After weeks of discussion and a request by former municipal court judge David Strickland, the Covington City Council voted unanimously Monday to conduct a financial audit on the city's former probation services provider East Georgia Correctional Services.
The audit will follow on the heels of Strickland presenting the city with more than 150 pages of documents apparently showing that East Georgia Correctional has paid $21,000 less in fees to the state than it was required to pay by law. There are also questions about whether the city was underpaid.
"My main reason for potentially wanting to move ahead with an audit is because if East Georgia Correctional...somehow owes the city potential back money for whatever reason, I think we kind of do owe it to the citizens to resolve that issue," Mayor Ronnie Johnston said.
Probation companies are legally required to send $9 each month from active probationers to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. Documents from 2010 and 2011 showed EGCS did not send the required money or reports for eight of the 24 months. From the records that the company did send in, it reported $20,946 less than it said it paid to the city and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams supported the audit in hopes that it would provide an easier transition for the new probation company.
"Anytime you have transition...there needs to be clarity," Williams said. "The present probation services [don't] need to have the baggage of the past."
City Attorney Ed Crudup said the city would use its regular auditors to conduct the financial audit. However, if EGCS would not cooperate with the audit, the city will request the Georgia Bureau of Investigations to conduct a forensic audit, he said.
Strickland previously said in a letter to the council that he had been trying to bring these matters to the council's attention for more than four years. However, Councilman Chris Smith said after reviewing past meeting minutes and documentation with City Manager Steve Horton, no evidence was found to support Strickland's claim.
"Mr. Strickland did not come in front of this council," Smith said. "[He has] never come to us about an audit of the probation company."
Mayor Johnston also pointed out that according to the contract the judge had with EGCS, an audit could have been performed every year.
"I have no idea why that wasn't done or what happened," Johnston said.
Hathorn named next municipal court judge
Local attorney Steve Hathorn was appointed as the city's new municipal court judge in a 4 to 2 vote, with councilwomen Hawnethia Williams and Ocie Franklin opposing.
Hathorn will take over the position on June 1; Judge Ben Hendricks had been temporarily filling in after former judge David Strickland was not reappointed.
Hathorn has more than 30 years of experience practicing law and has served as municipal court judge for Oxford for several years.
The Covington municipal court judge makes $28,000 a year. Municipal court meets every Wednesday and hears minor traffic infractions, parking citations and city ordinance violations issued within the city limits of Covington.
The court does not handle civil or small claims cases.
Water usage rates may increase
The city council is considering increasing the water rate by 30 cents for every 1,000 gallons used, after the county announced it will increase its wholesale water price. The county sells water to cities and the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority.
City Manger Steve Horton stressed that the increase would be based on usage. Customers would only be charged the extra 30 cents for every 1,000 gallons over the 3,000 gallon minimum.
"That doesn't mean that everybody's bill goes up 30 cents," Horton said. "It depends a lot on use."
For example, if a household used 5,000 gallons of water, the customer would pay 60 cents more.
The increase would go into effect on July 1. The sewage rates will remain at $6 per 1,000 gallons.
Redevelopment Authority gives update on Walker Bend
Covington Redevelopment Authority Chair Juanita Thompson gave a presentation on the progress of a housing development project in the Walker's Bend neighborhood, off Ga. Highway 81 just south of Turner Lake Road.
The CRA, which was created by the city council in September 2009 to oversee the implementation of an urban redevelopment plan, has been working to rehabilitate the bankrupt subdivision. The CRA has purchased 92 lots from six different banks and the FDIC.
"The Covington Redevelopment Authority made an initial assessment and we noted that the original master plan for Walker's Bend lacked some vital components that would make the neighborhood successful," Thompson said. "It was determined that a redesign should include a mix of uses and a broader mix of housing types as well as more usable green space."
The lot sizes were reduced to allow for more green space and parks.
The CRA is acting as the project developer and is responsible for development partners. The CRA also markets homes that are for sale to qualified buyers.
The CRA has partnered with the Covington Housing Authority to organize a 16-week finance and homeownership course.
The classes have been offered since February 2011 and more than 120 people have registered for the courses, with 68 people graduating.
Magita Development and Affordable Equity Partners have agreed to work with the CRA to develop 32 single-family rental homes. These homes will be available for lease or purchase with Magita and AEP, who have committed to owning and maintaining the properties for at least 15 years. Magita expects to begin leasing these new homes in October.
New Leaf Park has been built in Walker's Bend by the CRA. The authority plans to build a picnic pavilion and add benches to enhance the park.
The CRA is also in the process of developing the Walker's Bend Neighborhood Center, which will house business
offices, an area for workforce training residential apartments. Development is expected to begin in October or November.
The CRA has sold $63,000 worth of lots to date and expects to sell another $410,000 this year.
The total capital investment for the development will be more than $30 million when all of the projects are completed.