Newton commission candidates see debt and COVID as top challenges

The Covington News asked the candidates for the District 5 seat on the Newton County Board of Commissioners the same three questions about issues they will face if elected. 

The candidates include incumbent Commissioner Ronnie Cowan, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Dorothy Piedrahita. District 5 includes northeastern and central Newton County, including part of the city of Covington.

COVINGTON NEWS: What do you believe will be the top county government issue that will most affect the majority of District 5 residents in 2021 and what is your stand on it?

DOROTHY PIEDRAHITA: The seminal government issue which will affect most District 5 residents in 2021 is COVID-19. The residents must have confidence in my leadership abilities. I have models which will speak to those abilities, and I’ve managed thousands of people in my lifetime. 

In order to help tackle our local health crisis, together we must establish efficient strategies which will benefit those of us who call District 5 home.

My stance is to follow the science and medical professionals in America and around the world. My past, private, and professional life is a testament to how I manage issues from the smallest to the largest. I am strengthened and enthusiastic about becoming District 5 commissioner. 

RONNIE COWAN: The (Board of Commissioners) has had to deal with a number of critical government issues in the past four years. We have been successful in:

1. Getting the landfill in compliance with State (Environmental Protection Division) requirements;

2. Ending decades long litigation and eliminating additional expansion of the the landfill into the Spring Hill community;

3. Encouraging private trash pickup through contractors while keeping many convenience centers operational; 

4. Securing the land purchased for the Bear Creek Reservoir by addressing repurchasing agreements in deeds and creating a wildlife management area on the site;

5. Eliminating ambulance subsidy to the hospital and increasing the number of new fire stations with EMS personnel;

6. Financed improvements at the water treatment facility; 

7. Utilized citizen involvement in the development and implementation of a strategic plan for the County; 

8. County code of ordinances is available online and in book format; 

9. Economic growth with expansion of industry in Stanton Springs Industrial Park, including Takeda and Facebook.  

These are just some of the accomplishments of the BOC in the past four years.  

However, we have asked our citizens to contribute more in taxes. This was done though growth in the tax digest without increasing the millage rate. This has allowed Newton County to establish cash reserves and adequate fund balances to offset and loss of value in the digest. 

We have also incurred additional debt through bonds. Accordingly, it is my opinion that the top government issue is that the county should focus attention on lowering its debt and not allow it to get out of hand. Just like your household, we should start making additional payments to get the county debt paid down. We are not over-extended, but we need to keep our debt low. As we keep our debt low, we can reduce interest payments and put that money back into operations and hopefully lower the taxes necessary to provide adequate government services. 

COVINGTON NEWS: What do you believe will be the top short-term challenge the Board of Commissioners will face in the next six to 12 months and how do you feel it should be addressed at this point?

RONNIE COWAN: It’s time to create an in-house legal department and lower our legal bills. The BOC can do this for approximately $500,000, which includes a county attorney, a (Solid Waste Authority) attorney, a paralegal and have effective legal representation for the BOC and the Solid Waste Authority.  

Other constitutional offices can utilize the in-house legal departments. Appropriate cases can be turned over to liability insurance carriers under the “duty to defend” clause in our insurance contracts. 

DOROTHY PIEDRAHITA: The short-term challenge should be to bring unity to a diverse county. Our county matters. I will stand for all citizens in Newton County.

COVINGTON NEWS: The need for roadwork will continue in the next four years as the population and traffic increases in District 5. What will be the funding method you most favor for road improvements in the next four years, and why?

DOROTHY PIEDRAHITA: Roads must be expanded and paved as a part of community improvement. Roundabouts are a century old and can dramatically change transportation and traffic flow in highly congested areas. I intend to encourage utilization of them throughout our community. Most assuredly in hot spots where traffic is condensed and in need of expansion. 

I favor road improvements in the next four years with the use of SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) as a funding source. This will also create jobs.

RONNIE COWAN: There are several ways for road projects to pay for road projects. If T- SPLOST is approved by the voters, it will generate sufficient revenues for roadwork projects. This is the easiest method, but it is an additional sales tax to be voted on by the citizens.  

Otherwise, road projects will have to be paid through state DOT funding; ARC funding; SPLOST funding or through the general fund, which is from property tax. There may be other methods, but these are the most common. The county engineer and the county manager make recommendations for the best method to fund a road project. I have no preference as to that manner in which funds are received for road funding. 

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