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Railroad purchase was popular retreat topic
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Clarification: The April 7th work session is intended to be an educational session for the council.  The public is invited to learn more about the railroad but there will be no time set aside for public input, comments, or questions. The meeting will be informational only; it will not be a public forum to debate the pros and cons of the railroad purchase.

 The Covington City Council will have a public work session to learn about the potential pros and cons of purchasing the portion of the Norfolk Southern railroad that runs through Newton County at 5:30 p.m. April 7 at city hall.

 Over the course of their two and a half day retreat, the council spent the majority of their time working to set the priorities for the city’s next three-year strategic plan and discussing ways to communicate better and function more effectively as a council. However, the council and select city department heads also spent some time discussing specific issues, including the potential railroad purchase.

 One of the most important decisions made by the council is to look at the railroad purchase and the potential conversion to trails as two distinct issues that should be considered separately.

 The purpose of the April 7 meeting will be to gather as many facts as possible about the railroad, so the council can be fully informed. If the railroad purchase were to happen, the council agreed to discuss the possible conversion to trails later in the year, maybe in December.

 Friday, Mayor Kim Carter shared that during her last meeting with Norfolk Southern, the company said it was looking to consummate a deal this year; therefore the clock is ticking.

 City Manager Steve Horton said the issue was complicated because the county has to decide its course of action first because they are the entity that actually holds the more than $1 million in grants that could be used to purchase the railroad. Carter said she has repeatedly asked the county for their position on the railroad, but they have yet to make up their minds.

 However, Councilman Chris Smith said he had spoken to County Chairman Kathy Morgan, who had informed him that it appeared four out of the five county commissioners were not in favor of buying the railroad.

 Grant writer Randy Conner said he had talked with Congressman Jim Marshall’s office and officials there had expressed concern that the money Marshall had previously appropriated had not yet been spent. He said Marshall’s office was now asking for weekly reports about the status of the appropriated money.

 The issue is complicated because officials and residents have many different opinions. Some want the railroad to be purchased and converted to trails; some want the railroad purchased and preserved as is for potential future commuter or industrial use; and some simply want the railroad left alone and the federally appropriated money returned to the federal government.

The railroad and trails also worked their way into the council’s conversations when they were discussing how they could communicate and act more effectively.

On March 1, the council voted on whether to pursue a grant that would pay for the city to convert portions of the railroad in the city to trails if the railroad were ever purchased. The vote was 2-4, with Smith and council members Keith Dalton, Ocie Franklin and Hawnethia Williams opposed.

After the vote was cast, Carter asked the council for rationale twice, but they remained silent.

During day two of the retreat, Thursday, Smith said when a vote was cast, that should be the end of discussion.

Carter said the only time she pushed for discussion was about the railroad grant because she felt the public deserved rationale about why members voted the way they did. She expressed disappointment that the members had chosen to express their thoughts through the newspaper instead of to her directly.

She said the railroad purchase and conversion to trails was in several of the city’s past plans, which had been approved by previous councils.

"The thing on the trails, that blew me away. After 12 years of it being included in plans … all the plans have reaffirmed that we need to pursue these kinds of unique opportunities," she said.

Williams said she felt things had changed economically so her vote changed, while Smith said he didn’t feel he had enough information to about the grant, so he voted against it.

The discussion became heated as members discussed how different segments on the population viewed the potential purchase of the railroad and trails. Council members talked about whether the trails would benefit the city’s poorer communities, the fact that voting against the trail grant would not help reallocate money to help with other issues like utilities and that sending the grant back to Marshall could hurt future funding.

However, in the end the council members decided they needed to obtain more information in general, have more time before council meetings to review and communicate more between themselves, whether via phone calls or more roundtable discussions. They also decided they all needed to review the city’s several plans, including its comprehensive plan and its transportation plans.

The purpose of the discussion was to air issues and find ways to resolve them, said the facilitators Alyson and Frank Foster, from the Centre for Strategic Management in Conyers. The group helped organize and run the city’s strategic planning retreat. Frank said the ability to have these types of discussions is one of the benefits that cities receive by using an outside facilitation group as opposed to internal personnel.

Formation of Utility Resource Committee

The council and department heads also briefly discussed the formation of a Utility Resource Committee. Horton came up with the idea for the committee after hearing from several residents over the past month about how they could not afford their high utility bills.

The council will talk about the committee in more depth at their April 5 council meeting. Preliminary conversations place the committee at six members; possibly including council members Dalton and Williams, city employees Conner and Utility Director Bill Meecham and city residents Rosie Crawford and a resident from the city’s east ward. However, final decision will be made on April 5.

Setting aside specific dates to discuss these important issues was one of the main goals given to the council by Frank and Alyson as facilitators. This process prevents issues from lingering.

Finally, the council and Horton decided they would meet with City Attorney Ed Crudup before July to discuss the stormwater fees that the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education have refused to pay.

For more stories about the city’s strategic planning retreat check Wednesday’s edition.