Election news and stories of the widening and deepening recession dominated the headlines in Newton County much as they did the nation in 2008.
The November elections saw several historic firsts for Newton County - the first time a woman was elected chair of the Board of Commissioners, the first time a black resident was elected sheriff of the county and the first time that county residents voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party in decades.
A total of 36 candidates vied for 11 open county positions during the summer general primaries, including seven candidates running for the BOC District 3 seat alone. In November, county residents voted for Democratic candidates in 11 of the 15 contested partisan races on the ballot including, by a very close margin, President-elect Barack Obama.
County chair-elect Kathy Morgan and Sheriff-elect Ezell Brown will both be sworn into office today at the Newton County Historic Courthouse. Other newly elected officials will join them: District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz, District 5 Commissioner Tim Fleming and District 2 Board of Education member Eddie Johnson.
Some highlights of the 2008 election season include:
The Republican race for Georgia's Senate District 17 seat became quite volatile during the summer with challenger Mike Crotts accusing his opponent, incumbent Sen. John Douglas, of improperly using his position as state senator to try to get a public apology from the Conyers City Council for a perceived insult and a promise from the mayor that City Manager Tony Lucas would remain neutral during Douglas' re-election campaign.
Crotts based his allegations on a series of March e-mails between Douglas and Conyers officials that became public when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution posted them online. Douglas meanwhile accused Crotts, a former state senator himself, of not being a resident of District 17 and maintaining a false residence in Covington while really living in McDonough. Douglas ultimately won the primary and went on to win the general election.
In September, the campaign to elect Randy Vinson to the BOC District 5 seat unsuccessfully raised a candidacy challenge to Republican opponent Tim Fleming based on a homestead exemption he had filed for a home that was not in the district. The Newton County Board of Elections ruled by a default vote to uphold Fleming's candidacy.
A worsening economy
In November, the county's unemployment rate stood at 8.6 percent rate, up from 7.8 percent in September, according to the Georgia Department of Labor. That rate is higher than the state average, which is 7.5 percent.
That taken with a sharp increase in the number of foreclosures in the county and added with inflationary food prices and high gas prices at the pump that weren't relieved until the late fall have all coupled together to squeeze county residents throughout the year.
One affect of this pocketbook squeeze has been a marked growth in the number of residents seeking emergency financial aid and food packages from the county's network of nonprofits. This demand led to the Community Food Pantry's having to shutter its doors briefly at Halloween until a number of concerned citizens were able to restock its shelves.
Foreshadowing of the grim economic news ahead for Newton County was an announcement by Home Depot in March that it would not be building a second store in the county. Wal-Mart followed up with news that it was postponing the construction of a second Super Wal-Mart at the intersection of Salem and Brown Bridge Roads by one or two years.
The county approval of both new stores in early 2007 was a very controversial matter with residents of District 3 arguing that traffic congestion in the area was already too high to warrant the location of two large big-box stores at two intersections without traffic signals. The BOC narrowly approved the construction of the two stores largely in part because of the jobs they would have created and for the large commercial sales tax bases they would have brought.
Once one of the county's greatest engines for economic growth, the housing industry sputtered to a standstill this year when the housing bubble burst. The Newton County Home Builders Association has lost more than 100 members this year. In May, the number of new housing permits was down 85 percent from the same time last year.
According to the Georgia Department of Labor, last year 7.8 percent of Newton County's workforce was employed in the construction industry. When added to the other business sectors that rely on the housing industry (2.8 percent of Newton workers are employed in wholesale trade, 2 percent are employed in finance and insurance and 1.5 percent are employed in real estate, rental and leasing) the ramifications of the housing downturn add up.
"It's a huge trickle down affect," said Andrea Hammond, executive officer of NCHBA in late November. "If builders aren't building, painters aren't painting, landscapers aren't landscaping."
Foreclosures sharply increased in 2008. As of the end of December, there were 785 active foreclosures in the county, according to the Web site foreclosure.com, which tracks national foreclosure statistics.
The turmoil on Wall Street has also led to the postponement of two local projects - the downtown Covington hotel/civic center and the expansion of Newton Medical Center's emergency department. After selecting a new private partner for the civic center, plans finally to begin construction were moving speedily along this summer with preliminary architectural renderings revealed and a much higher price tag ($37 million) than initially anticipated announced.
However before the county and the city of Covington could finalize an agreement with private developer, P.R. Hospitality, and take out bonds to pay for the construction of the civic center, the collapse of the financial markets sent the interest rate of bonds through the roof - making the cost of building the civic center too high for now.
Likewise, the expansion of NMC's emergency department, a $5.4 million project, was also postponed until such time as the interest rates of the bond market fall to a more reasonable rate.
Finally, two banks with branches in Newton County were seized by the federal government rather than let fail for lack of adequate liquidity.
The Community Bank of Loganville was seized by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in November and acquired by The Bank of Essex. First Georgia Community Bank was seized by the FDIC in mid-December and quickly bought by United Bank of Zebulon. Both seized banks had been heavily invested in real estate loans - a market that has failed miserably with the collapse of the housing bubble.