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Public safety, animal services make pitches for $34M from Newton SPLOST
Mike Conner
County Fire Chief Mike Conner asks the SPLOST Oversight Committee Monday to recommend funding from SPLOST to renovate and replace two fire stations. - photo by Tom Spigolon

COVINGTON, Ga. — Three Newton County public safety agencies made their pitches this week for placement on the list of projects to be funded if voters renew the county’s SPLOST in November.

Leaders of the Newton County Sheriff’s Office and the fire and animal services departments on Monday, May 9, asked the county’s SPLOST Oversight Committee to recommend millions in projects to Newton County commissioners — who will have the final say about what is included.

• Sheriff Ezell Brown asked the committee for up to $24.5 million for repair or replacement of a dilapidated building, 161 new replacement vehicles, a new mobile command unit and replacement HVAC system for the Detention Center.

• Fire Chief Mike Conner requested $8.9 million for renovation of a donated west Newton building that would create a new fire station No. 5, and construction of a new fire station No. 1 to relocate it from its current Covington Bypass Road location and serve more residents in unincorporated Newton.

• Animal Services director Cynthia Wiemann asked the committee to recommend $1.075 million to upgrade its animal shelter facility on Lower River Road.

The SPLOST Oversight Committee began meeting twice weekly this month to hear requests from county government departments and area nonprofits for inclusion for funding.

The committee is to make a recommendation to the Board of Commissioners by the end of this month on what should be included on the list. The Board then will either approve the committee’s recommendations or make changes before approving a final list of projects for voters.

The Animal Services department’s request was for upgrades that would be the second phase of shelter renovations that were funded by 2017 SPLOST funds. 

Wiemann said the phase two expansion would include construction of eight double-sided dog kennels to house 16 dogs; an indoor, climate-controlled storage room; and about 450 square feet of new office space.

Conner said the donated building on 1.7 acres at 2707 Access Road near the Rockdale County line was built for the Georgia Forestry Service.

He said $4.6 million of his total request would be used to renovate the building into a fire station that would be manned around the clock. 

Conner said it also could lower area residents’ homeowners insurance premiums because it would be closer to them than stations in Oxford and southwest Newton that now serve the area.

Conner also said a new $1.6 million fire engine with an aerial apparatus would be stored at the new station for use at county high-rise and industrial buildings.

The relocation of Station No. 1 would serve residents of unincorporated parts of central Newton more effectively than its current location — which is closer to Covington residents already served by the city’s fire department, he said.

Brown said his request was partly for capital needs he said were long overdue for attention.

The largest single project within his total request was for renovation or relocation of the building housing the sheriff’s office’s Special Investigation Unit and morgue facility the coroner uses. 

Brown displayed photos that he said showed mold in the ceiling of the building on Stallings Street near downtown Covington.

“It’s a hazard to all of us who work in the area,” he said. 

Brown said he either wanted $9.4 million to renovate and upgrade the existing building — including removing the molded areas — or $15.29 million for construction of a new building on county-owned land adjacent to the sheriff’s office headquarters on Alcovy Road.

About $7.14 million of Brown’s total request would go toward buying 161 new patrol vehicles to replace the sheriff’s office’s aging fleet.

He said 185 of the sheriff’s office’s 236 vehicles are high-mileage cars and SUVs, with many driven 200,000 miles or more.

Brown said use of high-mileage vehicles was a safety concern for deputies. 

Brown said he has made it a priority to buy new replacement vehicles annually and typically receives funding for about six in the annual county government budget — far less than needed.

“I don’t have the key to that purse,” Brown said.

A new HVAC system was needed to replace one that heats and cools the Detention Center and “has failed on us many times,” Brown said.

In addition, a mobile command unit was needed to replace a trailer the sheriff’s office now uses as a satellite office during times of natural disasters and other major events, he said.

A new command unit also could be used by other government agencies and the Red Cross when needed, he said.

Newton County voters will be asked on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot to renew the SPLOST — which is a 1% sales tax voters have renewed every six years since the 1990s.

The 2023 SPLOST is estimated to produce around $108 million over its six-year life, if approved.

The county government has been in negotiations with the six city governments in Newton County on the percentages of the funds each would receive if the SPLOST is renewed. If the current split is used, the county would receive about $80 million.

SPLOST has been used for construction and renovation of county government buildings, the judicial center, and purchase of equipment for the sheriff’s office and other entities.