not find any grants or other funding sources then the only other options would be a tax increase for repayment of bond financing or a new Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for the projects.

Edwards said the fire station was needed to give east Newton, including parts of Districts 1 and 5, fire protection facilities equal to other authority members’ districts.

“You are adequately covered, we’re not,” Edwards said.

He said other authority members were confusing a “want with a need.”

“Fire stations are a matter of public safety,” he said. “People’s lives are at stake.” 

Sanders, who was attending her second meeting after taking office Jan. 1, responded that she did not want the public “to have a negative connotation” of the project she favored.

“It's not a want,” she said. “They need parks for children.”

Henderson said the Cousins project is one “we promised the citizens on this side of town.” He has proposed construction of a Black history museum, among other projects, in the county-owned building in recent years. 

He recalled that one of his neighbors drowned in the Alcovy River last summer. Providing recreational facilities for some residents may give them skills, such as learning to swim, that could serve the same purpose as a fire station in saving lives, Henderson said.

The vote to approve the projects was for them to receive further consideration and not for bond financing. 

Delay of the fire station bond issue — which already had documents prepared — also included delay of further action on the projects until Kerr can locate alternative funding sources.

After the meeting, Mason said he believed funding eventually would be approved for the fire station.

Longtime county government observer Larry McSwain said he was disappointed the action did not align with County Chairman Marcello Banes' "OneNewton" effort to deal with issues in ways agreeable to all the county's political factions. 

"This certainly was a backward step toward OneNewton," McSwain said.

Another longtime observer, Barbara Morgan, said she believed the board’s action was only a temporary setback for the fire station.

“It would be a dereliction of duty if the board of commissioners did not act to provide critically needed fire protection for places in the county that are now paying premium insurance rates due to the lack of protection,” she said.

This story has been updated with information that land proposed for a project near Fairview Estates is already owned by the county.