Posted December 6th 2011 at 10:36 am by
in Citizen Planning in Newton County, Georgia

What can public agencies gain from collaboration?

While development pressure increased in the early 2000s, each public agency and municipality in Newton County felt it in different ways. Though communication across groups had traditionally been difficult, the county’s elected and appointed leadership came to realize that working together was the only way to shape their future.

How did the county’s leaders go from rarely speaking to each other to meeting regularly as the Leadership Collaborative? It all started with an opportunity for discussion. Once the path was cleared for discussion, leaders were surprised by how much they could gain from listening to each other.

Mort Ewing, County Commissioner for District 1:

“The idea was tossed around [in the early 2000s] about how to plan for the future of Newton County. My high school classmate, Rob Fowler, is a very forward thinking businessman… He had a building available, and some financial resources available, and that’s how the Center for Community Preservation and Planning started.

Since I was Commissioner for District 1, we became the guinea pig for the program. The first meeting of any group was the District 1 people: me, the Newton County water and sewer person for District 1, a person representing the hospital who lives in District 1, the District 1 school board member, the tax assessor for District 1, and there seems like there may have been one other person.

That was not an easy meeting because none of us had a working relationship. We knew each other, but we had never sat down around a table or around lunch to discuss the future. That was not an easy meeting, but it was a productive meeting in that we agreed to meet again. After that it went to District 2 and on through District 5.”

How has this collaboration helped its various stakeholder agencies?

Water and Sewer.

The wide availability of county water lines drove large, 100+ home subdivisions further and further into the rural county. The availability of adequate water service was not a consideration in rezoning or permit approval process, and eventually, during the summer of 2003, the demand for water grew larger than the existing pipe size could accommodate, and water outages struck. Accordingly, the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority was one of the earliest advocates for discussion of growth management.

The decision to restrict future development to compact communities will save a considerable amount of money and construction for the water and sewer authority. Now the challenge remains to enforce those land use decisions, and encourage future developers, who may be accustomed to easy variances, to work within Newton County’s system.

Mike Hopkins, Director of the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority:

“I’m not a proponent of no-growth, I don’t think you can stop growth, but I think you can manage it fairly for the people on the governmental side and in the development community. Newton County has benefitted from growth. Growing up, the nearest McDonald’s was 25 miles away, and it was a Sunday after-Church treat to ride to Belvedere to get a hamburger. Certainly there’s been some advantage to having new things here in Newton County that we don’t have to ride a long ways to go.”

“It’s not that we don’t want any growth, I’d just like for it to be effective and well planned.”

The School System.

Finding an affordable location for new schools is a challenge for any school system. The State of Georgia prohibits school systems from acquiring land for new construction until the existing student population demands it. In fast growing Newton County, new schools opened with outdoor trailer classrooms.

Cathy Morgan, Chairman of the Newton County Board of Commissioners:

“Alcovy High School was located on Highway 36 because it was the cheapest land the school system could afford to buy. But the school system found they were so far out, the school is 13 miles south of the City, and they have to transport so many students from so many different areas, that that is the most expensive bus transportation system of any school in the county.

The siting committee decides this is where we’re going to run water, this is where we’re going to run sewer, and we want you to locate in this area. We’ve tentatively agreed to find ways, if they know they’re going to need a school, to help them buy that site. They’re encumbered, because they don’t have the ability to buy the land until they have the need for the school. But now we can come in, if there’s a large developer, and maybe he’s doing 1100 homes, that’s 2000 students, that’s a new school, so maybe he’ll donate land or contribute to a land bank that would allow for a school to be built in that area.”

Gary Matthews, Superintendent of the Newton County School System:

“The placement of schools, where the communities will be developed, is quite critical, not just to the school system but to the county as a whole, as we plan to live together. Certainly you want to place schools in the nodes where future populations will be served. It’s cheaper that way, certainly more efficient, and more effective. It allows us to really plan short term and long term.”

What can public agencies gain from collaboration?The Cities.

The mayors and many councilmembers of the five municipalities in Newton County now meet regularly to discuss shared opportunities. In 2008, every entity in the county, including the cities, adopted the same fiscal calendar. Today they even share a fuel depot, negotiating as one entity for better prices.

Bobby Hamby, Mayor of Poterdale:

“Years and years ago, if you went to talk to a County Commissioner, you went to their office, and it was like you were a kid in school going to the principal’s office. You shouldn’t, and it’s not that way at all, but it kind of felt that way. And now you come here, and it’s neutral ground, and we’re all equal. It doesn’t matter how big the city is or how small the city is. Porterdale is a small city, we’re larger than Mansfield and Newborn, but we’re all equal.

I think it has worked extremely well. We [the mayors] have all gotten to know each other better, and we can now talk about tough issues without getting defensive or feelings getting hurt… A huge part of that was the Center, and what they do here to bring everyone together on neutral ground.”

The County.

The county administration has adopted the approaches developed in the Leadership Collaborative to improve its internal and external function. New permitting software, clearer administrative responsibilities, stronger communications with other agencies – all of these improvements have made the County more efficient and better able to function during the recession.

Police and Emergency Services.

Homes in sprawling subdivisions, scattered across the countryside, are more difficult for emergency services to reach. The cost of fire protection, as well as other public services, like garbage collection, is considerably lower per person in denser residential areas.

The Chamber of Commerce and Main Street Covington

The growth of new homes vastly outpaced the growth of new jobs, but the collaboration presented a new means for everyone to work together on the common goal of economic development.

The Leadership Collaborative sees not only the need for attractive office and retail space, but also the importance of an educated workforce. Through a united front, the County attracted a new campus of Georgia Perimeter College and helped the campus locate within one of the county’s planned compact communities.

Today, the Center for Community Preservation and Planning maintains its role as a neutral place for discussion. Finally, a few more words from Mr. Ewing on Executive Director of the Center, whose patience has kept disparate agencies together:

“Ms. Kay B. Lee has multiple talents, but is a very talented person for being able to remain neutral and bring everybody to the table. She can get them discussion, and as a facilitator can ultimately get on paper what those people say.”

Post by Ruth Miller.

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