NEWTON COUNTY, Ga. - There are only three written agreements between Newton County and the 12 nonprofit entities slated to receive appropriations in the county’s FY 2019 budget, according to the results of an open records request by The Covington News.
The records came from county finance director Nicole Cross in response to an ORR to the county requesting all intergovernmental agreements between the organizations and the county.
An IGA was one of the things listed as requested by the county when a nonprofit is making a request for money.
In response to a June request to Newton County about what documentation is required of a nonprofit in order to receive taxpayer money through a budget appropriation, The News received the following from county Public Information Officer Bryan Fazio:
“Per (Newton County Finance Director) Nicole Cross:
An organization is asked to present the following to the Board to be considered for an appropriation:
- Brief program summary
- Current month budget comparison
- Most recent audited financial statement
- Explanation for request/change in request
- Intergovernmental Agreement with Newton County”
As a result of its request, The News received a lease agreement with Nelson Heights Community Services, Inc. for use of a building at 7200 Laseter Street, S.W. Covington, Ga. 30014, a 2009 Service Contract between the county and The Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce which renews annually and a lease agreement with Washington Street Community Services, Inc. for use of a building located 4138 School Street, Covington, Ga. 30014.
The issue of IGAs was raised at a June 26 board of commissioners work session during an at times heated discussion about whether or not the county’s continued funding of the nonprofits is appropriate.
The discussion came after a question from District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz.
“There has been some concern about whether nonprofits in general and community centers in general, if they serve the entire population, and if that’s appropriate, if that should be appropriately funded through our appropriations,” she said.
County Attorney Megan Martin told commissioners that night that in looking at the county’s budget she saw several appropriations in the budget for nonprofits for which the county has no ownership interest.
“The same is true for with Nelson Heights, with Washington Street. This not only Nelson Heights,” she said. “There are several appropriations that are made to nonprofits. I think the question, if it is framed properly, is whether the county’s governing board violates the Gratuities Clause by appropriating funds to entities that are nonprofit or in no way connected to the county.”
Martin defined a gratuity as something “freely given or without recompense”. She said the Georgia Supreme Court has articulated the standard that should be imposed when looking at appropriations.
“There is no gratuity when the state, or county in our position, receives substantial benefits in exchange for the use of public property,” she said.
“The key here when you look at any of your nonprofit appropriations is whether or not these services confer a substantial benefit to the county in exchange for the monies appropriated. The object of expenditure may be a very worthy cause, reading through these cases there were many that were very worthy and highly beneficial to the general public, but doesn’t suffice to take care of the Constitutional issue.”
The issue of Intergovernmental Agreements was raised when District 2 Commissioner Lanier Sims questioned how appropriations questions would affect projects funded by the county’s 2017 SPLOST.
“Since we are opening a can of worms with appropriations, we just passed a 2017 SPLOST that had several appropriations, from Washington Street Community Center to the westside Boys and Girls Club,” he said. “All these are nonprofits. So while we’re opening that can, we definitely need to go down that path because if we’re something we should be doing, one, I think everybody’s at fault- everybody that voted for it to legal, that said it’s ok to vote for it.”
Martin told Sims was no conflict of interest because SPLOST projects were picked by voters.
“On the SPLOST issue, we don’t have a conflict of interest issue because your voters voted to approve a referendum with those projects on it,” she said.
“The Boys and Girls Club Westside, the way that would work and the way it currently works with two of our community centers is that we have an IGA that says that they do confer a substantial benefit on the community and that they pay a minimal lease amount so that they provide out there. So I don’t see a conflict with the SPLOST items.
Sims said, “So if we have an IGA that says that these nonprofits show a great benefit in the county, why the hell are we talking about this tonight if they’ve already proved that they show a great benefit to our county. Why are we sitting here going through asking if they do it when we’ve already got an IGA and said they do comply.
“Am I missing something? Has anybody got an answer?”
The purpose of The News’ ORR was to report whether nonprofit organizations receiving taxpayer money were in compliance with the county’s policy. The service contract between the county and the chamber of commerce is the only document received that specifies that a dollar amount be provided and that specific services be provided for the funds. The chamber is scheduled to receive a $239,850 budget appropriation in next year’s budget.
Fazio said because the nonprofits are not governments, IGAs do not exist between them and the county.
The lease agreements between the county and both the Nelson Heights and Washington Street Community Centers do not list any specific services to be provided only that, “In lieu of rent, Lessee shall deliver consideration to Lessor by providing community services to all eligible citizens of Newton County.”
Both organizations are permitted to rent out the county owned buildings for private functions such as birthday parties and fundraising events. The leases specify that the rental charges “shall be reasonable”.
Both Nelson Heights and Washington Street are appropriated $38,800 in the county’s new budget.
Schulz told The News last month her reason for broaching the subject of the nonprofits was always only to bring clarity, not only for the BOC, but for the nonprofits.
She said it’s important to understand and follow both the county’s ethics policy and the gratuities clause. “Then you don’t get into trouble if you are using these two standards,” she said.