COVINGTON, Ga. — Two weeks ago, while the Newton County Board of Commissioners were wrapping up its work session that preceded their regular meeting, the most pressing matter regarding the planned Westside Youth Facility was location.
Now, it appears that funding may be at the forefront of concerns once again.
On a video posted on Commissioner Alana Sanders’ Facebook page on Jan. 25, the District 3 representative referenced a story published by the Newton Citizen newspaper that alleged that the $4 million grant given for the building of the Westside Youth Facility could be rescinded due to the fact that no location has been set in stone yet for the facility.
But Sanders said, via email, that after talking with U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, R-Stonecrest, and hearing those concerns directly from him, she was told to contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to see if there was a way to prevent the grant from being rescinded.
Johnson seemed to reiterate that in a statement he made concerning the grant.
“I am proud to have secured the federal grant to fund the Westside Youth Facility project, and my office continues to work with the relevant partners – including Commissioner Sanders, Chairman Banes, HUD, and other federal officials – to ensure that this much needed project moves forward," Johnson said in his statement.
Sanders stated in her video that the HUD representative she spoke with assured her that, since the grant had been fully approved, it would not be rescinded, and that HUD would be willing to work with the county to make sure all requirements were met.
Sanders reinforced this in her email response, also adding that she was “instructed by Congressman Johnson’s team to get a document from HUD to verify” that the grant would still be available to the county for the facility.
Sanders said she did just that, and has communicated to the BOC that the grant money for the proposed Westside Youth Facility is still in play.
“Now it is on the commissioners to decide if they will keep the $4 (million),” Sanders wrote in the email. “I did my part and now it’s up to the board. It has been passed by Congress and has been confirmed. Per HUD, they would not take back the grant. It was confirmed through Congress, and they will work with us even if we’re at the beginning stage.”
In that aforementioned Facebook video, Sanders stated that she and the rest of the BOC became aware of Congressman Johnson’s grant via an email dated March 24, 2022 that was sent to the entire BOC from the congressman’s office. Sanders showed the email via screen share on her Facebook page, and said she felt compelled to apply for the grant herself, given that the County has no grant writer.
She said that the initial pushback from interim county manager Jarvis Sims was that, because she applied for the grant without board approval, it could mean that the county couldn’t receive it.
“I take that responsibility,” Sanders said. “I was eager and wanted to apply. I didn’t think I had to (get approval) because it was sent to all commissioners, and because we don’t have a grant writer in Newton County.”
Sanders showed where the Youth Facility project was selected by Johnson for submission to the Appropriations Committee, via an email from the Congressman’s legislative assistant dated April 20, 2022. Sanders then displayed the email from Johnson’s office that the Youth Facility’s $4 million grant was officially approved in December 2022.
Before the most recent questions regarding the grant funding, the main point of contention about the facility has been the location.
In July 2022, Johnson included plans for the facility on a list of 4th Congressional District community projects proposed for Congress’ annual spending plan for Fiscal Year 2023. That list included $4 million for the Youth Facility.
In January, federal funds from the recently approved federal omnibus appropriations bill were combined with local sales tax proceeds to provide enough money for the facility. In other words, the $4 million grant was matched with $4.2 million from the voter-approved 2017 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).
Included in the local funding was $495,000 approved by voters in the 2017 SPLOST, and an additional $3.7 million came from funds garnered above the originally budgeted amount from 2017 SPLOST collections.
In the Jan. 17 BOC Work Session, three “finalist” locations for the proposed facility were presented to the board.
The top three prospective sites are from a Wright Monk property, located in District 3 that features five parcels of land that’s a little over 60 acres, two tracks of land totaling just under 74 acres that’s in District 2’s Crescent Circle, right off of Salem Road and a piece of land that would be donated from the Boys & Girls Club — a four-acre tract of land that fronts Brown Bridge Road.
While the third option seems to be the most cost effective, Sanders fears that settling for the Boys and Girls Club property would undermine the desires of those whom the Youth Facility would directly benefit — the students themselves.
“It just seems like we’re trying to push everybody towards that,” Sanders said during the Jan. 17 work session meeting. “The Boys and Girls Club is a great organization. It was good for our generation, the Baby Boomers and Gen X. But now we have a new Generation. Gen Y and Z — our social media generation, and their programming doesn’t fit well for that.”
Sanders went on to say that, in her data collection, she discovered young people, their parents and other residents raised concerns that failing to build something unique to the county itself could be a mistake.
“In petitioning those residents, they said they didn’t want their tax dollars going to the Boys and Girls Club,” Sanders said. “They want their own facility erected by the county. One person actually asked, ‘Why do counties think the Boys and Girls Club is always the answer to communities with minority kids?’”
The county’s western area is predominantly African American, and Sanders cited statistics she said were from the Boys and Girls Club’s website that stated “the No. 1 race that attends the Boys and Girls Club are Caucasian females.”
“Our youth in the school systems are saying they don’t want to go there, and administrators are backing it up,” she continued. “That is my issue. We’re forcing our community toward something they’re not looking for. Why are we investing our tax dollars into something that’s not working? The kids don’t want to go there.”
Though County Chairman Marcello Banes stressed that the board needed to make a decision on location soon, he moved to table discussion of location into a soon-coming executive session.
The county Board of Commissioners is scheduled to reconvene Tuesday, Feb. 7, at 6:30 p.m.