The top leaders of the county and cities within it met at the Newton County Library Wednesday to give an overview of their jurisdictions at the annual State of the County address. The Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event and moderator Danny Stone asked leaders about their biggest opportunities and challenges, other top issues and how the business community can help.
Chairman Kathy Morgan said the flooding and economy have been challenging, but even in tough economic times there are some opportunities for the future.The floods have affected 70 roads and 71 homes as of last Friday, and there may be long-term concerns with four roads. Mt Tabor Road has had conflicting reports and FEMA will have to examine the road again. A section of Crowell Road has flooded three times over the last nine years, and although the bridge will likely be opened temporarily, some changes will probably need to be made.
FEMA will reimburse 75 percent of the cost to repair the roads to pre-flood conditions, but any improvements, like those to the Crowell bridge, will have to be made by the county, although additional funding is being sought.
Major economic challenges included lower sales tax revenue and the county’s inverted tax digest, which refers to the fact that residential property owners provide more taxes than businesses. Morgan said buying local could solve both of those problems by increasing sales taxes, which in turn could attract more businesses to bolster the tax base.
Morgan said the county had two important opportunities, the Norfolk Southern Railroad and the Bear Creek Reservoir. Although the railroad is controversial, Morgan said leaders and residents shouldn’t worry about the future use, which can be decided later. Instead, they should focus on the opportunity to buy land that preserves an important corridor in the county. The land under the Norfolk Southern Railroad connects four different municipalities, and comes at an estimated cost of $6,000 to $8,000 an acre, a fraction of previous land costs.
The Bear Creek Reservoir is critical, Morgan said, because it will ensure the county’s water supply, especially if the state mandates that some of the water from Cornish Creek go to Atlanta in the future.
Finally, Morgan touted the development of a four-year early education program at Georgia Perimeter College in conjunction with Georgia State University. She said the school is also exploring a four-year nursing degree.
Mayor Kim Carter focused on housing issues and the city’s new Urban Redevelopment Plan, which puts the city in a better position to get grants to improve housing. She said the city is very poor, with more than 25 percent living below poverty level, which makes the area unattractive to retailers. If businesses can continue to grow and expand, then the area’s income will grow, and the URP should help aid in the process by luring new companies with tax and job credits.
The economy has forced the city to look at how to save money while providing the same quality services. She said the city is considering measures like the privatization of garbage pickup, which could be unpopular, but could save a significant amount of money. The city is also investing in their information technology department hopefully to make city workers more efficient.
When asked about plans for the airport, Carter said the city is considering building a new terminal, which could have a community room built in to give businesses more places to meet. She said the airport is important because it can influence business executives’ first impressions of Covington. Carter said the airport is vital to success and that the ad valorem taxes on a single large corporate jet stored at the airport would provide the same property taxes as a small subdivision.
"Money, or lack of, is the biggest challenge," Mayor Bobby Hamby said. "The question is how do we maintain services with decreased revenue?"
So far the city has done its best and is still able to cut the grass, which is better than many other cities.
Hamby said Porterdale is trying to cultivate the opportunity present in the Yellow River, by improving access to promote water activities like kayaking, canoeing and fishing. Before the flooding, 90 percent of the river’s shore in the city had been cleared, but Mother Nature has set the process back. Porterdale is also talking with Rockdale County about having a put-in site for paddlers near the Georgia International Horse Park.
Hamby touted the city’s three restaurants and asked people to consider shopping locally especially for office and janitorial supplies.
Porterdale has been hit hard by the housing crisis because 60 percent its housing is comprised of rental units. Many of those rental units weren’t kept up and many renovating projects were never finished. However, he said because the housing market has slowed, there are opportunities to revise the code and zoning ordinances to be prepared when the growth comes back.
When asked about the traffic-logged Crowell Road and Ga. Highway 81 four-way stop, Hamby said the Georgia Department of Transportation has consistently delayed installing a traffic light. Porterdale has never had the local money and first asked for a stoplight in 1995, but completion dates of 2007, 2008, and now 2009, have come and gone. The BOC agreed to fund the redesign of the intersection, but GDOT has now given the project a 2012 target.
"Who knows what excuse there will be in 2012," Hamby said,
Mayor Jerry Roseberry said Oxford’s biggest need is to replace 90-year-old water lines, which will cost an estimated $1 million.
New developments also include Emory University’s investment in the city by building a $28 million dormitory at Oxford College as well as plans for a new city hall, which should be ready by next summer.
Roseberry said he has also worked to improve the city’s public safety, and the new agreement with the Newton County Fire Service is a win-win arrangement.