Why do Newton County’s cities seem to be able to go about the business of governing without a lot of controversy? At public forums, that question was often asked of Newton County mayors. It was prompted, of course, by the seemingly endless string of controversies at the county level.
Last fall’s election and the changes that the new Board of Commissioners implemented have reduced the need for the comparison. There are reasons that the cities seem to do well and one is that the mayors got together several years ago and agreed to work toward the goal of improving local government and adopted a simple formula: communicate, compromise and collaborate.
The idea was not new. The mayors had met through the Newton County Leadership Collaborative and Newton County Tomorrow, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the government realm. As the leadership at the county level became fractured and factional it became evident that the cities needed to do more. Initial meetings were spent getting to know each other better and learning about the special features and issues of each city. As confidence grew that the group could indeed make a difference, the meeting agendas began to include issues that the cities alone could not control - such as funding infrastructure projects.
Major capital improvement (roads, bridges, parks, buildings, and similar investments) are not usually funded through a government’s general operating budget. The amount of money needed is too great. Borrowing the money just pushes the due date forward, adds to the ultimate cost and may require a property tax increase. If the project is funded separately from the general fund, such as a water project, that fund can borrow the money and raise rates to make the required payments. The preferred method is to pay for projects as they are completed. A Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) is designed to do just that. Oxford used SPLOST 2011 funds to replace a 90-year-old water main. If Oxford had borrowed the money it would have had to raise each customer’s water bill by $160 a year for ten years.
SPLOST is preferred because it is a one percent tax on retail sales throughout the county and is paid by visitors as well as residents. Newton Countians have paid for much of the infrastructure in Rockdale and DeKalb Counties by purchasing items there that were not available in Newton county. Thankfully, that will change as more retail establishments open locally. Newton County voters recognize that and recently approved, by an overwhelming majority, SPLOST 2017. Much credit goes to the Chamber of Commerce and volunteers for leading the effort to get accurate information to the voters.
Planning for SPLOST 2017 began last fall with concern that voters might not agree to continue the tax, even though it was readily acknowledged that a clear majority of the projects were worthy of approval. The concern was based on the knowledge, at that time, that voter confidence in the county government was nonexistent. It was in that environment that the mayors began to plan for a meeting with the county to discuss projects.
One of the benefits of the cities having worked together for several years was that the need for proposed projects was known and required little debate. In previous years, the cities had not received SPLOST proceeds equivalent to their percent of the population. The 2005 agreement gave the county 90.65% of the SPLOST revenue while leaving the cities 9.35 percent. In the 2011 agreement (the cities had begun to act as a team) saw the cities share increase to 17.57 percent. And the SPLOST 2017 agreement called for 78 percent of revenue to go to the county and 22 percent to the cities. The cities would receive 25 percent of any excess funds. The Team of Cities was functioning as a team!
There are opportunities for the cities and the county to partner on several projects. The state of Georgia mandates that local governments work together on several fronts, including comprehensive planning and assignment of areas of service delivery responsibility. Avoiding unnecessary duplication of services benefits everyone. For example, Oxford signed an intergovernmental agreement for the county to provide Oxford city residents with fire protection and emergency medical services. The agreement allowed Oxford to provide its citizens with superior services at a lower cost and to repurpose its fire station as a rental property.
Will there be a Team Newton?
This is part of a series of columns on government by Jerry Roseberry. Roseberry is Mayor of Oxford and Vice Chairman of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission Council. He can be reached at JRoseberry@oxfordgeorgia.org.