COVINGTON, Ga. – Covington-Newton County 911 Director Mike Smith briefed the Newton County Board of Commissioners and the Covington City Council on new and continuing problems plaguing the 911 center.
Smith spoke with the BOC during its May 15 meeting and the Covington City Council during its May 21 meeting.
“We moved into the current building, as many of you know, in 2003,” he said. “When I was hired on as 911 director in 2001, the first task I was given was to build a new 911 center at the current location where we’re at. It was designed to last for at least 10 years until we could design a more permanent long-term structure that the county could build out that would be 40- to 50-year emergency operations center.
In July 2015, the county signed a new eight-year lease on the Carlton Trail building which formerly housed Cousins High School and Cousins Middle School. In addition to the 911 center, the building also houses the county’s Emergency Management Agency and the Newton County office of the Georgia Department of Driver’s Services. County Manager Lloyd Kerr said he believes the rent on the building is $12,000 per month.
Smith said the problems with the building predate the new lease.
“Some of the things the personnel have been putting up with over the last nine years are repeated roof leaks, mice and rat infestations, bug infestations,” he said. “Matter of fact, we have an infestation going on right where you’ll have bites and welts on your ankles from the recent infestation.
“We have constant, serious foul odors coming out of HVAC ducts, out of the plumbing. We get people out there, contractors look and nobody can find where it comes from. The mosquitoes in the summertime are horrendous. Water’s in the gutter, water’s in the HVAC unit condensation pans. Plumbing issues are constant. Just last night, we had sewage backing up into the 911 center.”
Smith said the City of Covington had a contractor come out and get everything cleared out.
“The city put cameras in the system and checked the lines and they said basically what is in there is the clay drainage pipe from when the building was built and they’re cracking and they’re settling so debris and sewage is caught and trapped and continues to back up,” he said.
Smith said the fence around the center’s secure parking lot has been pulled up like somebody tried to slide under it. He said a 911 center employee went to the parking lot early one morning and saw somebody running in the breezeway from a vacant part of the building adjacent to the parking lot.
He said the parking lot has always been an issue.
“It was haphazardly put in,” he said. “Gravel was dumped in and not properly packed. Half of it was concrete but over the years with sewer repairs and plumbing repairs, it’s been cut up, chopped up with holes just left.
“A tree died and left an open hole, at least three feet deep. A snake was living in it for a while. Mice were living in it. Termites were coming out of the stump. It would wash and leave ruts.”
Smith told commissioners an employee was taking the trash out tripped in one of the ruts and sprained her ankle, necessitating a trip to the hospital and a worker’s compensation claim.
“It took that to finally get the parking lot addressed,” he said. “They (the landlords) re-concreted what needed to be concreted. They brought some more gravel and packed it down as a temporary solution.”
Smith said during the repairs to the parking lot, center employees were forced to park in front of the building in an unsecured area.
“The worst thing, the thing that scared me to death, was 2 a.m. Sunday morning, Mother’s Day morning, one of our dispatchers, went out front to get some personal items out of her car,” he said. “She went by herself, I’ve told her not to do that anymore, but she walked out there and she gets about halfway to her car and she sees two men running from her car.
“She flees and goes back into the 911 center as quick as she can. The police come over there and find out they were trying to break into the side of her window. They couldn’t break into that window for whatever reason so they got up on the hood of her car and stomped the windshield out and stole all of her personal effects.”
Smith said an employee has noticed people walking down the street in broad daylight looking into cars parked in front of the center.
“Because of all this, I don’t have the budget for it, but I’m installing more cameras out front and I’m installing more lighting out front,” he said. “I’m installing a camera in the upper end of our parking lot for the safety and security of our personnel. Maybe we can catch who some of these people are.”
Smith said it’s time to start thinking about a new, permanent home for the 911 center.
“The bottom line is it’s just an old structure. We have an empty structure that’s been vacant for quite some time right across our parking lot from us. We see critters coming out of there all the time. It’s just not conducive anymore for a 24/7 operation,” he said.
“There are options, really, where we need to go. But the bottom line is, it’s up to this body (the board of commissioners) make a decision about when to move forward to do something for the 911 center. It’s not going to happen overnight. I’m not at all asking you tonight to make a vote to do something. What I’m asking you to do is this has to be on your agenda sooner rather than later.
“It’s got to start at some point and we can’t wait for another SPLOST. Even if we started today, it’s going to be five years, realistically, before we get this whole process done.
“It’s becoming an issue and it’s critical for the delivery of the service that we’re supposed to provide for the citizens and for the public safety officers,” he said. “But more than anything, it’s for the safety and security of my employees. It’s hard enough to keep 911 dispatchers on the job. Nationwide, the turnover rate is terrible. When conditions are like this, it makes it even worse.
“We’ve got to start working and figure out how to proceed on this project sooner rather than later.”
Susanne Monroe, a 23-year employee of the 911 center, shared her point of view on some of the conditions to the city council to provide perspective on the issue.
“One of the things that bothers me the most, of all the things we have, is the plumbing,” she said. “I just want you to think about, you’ve got 911 dispatchers sitting in there and when we don’t have plumbing, they have to get in the car and drive to QuikTrip.
“So, if you’re driving to QuikTrip to just go to the restroom, somebody is having to pick up their radio. So now, I’ve got one dispatcher running two radios and not answering the batch of phones that could be coming in. These are some of the things that we deal with all the time.”
No commissioners had questions or comments after the presentation.
Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston said it is time for someone to step up and take a leadership role to get the problems solved. With Covington paying 50 percent of the costs of the 911 center, he said the council could lead the effort.
“To me, – I’ve probably said this several times since I’ve been mayor – this boils down to leadership and making a decision because once a decision is made we can figure it out,” he said. “Whether its SPLOST or a bunch of other things, we can figure it out, but we’ve got to make a decision that’s best for this community first and based on what you (Smith) just told me, and I believe every word you just said and I’ve witnessed a bunch of it in my six years, this is a classic ‘kick the can down the road, kick the can down the road, we are getting ready to implode.’ That is a shame.
“At this point, I’m asking my council to consider us taking a leadership role in this issue to provide some direction to this community to move it forward.”
Councilwoman Susie Keck said she was on board with taking the leadership role.
“Me, as a councilmember, I would definitely support us putting our foot down and making something happen,” she said.
Johnston said through the amount of funding it provides, the city has the ability to make changes happen.
“One of the things we could do is say, ‘We’re going to start paying our fair share of the funding unless these things are addressed,’” he said. “We don’t have a plan put in place to get us where we need to be. I’m trying to figure out what kind of leverage we have on that, but the fact is if right now we did what I just said, the financial impact of that would be devastating on the county.”
Smith said Covington makes up about 30 percent of the calls.
“So whatever we’re paying right now – and I’m not going to try to guess – we’d get a pretty big deduction from that if we were like Oxford or Porterdale paying our share of the calls,” Johnston said. “Around 13,000-some-odd people live in the City of Covington and 80,000-something live in the county.”
Johnston said the 911 center needs to be a top priority to protect the community.
“If we apply the appropriate amount of ‘political pressure’ people tend to want to do the right thing,” he said. “I believe, correct me if I’m wrong Mr. Smith, the reason you’re putting yourself out right now – because this is not easy to do for you, especially the board of commissioners and then coming to us – is because you’re that desperate; you’re that serious; you’re that committed to trying to make a change that’s good for this community.
“You see this all over the country right now with first responders and that kind of stuff. They don’t get there without 911, right?
“You’re standing up for every citizen in this community because you don’t want anybody to say y’all didn’t answer the phone.”
Covington News Managing Editor Jackie Gutknecht contributed to this report. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.