This was quite the week for our Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC).
The group had three special called meetings, casting just one vote —to postpone a meeting originally scheduled for this coming Tuesday.
If not for policy passed that will affect Newton County now or in the future, then why are citizens talking about the board’s actions? Once again, the news from the horseshoe at the Newton County Historic Courthouse is of questions dealing with the county’s finances and how the board members dealt with news and actions.
The BOC was told on Tuesday that the county staff has to trim its budget by more than $10 million. Then on that same day it didn’t approve a new Agriculture Center due to $123,495.44 in SPLOST funds needing to be collected. On Wednesday, things really heated up as David Sawyer, an accountant with Frazier and Deeter CPAs and Advisors of Atlanta, presented an audit of Newton County community centers, Washington Street and the Nelson Heights Community Center. The audit questioned 10s of thousands of dollars in finances spent at Nelson Heights.
With the information discussed by the BOC on Tuesday of millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of dollars, then why was 10s of thousands so important?
The importance of those funds is not so much the dollar amounts but what they represent. We are not saying they represent District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson or the children the center was built to serve. We see the questioned funds representing a lack of communication and a lack of clear, organizational oversight.
Sawyer told the BOC that documentation regarding spending at Nelson Heights — that he said exceeded the center’s revenues of $40,000 given by the county —wasn’t available. To find that documentation, he was recommended to the county’s finance department.
The board should have never let the officers of Nelson Heights put them in that position.
Before getting into the discussion of Nelson Heights, Sawyer told the BOC of the success of the Washington Street Community Center. That center operates on its own, taking just $40,000 a year from the county, but has revenues of more than $200,000.
Washington Street is a good example of how to run things. Wednesday’s meeting should let the BOC know that it has a fine example to follow for the future of Nelson Heights.
Sawyer also said that a van was purchased for Nelson Heights by county funds. Newton County Finance Director Michelle Kelly said that she was directed to purchase the van, despite it costing more than the Kelly Blue Book value.
Why was she directed to do that?
The report also recommended that a county official not serve as an officer of a 501©3 that the county gives money too. How is this not seen by all involved as something that just isn’t worth fighting over if the alternative will not deter the people the center is trying to serve to be served?
Those questions are the importance of Wednesday’s report.
Sawyer was also directed to look at six other areas of financial risk: the landfill, reservoir, recycling or convenience centers, the recreation department, SPLOST/Impact fees and roads and public works.
When the BOC hears the report on those areas — and we hope they do so soon — then they should keep in mind the question of why these things were allowed to happen.
They need to understand how we got to the point that officials had to ask why so much. They also need to understand the benefits of the new charter that was recently signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal.
The charter states that both the county chair and county manager need to sign checks. The charter also states that the chair and manager need to meet on county business. The charter adds something new to Newton County, that a 3-2 vote could be vetoed by the chair.
Those items that were just mentioned represent much needed communication and system of checks and balances.
We hope this BOC and future boards utilize this vital tool. Let’s stop the why’s that were brought up in the audit of Nelson Heights, and any possible whys that may come up in future audits.
This is a bumpy road the BOC has headed on, but it’s one that needs to be followed. A less cloudy picture of the county’s finances, and a less cantankerous process of deciding how those finances are spent is what’s best for the residents of Newton County.
By staying on the path of transparency and using the tools recently put in place, the BOC may one day cease being one of the most talked about things in Newton County.