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County to help pay JDA loan
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Newton County will join three other counties within the Joint Development Authority (JDA) to pay $2,058,000 over the next 11 years to the Bank of Madison for a 2007 loan given to the JDA.

Attorney Andrea Gray, representing the JDA, made the request during Thursday’s Board of Commissioners (BOC) meeting. According to the terms of the loan, the annual payment is $136,000 for 10 years with a $698,595 balloon payment due in 2025.

After much discussion, several questions and some hostility on behalf of the commissioners, the board agreed to pay the loan by a vote of 3-2, though they also requested the interim attorneys to investigate the financial transactions of the JDA. Commissioners from districts 1 and 2, John Douglas and Lanier Sims, respectively, voted against the motion, after supporting a substitute motion that was presented by Douglas. The substitute motion, which was voted on first by the board, stated that a financial review be done before a vote was taken.

However, if the review were to be done, the BOC would be unable to vote on it until its next meeting, Feb. 6.
Gray told the board that the Bank of Madison needed the loan secured before an audit was conducted on the bank at the end of January.

With that information in mind, the board voted against Douglas’s motion 3-2, paving the way for the motion to look at the JDAs finances after agreeing to the payments.

Controversy has surrounded the JDA recently after an email containing unsubstantiated information about the Authority’s finances made its way to commissioners. The same information made the rounds on social media.

The email and social media posts followed an attempt by the JDA to sell land in Newton County to a developer for less than what the JDA had paid for it. The authority also wanted the county to rezone the land from commercial to residential. The decision to sell the land, which passed with a 5-2 vote, led to the resignation of the two dissenting voters — Newton County’s delegates Keith Ellis and Mort Ewing.

“I’ve about had it with the JDA,” Douglas said. “This is a group of folks that try to sell land out there for half price that tax payers of four counties paid full price for. Developers came out there and were going to pay half price and the JDA wanted [the money] to pay the bank of Madison, tax payers of the four counties could be darned.

“Then the JDA tried to force us inside Newton County to do something we didn’t want to do by a 5-2 vote and it cost us both members of the JDA to resign in protest,” he said. “And fourth, we don’t know where the money is going. It’s just like a blank check we’re giving out.

“It just seems like to me it’s really odd that after all that the JDA is coming to us and asking us to bail them out,” Douglas said.

Sims also questioned the JDA’s financing, saying he hadn’t heard much from the authority leading up to Thursday’s vote.
“There are a lot of questions circulating about the JDA, not just about this financing, but other financing,” Sims said. “We’ve tried to meet with them on several occasions, I don’t know for what reasons they have not been able to get a meeting locked down. I will not be supporting this tonight until we can get more answers form JDA on these questions.

“I know this is very important piece of financing. Once those questions are answered I will reconsider at that time,” he said.

Gray attempted to reassure the board that this was not a dire situation for Newton County with the loan payments tied into the tax revenue only coming from Baxalta. The tax revenues from Baxalta to the counties of the JDA — Newton, Morgan, Jasper and Walton — are expected to be $1.09 million in 2020, $2.04 million in 2021, $2.86 million in 2022, $3.72 million in 2023, $3.98 million in 2024, $3.4 million in 2025, $4.2 million in 2026 and $4.49 million in 2027. Those payouts will be distributed with 37.5 percent going to Newton and Walton counties each, 15 percent going to Morgan County and 10 percent going to Jasper.

“The county is in a very good position,” Gray said.

The JDA’s loan from the Bank of Madison has thus far been paid in interest payments only from revenues through a timber sale. The rest of the loan was expected to be paid off with a land sale from Technology Park Atlanta but that sale did not go through.

Repayment of the loan needed approval the approval of all four boards. Morgan and Walton agreeing prior to Thursday’s vote by both Newton and Jasper counties.

“From a political standpoint this is not one we want to fight with our fellow counties,” said Chair Keith Ellis. “This is something that’s an obligation for all four counties.”