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Covington set to increase spending
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While Newton County officials debate whether to cut their budget and jobs for the third straight year, Covington is planning to increase its spending by $3.6 million next fiscal year, hiring some new employees, completing water line and street projects and buying new vehicles and other equipment.

The $121 million fiscal year 2012 budget has yet to be officially voted on by the city council, but the city has finished all of its budget meetings and worked through most issues.

The city is planning to hire 11 new positions this year, after cutting 35 positions from its budget the past few, including a dozen or so this year, through early retirement and not filling positions.

Personnel Director Ronnie Cowan said the city is trying to rightsize, not necessarily downsize, which is why new positions are being added. The new employees will not overlap with any employees who retired, Cowan said.

One newly created position is the "Public Communication Officer" position, which will be in charge of marketing the city's programs and its efforts to help the public, Cowan said. The position will have a salary of $55,000, with estimated benefits of $22,000.

"We realized we don't do a good job of telling the city's story," he said.

The city is also planning to hire an information technology technician, gas line worker, gas department welder and will convert two contracted workers to full-time workers to maintain the vast sprinkler system at the Land Application System.

Another new position will be a sign technician, who will be required to print and replace all city street signs will new signs that are more reflective and have thicker, more visible lettering. State law requires the change. The signs themselves will cost $167,000.

Finally, the city is planning to hire four dispatchers for the E911 department, although the county may only fund two or fewer positions. The added positions are expected to reduce overtime costs. The starting salaries are listed as $28,000 with $11,200 in benefits.

One of the largest budget increases is the $1.67 million added for water projects, including $642,755 for water line replacement along Elizabeth Street and $512,330 for replacement of water lines along Geiger Street. The city will be helped by a $443,000 state grant it received earlier this year.

The city is also budgeting more than $1.2 million for street projects, including $500,000 to place medians along U.S Highway 278 and $365,000 to build walking/biking paths along Clark Street.

The city will add public restrooms on the square at a cost of $25,000, increase street lighting off the square and throughout the city for $225,000 and purchase a flat bed dump truck, snow plow and spreader to be prepared for future winter storms at a cost of $120,000.

The city also has budgeted $300,000 to build a natural gas fueling station, as it looks to convert more of its fleet from gasoline to natural gas.

"People, projects, equipment and vehicles. These are things we haven't done in several years, but we feel the need this year," City Manager Steve Horton said when asked about the increased budget.

The budget also includes a proposed salary increase for the mayor and council, but this has been included each of the past few years and has been voted down by the council. The increase would raise the mayor's salary from $12,000 to $18,000 per year, and double council members' salaries to $12,000. The mayor and council are considered part-time elected officials.