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Three Newton commissioners stall fire station bond, seek funding for parks, aquatic center
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COVINGTON — Three members of Newton County’s Public Facilities Authority sent a signal Tuesday night that bonding for a planned new fire station in eastern Newton County will be contingent on funding for special projects they want in their districts. Membership on the authority is made up of the five district commissioners.

The move by District 2 Commissioner Demond Mason, District 3 Commissioner Alana Sanders and District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson angered District 1 Commissioner Stan Edwards, whose district would be served by the new Fire Station 4 on Big Woods Road, where the county has already purchased property.

“So we’re going to hold District 1 hostage — unbelievable!” said Edwards. “That blows me away.”

Edwards went a step further Wednesday, calling the actions of Mason, Sanders and Henderson “blackmail.”

“They didn’t get what they want, so the citizens of District 5 and District 1 are not going to get their fire station,” he said.

Mason, Sanders and Henderson voted to table a $4.9 million fire station bond resolution for 30 days — the same amount of time County Manager Lloyd Kerr said it would take him to explore funding options for an estimated $42 million in projects requested by the three commissioners. Those projects include renovation of the former Cousins Middle School to include a Black history museum and a park in Nelson Heights (District 4), development of a park off Fairview Road (District 3) and construction of an aquatic center (District 2).

Only the Cousins project had previously been discussed by the commissioners. The cost to renovate it has been estimated at $8.75 million

Edwards and District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan were opposed to the tabling. Edwards sought to emphasize the importance of the fire station, which would serve Districts 1 and 5, versus parks and recreational facilities.

“We’re talking about people’s lives at stake,” said Edwards, adding that Districts 2, 3 and 4 already have adequate fire protection coverage. “Commissioner Cowan and I are simply asking to come up to where 2, 3 and 4 are with fire protection.”

But Sanders said that the western portion of the county, which is the most heavily populated, contributes more overall to county property tax collections than Districts 1 and 5.

“They want a return on their investment,” she said of District 3 residents.

Sanders said residents in her district have been asking for more parks for years.

“It is not a want; they need parks,” she said.

The authority members approved — by the same 3-2 vote — bonding for the projects in District 2, 3 and 4. Although the projects were approved, the authority does not have the ability to back bonds. Any bonding approved by the authority would also have to be approved by the Board of Commissioners, and a vote by the Board of Commissioners should have preceded the vote by the authority.

“I think that there is a misunderstanding about what the purpose of the Public Facilities Authority is,” said Cowan. “It’s really a mechanism for securing the best bond rates. It’s not for project approval.”

County Attorney Megan Martin recommended last year that the authority be formed in order to take advantage of lower bond rates and fees that would be available through an authority.

If bonds were issued for the projects in Districts 2, 3 and 4, county officials estimated that the debt service on the bonds would be $2.6 million annually over a 20-year period. Kerr said the most likely sources to pay that debt service would be a millage rate increase, which he said would be “significant,” or a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax that would have to be approved by voters.

The debt service on the $4.9 million in bonds for the new fire station would come from the fire district tax, which is already collected county-wide for fire services. That debt service would range from $450,000 to $550,000 per year.

Kerr said the cost estimates for the projects in Districts 2, 3 and 4 don’t include enough detail to determine overall costs.

“I think there’s still a tremendous amount of information that we need,” he said.

Mason asked Kerr to explore other funding options, which might reduce the amount of bonds needed to fund the projects, including grants and corporate contributions. He asked that Kerr present those other options within 30 days.


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Covid-19 vaccine rollout in Georgia awaits more doses
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ATLANTA — Georgia officials overseeing the state’s COVID-19 vaccine program are awaiting word from the new Biden administration on whether more doses will head their way amid an early shortage.

Pharmacies and health clinics had given out more than 550,000 doses to Georgia nursing homes, hospitals and people at least 65-years-old as of Thursday, marking roughly half of the vaccines Georgia has received so far, said state Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey.

That’s far short of the 2 million Georgians now eligible for the vaccine who will need two doses each.

Gov. Brian Kemp said officials will move “as quickly as we can” to distribute vaccines if Georgia’s current allotment of 120,000 doses per week increases with the new president.

“I can’t control the supply we’re getting,” Kemp said at a news conference Thursday. “But if we get more … we will do everything in our power to empower not only the government, but also private-sector partners to get this vaccine in people’s arms.”

Locally, Dr. Williams Norris Little, chief medical officer at Piedmont Newton, told the Newton Board of Commissioners Tuesday that the hospital has been able to vaccinate “large numbers of our frontline workers in terms of health care staff at the hospital.”

Piedmont is also rolling out vaccination clinics and working with the Department of Health to vaccinate those in priority groups, he said.

Piedmont currently has vaccination clinics in Conyers and McDonough. Patients with a Piedmont physician are being contacted as appointments become available. More information on Piedmont’s vaccination program can be found at www.piedmont.org/covid-19/vaccine.

Additional information on vaccinations is available at these websites: https://dph.georgia.gov/locations/covid-vaccination-site and https://dph.georgia.gov./

“Overall the pandemic has certainly challenged our resources,” Little told commissioners. “I would be remiss if I did not say people were a bit weary and tired and working a great deal to provide care for the patients in our community, but we have been able to fulfill the mission that we have, which is to care for all patients with all conditions that come.”

Little also expressed appreciation to the community for support of the hospital.

“Our community in Covington and Newton County has been extremely supportive of our hospital with their thoughts and well wishes and prayers and snacks and meals and all kinds of things they have done, and so we want to express our great appreciation to our community as we have gone through this over the last few months,” he said.

Biden, who was inaugurated Wednesday, has pledged to distribute 100 million vaccines over the next three months by using the federal Defense Production Act to spur vaccine production and setting up Federal Emergency Management Agency-run vaccination centers.

More than 1,600 clinics, pharmacies, doctors and groceries have signed up to administer vaccines in the month or so since Georgia’s rollout started, Toomey said. Their success depends on how much supply the federal government and manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna can muster in the coming weeks.

“This is a federal program,” Toomey said. “All the logistics are done at the federal level.”

Despite concerns, Kemp and Toomey said COVID-19 vaccines are now stocked enough to ensure Georgians already vaccinated once will be able to receive the necessary second dose for full inoculation. That’s due to a federal program making headway on vaccinating residents and staff in nursing homes through CVS and Walgreens pharmacies, Kemp said.

“These additional doses in the short term will allow existing providers and public-health departments at the county level to expand the number of appointments that they are currently scheduling,” Kemp said. “But our total supply … does not fulfill the demand from seniors and other at-risk eligible Georgians.”

Georgia’s vaccine rollout kicked off in mid-December at a slow pace, hindered by short supplies and an imbalance in demand between health-care workers in rural areas who have shown less zeal for vaccination than metro Atlanta hospital employees who have rushed to schedule appointments.

Meanwhile, deaths stemming from the highly contagious virus have ticked up in recent weeks, Kemp said. The grim news comes during spike in COVID-19 infections over the winter months that’s showing signs of a slowdown, Kemp said – but which is still hammering communities even harder than the devastating outbreaks of summer.

The governor urged Georgians Thursday to continue wearing masks, washing hands and keep distance from each other as fatigue over safety measures takes root nearly a year after the pandemic began.

“Our hospitals cannot handle another surge of COVID-19 patients on top of their current workload,” Kemp said. “This is not an all-clear signal. We’ve got to continue to keep our foot on the gas.”

More than 700,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia as of Thursday afternoon, with nearly more 150,000 more reported positive antigen tests indicating likely positive results. The virus has killed 11,511 Georgians.


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Concerns about Rockdale beekeeping ordinance eased by changes in the proposal
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CONYERS — Following changes to a proposed beekeeping ordinance that were agreeable to those on both sides of the issue, the Rockdale County Planning Commission unanimously approved a motion recommending the Board of Commissioners (BOC) approve the ordinance. The action came at the commission meeting on Jan. 14.

Tanner G. Barr, a planner in the Rockdale County Planning and Development department, said while the ordinance was developed to “help the county better promote beekeeping as a viable economic opportunity for residents and even industry leaders looking to expand operations east of Atlanta,” the state of Georgia “blocks jurisdictions from prohibiting beekeeping outright and does not offer any regulations regarding where beekeeping activities are allowed, leaving the door open for residents to maintain hives virtually anywhere.”

The proposed ordinance would restrict honeybee hives to parcels zoned W-P, A-R, and R-1 that are 15,000 sq. ft. or larger in land area. It also placed other restrictions on beekeeping for the protection of the public in general.

But the ordinance met with opposition from members of the East Metro Beekeepers who live in Rockdale County. David Shipp wrote in a letter to the Citizen that “This ordinance has wording that restricts beekeeping to only AR and R1 zoning, but the restrictions in those zones would kill the bees... East Metro Beekeepers and various other groups will be fighting this anti-environmental ordinance. As beekeepers, we believe in being good neighbors and certain restrictions on hives is understandable.”

Barr heard the concerns of the beekeepers and worked with them to update the ordinance and make it more agreeable to all involved. Barr advised the Planning Commission about the updates.

“One of the biggest components that was opposed was zoning restrictions,” Barr said. “In this ordinance before you tonight, we have eliminated those zoning restrictions, and instead, are relying on square footage restrictions. The minimum square footage requirement is 10,000 square feet, which is around 1/4 acre. From that point, every additional 5,000 square feet, there can be two more hives.

“The second thing was the flyover barrier requirement. It is basically a fence built around the beehive. This is more common in urban and denser environments where you have neighbors right on top of you. It is done mainly to protect the hives and promote training the bees to fly higher and quicker as they approach the hives. However, because of the humid environment and the seasonal changes in Georgia, the flyover barrier does pose a risk to damaging hives by increasing the amount of shade on hives, and most beekeepers in Rockdale County have enough land on their property to really forego that requirement.

“The last thing is removing certain landscaping requirements. In the original ordinance we had requirements to have both plants that are native to Georgia and pollinator plants. We’ve removed those requirements because they were opposed. We want to be good stewards and good public servants.”

During the public hearing portion of the meeting, Shipp thanked Barr and other members of the planning staff for listening to the concerns of beekeepers and changing the ordinance to make it more workable.

“We appreciate the county working with us and us working together in a collaborative effort to make sure that this is a workable ordinance, so that we can be good neighbors as beekeepers, and be good environmentalists to help the environment keep all your gardens pollinated, your fruit trees pollinated, and to provide honey for those of us who suffer allergies,” said Shipp. “I do support this ordinance as currently changed and written.”

One beekeeper did express concern about a limitation on the number of nuclear hives (hives formed by splitting larger hives) and time limits when they are permitted remaining in the ordinance, and said it could be interpreted to being in violation of Georgia law concerning beekeeping.

Barr explained that usually nuclear hives are done in the spring, and that the clause in the ordinance is there to give beekeepers a chance to split nuclear hives in the winter months to protect against winter losses, as well as in the spring.

It was also noted that the county attorney reviews all ordinances and makes sure they are not in violation of state law before their final reading and approval.

The Planning Commission then unanimously approved a motion to recommend approval of the ordinance. The ordinance will go back to the Board of Commissioners for a zoning public hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 26, at 9 a.m. That meeting will be held in the county auditorium.


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Newton schools to continue remote learning through Jan. 29
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COVINGTON — The Newton County School System will continue all-virtual learning for students through Jan. 29 due to the ongoing spread of COVID-19 in the community.

In a message sent to parents on Jan. 20, Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey said school system officials had reviewed the weekly COVID-19 data for the community and determined that the rate of transmission had not decreased to an acceptable level. The school system is looking at the data each Wednesday to decide whether or not students will continue with remote learning through the ensuing school week.

“After consulting with local medical professionals representing both the Gwinnett/Newton/Rockdale Health Department and Piedmont Newton Hospital, the decision has been made to continue in a remote learning setting for an additional week,” wrote Fuhrey. “All students will utilize online learning or pre-developed work assignments through Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Students currently served in-person, as well as those who signed up to transition from remote to in-person for the second semester, will now report to school on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.”

Fuhrey said the decision was made in the best interest of the health and safety of students and staff.

“Our hope is that this short-term solution will aid in the reduction of the transmission of the virus in our schools and community,” she said. “We want to assure you that this is, indeed, just a short-term solution.”

Fuhrey also sought to quell rumors that the school system intends to transition to an all-virtual format.

“This is simply not true,” she said. “We will continue to monitor the numbers on a weekly basis and collaborate with our local medical professionals in order to make the best decision possible for our students and staff.”

While remote learning is in process, parents of regular in-person students may obtain free breakfast and lunch meals daily from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the nearest school or pick up meals from one a designated bus stop delivery locations. Visit this link to determine the location and timing of the meal delivery stop closest to your residence.

http://newtonschoolnutrition.org/index.php?sid=0702132359289201&page=MealRoutes

The NCSS School Nutrition Department in conjunction with the NCSS Transportation Department, will also deliver daily meals, including weekend meals on Fridays, to the following temporary bus delivery locations: Arbor Lake Apartments, Cedar Grove Community, Covington Estates, Five Oaks Subdivision, Jamestown, Long Branch Subdivision, Salem Springs, Twin Chimneys Subdivision, Wagon Train, and Wells Mobile Home Park. Delivery times may be found at the following link:

https://newtoncountyschools.org/departments/public_relations/news/n_c_s_s_meal_delivery_updates

In addition to daily meals, NCSS School Nutrition will also provide weekly meal boxes for pickup at the following school distribution sites: Live Oak Elementary, Heard-Mixon Elementary, West Newton Elementary, Middle Ridge Elementary, and Oak Hill Elementary. The NCSS Food Bus will also stop at select locations throughout the county to distribute weekly meals. Location, days and distribution times may be found on the NCSS website at the following link: https://newtoncountyschools.org/departments/public_relations/news/n_c_s_s_meal_delivery_updates

Please note that current virtual learning students may continue to obtain free meals at their regular bus stop drop off site.

“We realize that in-person instruction is the most beneficial method of instruction for most of our students, and we look forward to getting our students back into our buildings,” said Fuhrey. “Our goal is to return to in-person instruction as quickly as possible. It is important to note that our ability to return to in-person instruction is directly connected to what is happening in our community with regard to COVID-19. Each of us plays an important role in stopping the transmission of the virus in our community. Please wear a mask, watch your distance, wash your hands, and stay home if you are sick.”

In addition to the district calls, school principals will also utilize School Messenger to provide parents with school-specific information as necessary. Parents with questions or concerns should contact their school administrator for additional details.


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