COVINGTON, Ga. - The three-week conversation about a sitting county commissioner and the taxpayer-funded nonprofit he ran until recently appeared to reach a boiling point Wednesday evening at a board of commissioners budget work session after a different commissioner questioned whether the county’s continued funding of the organization or any similar organization runs afoul of state law.
The fireworks started after County Attorney Megan Martin offered the opinion that by stepping down from any leadership position with Nelson Heights Community Services, Inc. District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson is closer to being in compliance with the county’s ethics ordinance with regard to voting on the budget.
Nelson Heights Community Services, Inc. is the holder of the lease for a county-owned building on Laseter Street in Covington being operated as the Nelson Heights Community Center.
After Martin’s comments, District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz questioned if it is appropriate for taxpayers to fund any nonprofits and community centers.
“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.
Martin said 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 with Nelson Heights, with Washington Street. This is not only Nelson Heights,” she said. “There are several appropriations that are made to non-profits. 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 non-profit or in no way connected to the county.”
Martin said a gratuity is defined as something “freely given or without recompense.” She said 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 non-profit 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.”
BOC Chairman Marcello Banes questioned whether Schulz was singling out Nelson Heights and Washington Street for special scrutiny.
Schulz denied that she was singling out anyone.
“No sir. No sir, I am not,” she said, “I think that it is very important- absolutely not…”
“But those are the only two names that’s been called,” Banes said.
“No, no sir. I absolutely believe that they have – that we have a responsibility to make sure that they are in compliance. I mean, I support Washington Street, I support Nelson Heights. I just want to make sure that we are in compliance with the gratuities law,” Schulz said.
Henderson said that he’s reached out for wider community involvement at Nelson Heights.
“I think I told this story before,” he said. “We tried to ask anybody, I went on the streets and asked ‘Would you like to come tour Nelson Heights and be involved’ and they said ‘no.’
“I never turn down anybody.”
Henderson voiced frustration that his stepping down at Nelson Heights wasn’t enough to quell the controversy.
“I’m doing a whole lot of work for a whole lot of bad talk for the wrong reason. We did everything you asked. You said go out and change it, we changed it,” he said, “You still ain’t satisfied. Now it’s something else. And if I comply with what you just said, it’ll be something else.
“It’ll always be something.”
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 non-profits. So while we’re opening that can, we definitely need to go down that path because if we’re doing 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 said there 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 (intergovernmental agreement) 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?”
Schulz said “From my perspective, I saw a lot of citizen complaints about Nelson Heights and quite frankly, I wanted to defend them. And I wanted to make sure that we were in compliance. So I asked legal to give us that information so I could make sure that we are in compliance for those individuals who are making accusations. As long as Nelson Heights is providing that service for the entire community, they’re in compliance is what I understand legal to be saying. That’s all we’re trying to confer here.”
District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan said it’s not unreasonable for the county attorney to recommend a path to compliance, if there are issues, for nonprofits.
“I’m not singling out any particular nonprofit,” he said. “We’ve got a policy in place that we can actually look at the situation and determine what the facts are, apply the policy to it and make a determination if we’re in compliance, mostly because we need to keep the people’s trust out there.
“And I think that’s all we’re trying to do here, is trying to evaluate this. I don’t want people to separate based on a particular issue like this.
“The policy is designed to spur discussion. It’s designed not to play gotcha with somebody. It’s designed to reduce our liability. None of us up here want to get in an ethical situation.”
Schulz told The Covington News Friday she and Banes have met to talk about the work session. She said her intent Wednesday was always only to bring clarity for the Board for not only Nelson Heights but for all non-profits.
Schulz 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.
Sims said Friday that while commissioners have disagreements, it’s important to work through them.
“There are plenty of times we disagree on topics or how they are presented,” he said,” It doesn’t matter how much we may disagree at times. It only matters that we get passed it and work together for the best of all citizens.”