By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Newton board seeing heavy demand for federal COVID relief funds
Approves more money for utility, housing payments, gives $1M to health care agencies serving uninsured
Jennifer Phillips of Willing Helpers
Jennifer Phillips of Willing Helpers appeals to the Newton County Board of Commissioners for federal COVID relief funds Tuesday night at the Historic Courthouse. - photo by Tom Spigolon

COVINGTON, Ga. — Newton County commissioners devoted much of their Tuesday meeting to deciding the timing and amounts of federal COVID relief funding they would give out amid heavier than anticipated demand from the community.

The Board of Commissioners voted to approve giving more of its federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to the Salvation Army for distribution to area residents.

Commissioners earlier this year approved an agreement with the Salvation Army to distribute the money to applicants seeking money for overdue utility and housing payments after the pandemic decreased their incomes in some way.

District 3 Commissioner Alana Sanders, a member of the Board's standing ARPA Committee, said applicants almost depleted in two weeks the Board's original $175,000 allocation that was meant to last for three months. 

ARPA funding is designed to assist individuals and groups harmed by the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Chairman Marcello Banes suggested commissioners double the amount they already approved — for a total of $350,000 — in their next allocation based on the demand for the first allocation.

"I want to tell you, my phone hasn't stopped ringing since they gave out the money," he said.

The Board approved an allocation of $350,000 but with only half of it going immediately to the Salvation Army. County Attorney Patrick Jaugstetter suggested the other half of the allocation be given after the agency gives Interim County Manager Jarvis Sims documentation about how rapidly the money was being depleted.

In a related action, the Board agreed they would require organizations requesting ARPA funding in the future to go through a formal application process after members voted to give away more than $1 million to three groups who made direct appeals during Tuesday's meeting.

Banes said commissioners needed to create a system to hear future requests "quickly" because organizations of all kinds likely will ask for money after hearing about the Board's action to give out $1.08 million to the three groups Tuesday.

"People are probably lining up around the Square," Banes said.

The groups receiving the funds included two area health care nonprofits whose leaders said they were seeking to remain open and expand services in the wake of decreased funding during the pandemic.

But commissioners also voted to give thousands to a middle school student organization seeking to attend a California leadership conference.

Jaugstetter said he recommended commissioners make the funding to the three groups conditional on him determining if they were eligible for the federal funding.

He said assistance to nonprofits was generally authorized but "my only hesitation is I don't know all the details."

"This is a grant and they want us to identify an adversely impacted community," Jaugstetter said. 

He also recommended commissioners require organizations seeking ARPA funds to provide information about themselves on applications and the Board's existing ARPA committee vet the applicants rather than allowing them to appeal directly to commissioners.

"It's gotten out of control," Jaugstetter said.

Willing Helpers Medical Clinic director Jennifer Phillips said the nonprofit — the county's only medical clinic providing free care to uninsured and underinsured patients — was near closing its doors.

Phillips said the clinic at 4186 Mill St. in Covington had seen a sharp increase in the number of patients seeking its services during the pandemic. However, the pandemic also had dried up its pool of volunteer workers and decreased the amount of available grant funding, she said.

She said she had used grants to keep the clinic operating for more than two years but needed funding of about $750,000 to keep operating through 2024. 

"We are the only source of help for these (uninsured and underinsured) people," Phillips said.

Commissioners voted to give $673,000 to the organization while officials seek the remainder from other sources. 

The Board of Commissioners also voted to give $400,000 to the ViewPoint mental health center's Covington location that also serves uninsured and underinsured area residents.

ViewPoint Health CEO Jennifer Hibbard said the agency planned to use the money to renovate and enlarge its Kirkland Road location to add a detox unit to serve a growing number of drug overdose cases in the area.

And upon an appeal from some Liberty Middle School students, the Board  voted to give $9,327 in ARPA funds designated for "youth engagement" to the school's Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) club for some members to attend a leadership conference in San Diego, California.

Club adviser Felicia Hodges said the county Board of Education would pay for her to attend but not students because other organizations were told to raise money without outside help to participate in out-of-town events.

District 1 Commissioner Stan Edwards, a former county school board member, said he was "a little disappointed" the school board could not find a way to use its own share of ARPA funds to assist the club.

Later in the meeting, Juneteenth celebration lead organizer Terri James complained bitterly to commissioners about her nonprofit, the Newton County Historical Committee on Black Heritage Preservation, not receiving funding through the county's regular budget appropriations for nonprofits but others were approved for ARPA funding. 

Sanders then said she planned at a future meeting to request $100,000 in ARPA funds reserved for her district to donate to the Historical Committee for the Juneteenth event planned for June 18.