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Sparks fly over Covington fireworks show donation
Commissioner blasts county government's uneven treatment of nonprofits' funds requests
Fireworks Covington Square 2014 0628fFIREWORK
Fireworks light the sky over downtown Covington during a past Fourth of July fireworks show. - photo by File Photo

COVINGTON, Ga. — One commissioner recently criticized the county's practice of quietly including funding for one nonprofit in the 2022 county budget while telling others they would need to apply for their funding.

The Newton County and Covington governments are among the sponsors of the annual Fourth of July fireworks celebration in the city and officials included $10,000 in the 2022 county budget for the event under a line item named Event Supplies.

A nonprofit called Friends of Covington Fireworks Inc. organizes the annual event and about half the funding for the estimated $65,000 show comes from the two governments, said Friends President Robert Foxworth.

District 3 County Commissioner Alana Sanders said during a recent public hearing on the 2022 budget she believed the county's participation violated some ethics and conflict of interest rules.

"It's a conflict ... because we have individuals on the board that sit on your board and it's money from the county and giving to a nonprofit organization," Sanders told Foxworth.

Sanders' reference was to Chairman Marcello Banes, who is a Friends board member along with Covington Mayor Steve Horton. Banes declined comment.

However, Sanders said her concern was about the “policy” of giving a donation without public disclosure and not a criticism of “any individuals" involved in the process.

The county has given money to the event since at least 2014. It budgeted $10,000 last year but did not use the money for fireworks after the event was canceled twice because of safety concerns around the pandemic.

In previous years, it paid a combined total of $7,500 to the Friends organization in the 2019 and 2018 budgets; $2,500 each to the city of Covington and Covington Main Street in the 2017 budget; $2,000 to the city and $500 to Main Street in the 2016 budget; and $1,000 in each of the 2015 and 2014 budgets to the city, all for the fireworks show, according to information from the county finance department.

The county’s 2022 budget prior to Tuesday's scheduled final approval included $25,000 for a line item called Event Supplies, which included the $10,000 for the fireworks show as well as events both for the public and county employees.

Examples of uses of the money include supplies for the Board of Commissioners' annual budget retreat, as well as building dedications, ribbon cutting ceremonies, parade supplies, and a tent for the annual Covington Police Department Fuzz Run, county officials said.

The Board of Commissioners on May 4 voted to approve a $1,500 donation to the Newton County Historical Committee on Black Heritage Preservation to help organize the nonprofit’s annual Juneteenth celebration Saturday, June 19, at Legion Field.

Two weeks later, the Board narrowly voted to rescind the donation — with Sanders and Commissioner J.C. Henderson voting no — after some commissioners said they were concerned a direct donation would violate a state constitutional ban on gratuities. 

They then approved a new county policy regulating donations to nonprofits — including a requirement for nonprofits to apply for the money. 

County Manager Lloyd Kerr said the county informally vetted nonprofits and their requests before including them in past budgets.

Foxworth told the Board of Commissioners during a budget public hearing June 8 he annually asks each commissioner and Covington City Council member for individual contributions for the show.

He said he believed the elected officials should be willing to contribute to the show's funding because each represents a different segment of Covington and Newton County and "this is the biggest event the city and county has."

Foxworth said he created his nonprofit specifically to create a July 4 fireworks show after the city and county stopped hosting a similar event in the midst of the Great Recession. 

He also noted the commission had recently debated how contributions should be made to nonprofits.

"I don't care about politics," Foxworth said. "All I care about is putting on the best show the citizens of Newton County has ever seen. We've got a spectacular show planned this year, also."

Sanders responded to Foxworth during a comment period after the public hearing that she did not know the county was contributing to the nonprofit hosting the fireworks show until he told her about it when he asked for a contribution.

"Why I was kind of shocked was we had commissioners who rescinded giving $1,500 to a nonprofit organization," she said. "They only asked for $1,500 and we're giving you $10,000, which was never mentioned in our budget hearings or mentioned anywhere in regards to us giving funds (for) fireworks.”

Kerr did not publicly respond to Sanders’ charges June 8.

Sanders said after the meeting her concern was about the county's "policy" of giving to a nonprofit without it being disclosed for public discussion.

"My only concern was why this particular company did not present their request like all the organizations or why was it not placed on the agenda to discuss to approve funds like other organizations and department," she said.

"It was not listed on the budget as a line item during the preliminary hearing on the documents I received."

She said it was "about being fair and not giving special privileges to certain entities without justification."

"It had nothing to do with Mr. Foxworth’s business but the process and not informing the taxpayers of these funds. Also, I wanted to know what viable process we use when denying other entities when a process was not put in place.”