Published Wednesday, January 30, 2013

County report: Coweta in good shape despite economy


“Despite the economic conditions, Coweta County is in really good shape.”

That was the gist of the talk given by county officials at Tuesday’s meeting of the Newnan Kiwanis Club.

That good shape “came with a lot of” dedication, a lot of work, and a lot of support from commissioners and staff, said County Administrator Theron Gay, speaking to the Kiwanians at their weekly Newnan Country Club luncheon.

Coweta had been growing, population wise, by about 4 percent, but during the past year or so, the growth dropped to 1.5 percent, he said.

County revenues are down slightly, along with the economy. “But we do see that there are a lot of positive things,” Gay said.

For example, the county’s sales tax collections are up 8 percent over last year. Cowetans approved the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for the seventh time last year and “we have a lot of good projects we’re looking to do going forward,” Gay said.

The county’s budget has declined over the years.

“We’ve looked at our staffing” and where there were opportunities to reduce staff numbers through retirement and the like and “we haven’t backfilled a lot of those positions,” he said. And “we’ve worked on consolidation of departments when possible.” Even with revenues declining, the county was able to end fiscal year 2012 with a “good addition” to the “fund balance” surplus account.

The county’s tax digest — the total value of all property subject to property taxes — has declined over the last few years, but “I wouldn’t trade Coweta’s position with anyone else’s,” Gay said.

“We are proud of where we are. There are also a lot of good signs with the economy, and things we see as really good going forward,” Gay said.

Those include two new hospitals and a possible third, two new college campuses, new car dealerships, and upcoming major road projects including the Southeastern Bypass Extension and the Poplar Road interchange on Interstate 85.

The county is also adding an instrument landing system at the Newnan-Coweta Airport at Whitlock Field. That system will allow planes to take off and land in all kinds of weather conditions.

Construction is down since the economic downturn, but Coweta is still seeing almost 200 new homes built a year. There have also been notable commercial developments in the past few years.

“We still feel like the economic outlook here is really good,” Gay said.

Assistant County Administrator Michael Fouts talked about transportation projects and public safety.

The county did “rehabilitation” work on 31 miles of county roads over the last 12 months, Fouts said. Some of that was “full-depth reclamation” work, which uses the existing road materials as a base layer. In the past, the county had contracted out FDR jobs, but Coweta has purchased a milling machine that allows the projects to be done in house.

The two major upcoming road projects are the Bypass extension and Pine/U.S. 29/ Highway 16 intersection project. The county will begin right-of-way acquisition this spring; the project should go out for bids in 2014.

The Poplar interchange is a $48 million project. Of that, $21 million will be coming from county impact fees and the SPLOST, with the rest coming from the state and federal government. Right-of-way is scheduled for 2014 with construction in mid-2016.

However, said Fouts, “we have been meeting with all the agencies involved. We feel like this is a huge economic impact to the county. We’re trying to increase the schedule so we can move this project along.”

There’s a lot of public safety work going on, including the recent renovations to the Coweta Sheriff’s Office and the construction of a new Fire Station 6 on U.S. 29 North, and a Coweta Fire Department maintenance facility behind headquarters on Turkey Creek Road. There are also renovations going on at existing fire stations.

The county has $400,000 set aside for an early warning weather siren system. The sirens will be placed at “mass gathering places” such as parks and recreation facilities. Hopes are to have the system running before the spring tornado season.

The county is looking into integrating the sirens with the National Weather Service’s watch and warning system.

Assistant County Administrator Kelly Mickle talked about parks and recreation.

The county has purchased a home adjacent to the “Central Park” soccer fields off Ebenezer Church Road to provide office space for the teams using the fields, Mickle said. The next phase of work there includes stormwater management, grading and parking. There are future plans for a community center at that site as well, she said.

Work should begin soon on the Brown’s Mill Battlefield site, Mickle said, and the county has been doing upgrades at existing parks.

Gay, Fouts and Mickle then answered questions from the audience.

One was on the impact the changes at Georgia Power’s Plant Yates generating facility could have on Coweta’s tax base. Five of the units at the coal-fired plant will be shutting down and the two largest units will be converted to natural gas.

There’s potential for impact, with the reduction in property taxes and the loss of the sales tax on coal, said Gay. “But we are continuing to assess that. We are working with Georgia Power to answer some questions. We also want to see if there is anything we can do to help Georgia Power in this,” and to help soften the impact on the community.

The county officials were asked about what has been the hardest part of the economic downturn.

“I guess really it’s just managing the day-to-day operations and managing the budget to be sure we continue to provide the services to the citizens of Coweta,” Gay said.

“We’ve tried all kinds of things, from turning off lights to whatever it takes, downsizing staff when we have the opportunity,” he said.

For Mickle, it’s “looking at the requests we receive from all the agencies, trying to prioritize where the needs are and where we spend the dollars.”

“It boils down to money,” said Fouts. One recent change has been reducing the hours of operation at some of the county’s trash compactor sites. The move is expected to “save some dollars but continue the service.”

The county is “moving in the right direction, day to day,” Fouts said, “evaluating what we’ve done, what we’ve tried.”

Gay said it’s interesting that “during the downturn in the economy, our bond rating actually went up.”

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