We’ve hidden behind the recession long enough. Newton County was on the wrong path before the current downturn, and we’ll be suffering long after the rest of the economy recovers. For 20 years, our county’s industrial and commercial tax base has eroded at an alarming rate to the point residential property now accounts for 60 percent of our tax digest. In 1990, it was 43 percent. (Excluding the cities and towns, the county’s figure is 80 percent residential.) Researchers nationwide have proven residential property costs local governments more to service (education, public safety, and infrastructure costs) than it generates in revenues (taxes and fees). Add in a 2007 economic development study estimating we lose $742M each year in retail sales to surrounding counties. After a decade of uncontrolled housing growth and anemic attempts at economic development, our county is bleeding to death.
Our only hope is to take a bold stand, making every possible effort to bring businesses back to Newton County. Instead, our three longest serving commissioners — Ewing, Henderson, and Simmons — chose to dig in deeper. If their heads go any further into the sand, their feet will disappear with them.
Tuesday’s vote against the referendum was nothing new. The board started digging this hole by abdicating responsibility to plan and manage development in the western county over a decade ago. Since then, faced with many opportunities to address a death spiral, the majority of our commissioners voted wrong or failed to provide leadership to take necessary steps. They passed on investing in joint economic development initiatives with the city of Covington, they dragged their feet regarding increased economic development efforts at the Chamber of Commerce, and they failed to act to acquire a railroad corridor with multiple potential uses to spur economic investment in our community. By not supporting liquor by the drink, the Board has gutted the county’s own 2050 Build Out Plan, which squarely depends on new development nodes in places like Oak Hill, Almon, and Hub Junction. So, we’re back on the same track of the last 20 years.
Staying the course is a questionable strategy even when all is well. Things change. But, when all is not well — and clearly it isn’t — staying the course only greases the skids for rapid decline. In a stagnant retail market with schools and public safety agencies showing the strain of continued cutbacks and rising demand for services, industry recruitment becomes tougher each passing day. Gentlemen, please! Put down those shovels and pull your heads up out of the sand. It’s time to get serious about climbing up out of this hole. This far down, the light is fading fast.