Tuesday, January 05, 2010

TOP STORY >> Looking back at the final months of 2009


The Jacksonville Sewer Commission got the city council’s blessings to proceed with obtaining more than $18.2 million in bonds for repairs and expansion, with the promise that it would not mean a rate increase.

The commission plans to spend $5.1 million on rehabilitation and repairs, $3.9 million on additions and expansion of the system; $4.4 million to pay off old loans, $1 million for sewer work at the proposed new state fairgrounds site and $700,000 in debt service and administrative costs.

Larry Gaddis with Crist Engineers said the city had about 175 miles of underground sewers that were about 70 years old and difficult to maintain.

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher aimed to clean up Jacksonville by passing a 33-page nuisance-abatement ordinance.

But the idea was met with public concern and resistance.

A Cabot businessman who was also voted 2008 man of the year for the Lonoke County Republican Committee was arrested on a rape charge and has since pleaded not guilty by reason of mental defect.

Roger Lemaster, 54, husband of former Cabot Alderman Becky Lemaster, was arrested Sept. 21 and released from the county jail Sept. 22 on a $50,000 bond. Court records show he filed for divorce that same day on the grounds of general indignities.

The streets of Cabot received a sprucing up as 264 people came out during the fall Cabot Cleanup to pick up litter along the roads before visitors arrived for Cabotfest.

Cabot City Beautiful president Matt Webber said, “We filled a 30-yard dumpster up a half and three quarters. We were able to cover more routes because of the number of people.”

The Arkansas Fallen Firefighters Memorial statue called Cabot home for a week during October as it was a centerpiece for the annual Cabotfest.

The 6,000-pound, 11.6-foot tall statue was displayed at the First Security bank parking lot on 205 W. Pine St., then moved onto the street for Cabotfest.

The statue’s permanent home will be at the state Capitol. The statue has been transported to different locations around the state to bring awareness and to raise money for the memorial.

Arkansas received, in October, its first allotment of the H1N1 “swine” influenza Avaccine — 17,000 doses — that was reserved for children, a group at greater risk for severe illness if they contract the virus. The initial shipment, which was in nasal mist form, was used at statewide school immunization clinics.

The vaccines were free.

Since the new strain of the type A influenza virus emerged last spring, 600 deaths in the United States, including seven in Arkansas, have been attributed to it.

Sherwood Detective Beverly Hughes went back to work days after the city’s Civil Service Commission overturned her July firing.

“She’s back on the same shift, the same u-nit and even the same car,” said Sherwood Police Chief Kel Nicholson, who fired Hughes for insubordination.

Hughes returned to work with all of her benefits and back pay, but that may not be the end of the case. She has since settled her federal discrimination lawsuit with the city.

The city of Ward officially opened its new dog park.

Dog owners can let their pets run leash-free in the 136-feet by 42-feet chain-link fenced park. The park is located behind city hall at 405 Hickory St. Construction of the dog park cost around $600.

Friends of Ward Shelter president Janice Holden said, “the park makes for better dogs in the community. They are exercised, socialized and better behaved.”

Four Jacksonville apartments in the Willow Bend complex were left gutted and roofless after a fire, which was ignited by a methamphetamine lab.

Apparently the fire was ignited when a makeshift meth lab exploded in Apt. 33.

The tenant of Apt. 33 hurriedly awoke her neighbor telling her that the building was on fire and fled in her car before police and firefighters arrived.

A 9-year-old girl along with her parents and another person escaped a fiery meth lab explosion at a home in the Sunnyside addition of Jacksonville.

Amanda Randall said she and her daughter were sleeping on the couch in the living room while Donald Randall and Deborah Christian, 37, of 126 South Eastern Ave., were in the back bedroom making methamphetamine using the “shake-and-bake” method.

A neighbor told police she was awakened by her children, who said there was someone knocking on the door. Amanda Randall told her that she and her daughter were asleep in the living room when she heard a loud noise, woke up and saw that the house was on fire.

Jacksonville hired Rickey Hayes of Retail Attractions in Owasso, Okla., to help bring retail businesses and restaurants to Jacksonville.

In just six years as economic development director for Owasso, Okla., Rickey Hayes doubled the city’s sales tax base and add new commercial construction totaling more than 4.2 million square feet with over a quarter of a billion dollars in total value.That impressive record is the main reason that the Jacksonville city council agreed with the mayor to spend $20,000 to hire Hayes’ company for the remainder of the year. Hayes’ contract was later extended for all of 2010.

After more than a year of trying, Cabot finally passed a new animal control ordinance.

The ordinance, which limits the number of dogs and cats per household to four in any combination, was approved unanimously.

In addition to limiting the number of dogs and cats, the ordinance bans selling or giving away animals in parking lots, parks, flea markets or any other outside area. The ban does not apply to humane societies, animal control agencies or nonprofit agencies sponsoring pet adoptions that have obtained approval from the head of Cabot Animal Control.

The ordinance includes a $30 fee for relinquishing unwanted pets. The fee is reduced to $15 for residents taking care of strays who provide a current newspaper clipping to show they have tried to find the owner.

The Lonoke Farm Bureau honored Jim Malone and his family as farm family of the year. The Malones pioneered several areas of fish farming in Arkansas and the U.S. and survived yet another round of floods earlier this year.

Accepting the award were Jim Malone and his wife Louise and Beverley Jones and her husband Bobby. Malone and Jones are brother and sister.

Jim Malone Sr. started with 20 acres in 1951 and today his children run the farm with 2,000 acres of ponds.

“It’s been a very difficult year for us,” Jim Malone said. “We are deeply grateful and very humble and appreciate (the honor) and will never forget,” he said.

Cabot’s top students, its National Merit Semifinalists and AP Scholars, were recognized during the October board meeting.

In 2009, 147 Arkansas high school seniors were named National Merit Semifinalists.

Seven from Cabot included Spencer Sharp, Justin Blankenship, Grace Coggins, Katie Van Druff, Emily Foltz, Courtney Anderson and Hannah Norton.

Cabot’s AP Scholars included Josh McIntyre, Spencer Sharp, Justin Blankenship, Brendon Tucker, Taylor Burrington, Paula Shepard, Grace Coggins, Emily Foltz, Kelsey Loraditch, Rachel Best, Laken Harrington, Thomas Medak, Gary Newman and Courtney Anderson.

Longtime Ward Alderman Ginger Tarno resigned, saying ill health prevented her from doing her job as well as she wanted to.

Tarno has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

Tarno, who was appointed to the council about 12 years ago and won every election since, grew up in Ward.

She said every decision she made as a member of the city council was for the people.

“I tried to treat the city like I’d like to be treated,” she said.

The family of a man who hanged himself last year in the Cabot jail has filed suit in federal court against the city, mayor, police chief, several named officers and 10 others called John Does for his death, saying it should have been prevented.

Donnie Lee Isom was arrested Sept. 8, 2008 for public intoxication and disorderly conduct after a disturbance at Steeple Chase Apartments. Isom was booked into the jail and about 30 minutes after being placed in a cell, he was found lying between two bunks with a blanket around his neck.

A state police investigation that included viewing the surveillance tapes in the jail cleared the city of any wrongdoing. But the suit says the city caused Isom’s death through multiple failures in training and personnel actions.

The Arkansas Congressional delegation announced that Cabot WaterWorks would receive $500,000 to help pay for the installation of a gravity sewer to increase capacity for continued development of residential and commercial property.

Cabot WaterWorks applied for stimulus funding for the estimated $8 to $9 million improvement project in the spring and learned soon afterward that the money would not be forthcoming. However, WaterWorks officials were told then that more stimulus money might be available in 2010.

Central Arkansas ended up with more than 11 inches of rain in October, making it the third wettest October on record, and putting the year on track to be the wettest year ever (which it turned out to be).

The very wet October came on the heels of a very wet September.

Four area fire departments using boats and other rescue equipment evacuated about a dozen people from a trailer park off Tom Box Road in north Pulaski County when heavy rains hit the area again.

Also, a number of people had to be rescued from the roofs of their floating cars at Hwy. 161 and the railroad overpass and another person was pulled to safety as their car continued to float away on Jacksonville Cutoff near Main Street.

The Ward Fire Department ran rescue missions as the rain fell, pulling one family from a car that had stalled in four feet of water on Hwy. 319 and Lewisburg Road, and saving dogs in the city’s animal control kennels off Hwy. 367.

Ward Police Chief Charlie Martin said firefighters waded in water up to their armpits to get the dogs to safety.

Union Pacific was reluctant to reopen the Graham Railroad crossing, but the city was equally persistent in its efforts to get it open.

“We will knock down any obstacle they throw at us,” said City Administrator Jim Durham.

The city responded to an Oct. 8 letter from Union Pacific, in which Charles Felkins, manager of special projects, industry and public, wrote that the “city and UP agreed that the at-grade crossing at Graham Road would be closed upon completion of the overpass project.”

In his Oct. 15 response to the railroad, Mayor Gary Fletcher wrote that the area was negatively affected by the closure and has suffered tremendously.

The North Pulaski High School band completed a rewarding marching season bringing home multiple awards in October.

Trombonist Nikki Mullen, a 12th grader, said of the competitions, “There is a lot of energy and excitement before you get on the field. It is there throughout the performance. I feel I am on a natural high of happiness. You’re doing what you love.”

“We try to make a name for our school. We take pride,” said drum major Erica Frost.

The North Pulaski High School band has 117 members.

After operating at a loss for four years, North Metro Medical Center posted a profit three months in a row. Hospital board members credited measures implemented since Allegiance Health Management took over daily operations 11 months ago.

“It is still a tough economic fight,” but with “cost-cutting measures and careful attention to income and expenses, we’ve been able to turn the ship around, somewhat,” hospital board chair Mike Wilson said.

The last year that the hospital operated in the black was 2003-04, when it closed the fiscal year with a $652,000 positive balance. The next year, net income slipped to the other side of the ledger with a $98,000 loss. In 2006-07, losses jumped to $3 million. The 2007-08 fiscal year closed out with a net loss of $2.38 million. Since then, the net loss has reached as high as $400,000 each month.

Messages of sympathy and love poured into Pulaski Technical College for Johnny Dollar, 53, of Jacksonville, who was killed when he was struck by an ambulance as he tried to remove an injured dog from a busy highway just north of Conway.

Dollar was a popular professor of theology and history at Pulaski Tech and worked there for the past 16 years. In those early Pulaski Tech days, he was also reporter for area newspapers like the Jacksonville News covering government meetings and sports.

His wife Susan, who is on the Jacksonville Planning Commission, also teaches part time at Pulaski Tech. They had twin daughters, Charlotte and Lauralee.

Occupants of nine households on Bronco Lane in Sherwood struggled to put their lives back together after flood waters from Woodruff Creek forced them to flee their homes, when almost four inches of rain fell within a five-hour period.

Residents affected by the flood watched as city workers loaded garbage trucks with their belongings, which had been reduced to rubbish by rushing water that swept through their houses.

The low-lying stretch of Bronco Lane is in a flood plane. It has a history of flooding, but long-time residents there say this time was the worst they had ever experienced. The monsoon-like rains ran off ground already saturated from recent downpours, quickly filling the creek – actually a narrow, concrete culvert – behind their homes which overflowed its banks into their yards.

The state Supreme Court reversed former Lonoke Police Chief Jay Campbell’s convictions for running a continuing criminal enterprise and a slew of burglary, theft, drug and drug manufacturing charges and remanded the case back to Lonoke County Circuit Court, but not before Campbell served 31 months of a 40-year sentence.

He has since been released on bond, awaiting trial for drugs and theft.

Parents, teachers and staff, along with community leaders, helped dedicate Jacksonville’s new charter school — the first new school built in the city in almost three decades.

“Thank you, Jacksonville, for letting us move into our new home,” principal Nigena Livingston said during the dedication ceremony. “This is the school that was built for a better tomorrow.”

Students moved into the Lighthouse Academy, 251 N. First St., from temporary quarters at Second Baptist Church.

Construction of the $4 million school got off to a late start in March, in part due to spring rains, followed by frequent torrential downpours through October.

A disgruntled worker at a Jacksonville daycare set fire to her classroom with 16 youngsters napping or resting, and was arrested on 17 charges.

Jacksonville police arrested Darlene Ann Kostyk, 24, of Jacksonville on one count of arson and 16 counts of endangering the welfare of a minor in connection with a fire at Kareer Kids daycare in November.

The arson charge is a misdemeanor, but each of the child endangerment charges is a felony.

Site preparation began on the long-awaited $10.6 million Joint Education Center at Little Rock Air Force Base with an official groundbreaking ceremony.

The contractor, W.G. Yates and Sons Construction of Philadelphia, Miss., are building the new cooperative college at the corner of Vandenberg Boulevard and John Harden Drive.

The Air Force’s contribution is $9.8 million and Jacksonville’s is $5 million, raised by local residents who approved a dedicated tax for the purpose in 2003.

Jacksonville adopted a revised nuisance abatement ordinance. The city council at its regular monthly meeting unanimously approved the amended code without so much as a comment or complaint from any council member or citizens in attendance.

The ordinance covers everything from the per person square footage requirements for bedrooms to weed control to parking and storage of vehicles.

“It just does a better job of bringing it all together so that it is easier to understand and enforce,” Mayor Gary Fletcher said.

A McRae man was charged with capital murder in the death of his father whose body was found in his Beebe home.

Beebe Chief of Police Wayne Ballew said Billy Joe Clark, 75, 305 N. Hickory St., was found murdered and a short time later Christopher S. Clark, 43, of McRae, was in police custody.

For the lottery player on the go, Bill’s Sales, Rental and More in Ward started to offer drive-through service in November.

Building owner Bill Boyd transformed the rustic wooden garage built in 1945 at 312 Elm St. into a one-stop lottery center. Boyd also rents U-Haul trucks and trailers on the side.

The double-door garage is a place where lottery players do not have to step out of their vehicle to purchase scratch-off cards, Powerball tickets or claim winnings.

Jacksonville was awarded $53,191 to build the second phase of a hiking and bicycle trail to the Bayou Meto.

“It’s been a year or so since I applied for those funds,” Jimmy Oakley, Jacksonville’s public works director, said. He said he hadn’t yet heard from the Arkansas Highway Commission, which awarded the funding, but he was happy to learn the money would soon be awarded.

“Phase two will go around the back of the lake,” Oakley said about the Bayou Meto Creek Trail, “so people can go fishing there.” The trail will also be for walking, he said.

Sherwood’s Trail of Lights went green. In order to cut down on the electrical power needed for its humongous Christmas display now in its eighth year, the city of Sherwood invested in LED (light emitting diode) light bulbs.

The dazzling display at Sherwood Forest had 92 displays.

More than $5,000 was used to buy 6,000 red, green, white and amber LED light bulbs.

The LED bulbs, though costlier, use only a twelfth of the electricity, require fewer power outlets and are made of durable plastic that is resistant to fading and breakage.

A Cabot man was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand, on a multitude of federal charges, including bookmaking, distribution of illegal drugs and conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with an alleged kickback scheme also involving a North Little Rock alderman and a contractor.

George Wylie Thompson, 64, lived in the modest Oak Meadows subdivision in the central part of Cabot when police got a courtesy call from the Federal Bureau of Investigation last spring, informing them that they were working in Cabot.

The new Jacksonville Pathfinder preschool building was dedicated in December.

The 38,000-square-foot, one-story building is located adjacent to the Reynolds Building, the main facility on the Pathfinder campus at 2400 W. Main St.

The new building, with its 188-individual capacity, has alleviated the preschool’s waiting list, with room to spare. Current enrollment is about 135.

The Cabot School District announced plans to buy 25.8 acres adjacent to Junior High North for $462,000 for a new ninth-grade school.

The district has talked for some time about separating ninth graders and since the two junior high schools are near capacity, now is the time to do it, the board decided.

Jacksonville has the best site and has made the best offer to move the state fair from Little Rock, according to the official in charge of the prestigious program.

Ralph Shoptaw, the general manager of the Arkansas Livestock Show Association, called Jacksonville’s offer to give the association 430 acres of land in southeast Jacksonville “very attractive.”

He told The Leader during a visit to Jacksonville that the site off Hwy. 161 South near Hwy. 67/167 and the North Belt Freeway was the best he’s seen from among 19 that were submitted.

A committee will make a decision in the coming months. After a site is chosen, the new fairgrounds could cost up to $150 million and could be completed in three to five years, Shoptaw said.

A decade-long dream became a reality with the groundbreaking of a $10 million armory in Cabot.

“This is truly a great day for the Arkansas Na-tional Guard, but it’s and even greater day for Cabot,” Adjutant Gen. William Wofford said. The economic impact to the area should be about $1 million a year, he said.

“This is the biggest and best thing that has happened in Cabot in many years,” Mayor Eddie Joe Williams said.

Tempers flared at a Pulaski County Special School District meeting in December when the board voted to decertify both the teachers union and the support staff union.

This caused the teachers union to call for a one day walkout in which about half the district teachers participated. The union also sued the district over the decertification.

The board, in return, hired about 20 long term substitutes in case the teacher’s go on strike again. The new hires are costing the district close to $500,000.

The board also voted unanimously to table a motion that would have authorized a second-lien bond sale of as much as $2 million for construction of a new elementary school on Little Rock Air Force Base to replace both Arnold Drive and Tolleson elementary schools.

Acting Superintendent Rob McGill and Chief Financial Officer Anita Farver told the board that they didn’t believe the district had enough money to give raises to teachers and build the new school.

After 15 years of trying every which way to expand the old jail or build a new one, Lonoke County officials were smiling, slapping backs and shaking hands after a Cabot company was the apparent low bidder for a new 142-bed jail.

“I never dreamed we’d be able to build everything with the money we had,” said Tim Lemons, a Cabot engineer and Quorum Court member.

“It’s a wonderful day for the county,” said Odom. “A 15-year battle with a whole lot of effort with a whole lot of people — especially the voters who approved the sales tax,” Odom said.

GAG Builders of Cabot bid about $5.48 million to build the 35,000-square-foot building, including lockup, offices, a courtroom big enough for a jury trial and the 911 dispatch office.

County residents voted for a one-year, one-penny sales tax dedicated to jail construction. Collection of that tax stopped Sept. 30, and it raised nearly $6.25 million.

The good news, announced at a December state highway commission meeting, was that making Hwy. 67/167 into a six-lane from Redmond to Kiehl Avenue was a definite and slated for bid letting in April. The bad news was that reconfiguring the Vandenberg Boulevard intersection and a host of other road improvements that Jacksonville motorists and city planners wanted are not going to happen anytime soon.

“We do not have any money – not today; we are committed through 2013,” Carl Rosenbaum, head of the Arkansas Highway Commission, told citizens at a meeting hosted by the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce.

State Police investigated a two-time unsuccessful candidate for the Lonoke County Clerk’s Office in connection with the misappropriation of $67,244 from the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office.

The funds were found to be missing during a routine audit by the state Bureau of Legislative Audit, which sent copies of its findings to the prosecutor and county officials and reported its findings to the state Legislative Audit Committee.

“Sheriff’s Office Book-keeper Cassandra Pitts, custodian of bond and fine funds, was responsible for the receipting, depositing and recording process for these funds,” according to the report, authored by June M. Barron, deputy legislative auditor.

“Ms. Pitts, whose employment terminated Oct. 29, 2009, was custodian of misappropriated funds totaling $67,224.”

Flooding around Christmas closed numerous roads in Jacksonville, Cabot, Sherwood and Pulaski County, including broad stretches of Hwy. 67/167.

I-30 near Bryant was closed for several hours because of flooding and rain-related accidents.

While the I-30 closure may have affected the most holiday travelers, other highways, county roads and city streets were closed in scores of sites around Arkansas including Hwy. 5 and Hwy. 67/167 between Jacksonville and Cabot and Hwy. 11 southeast of Searcy.

Numerous homes were flooded and rescue boats had to be used in a number of places to move residents to safety. Valentine Road residents were evacuated and homes were flooded near Reed’s Bridge.

South Bend Fire Department had 23 of their 36 firefighters involved in rescues over a 96-hour period. The department responded to 38 calls from motorists trapped in their vehicles due to high water and helped six families evacuate from their flooded homes in Lonoke and Pulaski counties.

Pulaski, Lonoke, White and Prairie counties were declared disaster areas by Gov. Mike Beebe on Jan. 4.

There’ll be no financial partnership between Jacksonville and the Foxwood Country Club in 2010, as the city doesn’t have the money to even consider it.

Any future partnership depends on the committee receiving answers to its many legal questions about the partnership.

When the 13-member group first met to consider Ted Belden’s idea of the city becoming a partner in Foxwood Country Club for an annual infusion of $200,000, the committee was told by the chairman that it was legal. But the city attorney was not at that meeting to give any details or answer other questions.

As the questions mounted, the group’s chairman, Alderman Kenny Elliott, said he would get answers. But at the next meeting there was no city attorney and no answers.