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Newton board to wait on recommendation for American Rescue Plan funds
Names committee to investigate best way to distribute money as audience, commissioner seek faster action
From left, then-County Manager Lloyd Kerr speaks during a 2021 Board of Commissioners meeting as commissioners Stan Edwards and Demond Mason listen. - photo by File Photo

COVINGTON, Ga. — Newton County's Board of Commissioners voted Monday to appoint a four-person committee to devise a plan by Dec. 7 for distributing nearly half the American Rescue Plan funds it has available — but only after two members walked out of the meeting amid repeated charges from one about uncaring colleagues and county officials.

Commissioners met Monday night in a special called meeting to discuss how to more quickly send $10.8 million in American Rescue Plan funds to those in need because of COVID-19-related issues over the past year.

At Chairman Marcello Banes' suggestion, the Board voted to name commissioners Stan Edwards of District 1 and Alana Sanders of District 3, County Manager Lloyd Kerr and County Attorney Patrick Jaugstetter to the committee.

Sanders and Commissioner J.C. Henderson of District 3 have pushed for months for devising a plan for immediate distribution of the federal funds the county has held since May. 

Kerr has said the county needed to wait to receive U.S. Treasury Department guidelines for distributing the funds. He has warned the county may be required to repay whatever part of the $10.8 million it distributes if not done according to federal rules.

Henderson, with some members of the audience voicing their approval, said he wanted immediate distribution. Residents have come to his house asking for part of the money because they could not pay rent or utility bills because of COVID-related issues, he said.

"I'm not looking for a debate. I'm looking for some help," Henderson said.

He supported a plan to give each commissioner $1 million immediately to distribute in their respective districts. The highest priority should be getting money to those behind on rent and utility payments, he said.

But Commissioner Ronnie Cowan of District 5 said he wanted to see at least a "skeletal procedure in place" for distributing the money before he could support it.

Edwards said the greatest need in his heavily rural district was expansion of broadband service. 

He suggested allowing members to give part of their $1 million shares to other commissioners if not needed for COVID-related back rent or late utility payments. 

Jaugstetter suggested a plan for creating five different categories for distributing the money and then commissioners deciding how much of the $10.8 million to budget for each one. 

Henderson said he believed "we're making it too complicated." 

He said County Manager Lloyd Kerr has given "a lot of excuses" over the past five months why the money could not be distributed immediately as some other nearby counties have done.

"It shouldn't be hard — it should be easy," Henderson said.

Henderson also repeated his harsh public and sometimes personal criticism of Kerr from meetings of recent months — telling him it was "supposed to be your job to do whatever we ask you to do" and not "several months from now."

He also repeated his suggestion that former longtime county attorney Tommy Craig be hired to assist Kerr with distribution. 

The Board fired Craig in 2015 amid allegations related to a plan for construction of a south Newton reservoir for which millions were spent before it ultimately was abandoned. However, Craig continued as attorney for the sheriff's office and tax commissioner.

Kerr acknowledged his job was doing what the Board of Commissioners asked him to do.

"How I get that done is up to me," Kerr said.

He added he wanted to wait to hire an outside manager to administer the distribution — including making sure those receiving the money are qualified according to federal guidelines. 

Kerr also said 110 potential program managers had replied to the request for proposals (RFP) he placed online and in the county legal organ.

After Henderson, a Democrat, said Republicans wanted to delay sending the money to residents immediately rather than waiting on a method for doing so, Cowan walked out as Henderson spoke.

Then, when Banes said he also believed a more organized plan was needed, Henderson walked out — leaving three commissioners to vote to approve a special committee to study the issue and make a recommendation at the Board's Dec. 7 meeting.

During a citizen comments part at the end of the meeting, almost all — including District 113 State Rep. Sharon Henderson, D-Covington — criticized the Board for not taking immediate action to distribute the funds. 

Her husband, Jerome Henderson, said he believed it was "time for a change" and would work for future candidates opposing some Board members.

"You're giving money to your buddies, your friends. You should give it to the people," Jerome Henderson said.

"You've got big ol' houses, big cars," he said. "Guess what? I do, too, but I'm for the people."