Friday, January 09, 2009

EDITORIAL >>No private prisons

The career of a bad idea is almost limitless if you can persuade yourself that its failures are either accidental or incidental. The Arkansas legislature seems bound to repeat that error with privately run prisons.

Penitentiary businesses were among the early privatization schemes that began to crop up a quarter-century ago. Private correctional companies could take over your prisons and run them better at huge savings to the taxpayers, the theory went.

The Cadillac of the private prison companies was Wackenhut Corp., which was run for a while by Terrell Don Hutto, the head of Arkansas prisons back in the mid-1970s.

It never made any sense unless you subscribed to the hoary idea that government should always be run like a business. If that were true, why not just make government programs private businesses and be done with it? If a business can run a prison more cheaply than the government it has to cut costs some way, right? So you have fewer guards, lower the standards, pay them less, provide lower quality food and medical care or, better still, practice all of those strategies.

So appealing was the idea and so fast the growth of the prison population and the costs that the legislature and Gov. Mike Huckabee decided to do it. They contracted with Wackenhut to run a couple of new prisons at Newport. Conditions deteriorated, and the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into the scandalous conditions in the prisons. So the state eventually backed out of the deal and took over the prisons again.

Now Emerald Companies, a Louisiana business, wants to run some Arkansas prisons and says it can do it for $52 per day per inmate, in contrast to the $57 a day it costs the state. The legislature’s Charitable, Penal and Correctional Institutions Committee jumped at it this week and voted to prepare legislation to privatize prisons.

The state Board of Correc-tions has repeatedly warned legislators of the obvious: To make prisons profitable, a company has to sharply reduce security, hire people without qualifications, cut health care and then — the real key — cherry pick the best prisoners they want to take care of and leave the state with the worst. The state has to take custody of them all, from the psychotic killers to the hot-check writers.

It won’t work and it shouldn’t be tried again. Fortunately, Gov. Beebe, who has been around through it all, says privatization was always a lousy idea and he won’t go along with it. It would be a good use of his veto pen. —Ernie Dumas

EDITORIAL >>Hospital tries new approach

The city of Jacksonville has reached a deal with Allegiance Health Management, a medical provider from Shreveport, La., to operate North Metro Medical Center in hopes of getting it back on the road to financial health.

The city-owned hospital has lost more than $5 million in recent years trying to provide care to the community while having to write off millions of dollars in uncollected debt. The last time the hospital had a surplus was in 2003-04, when it earned $652,000, but it has had to dip into its reserves to cover significant deficits since 2005, when it lost $98,000. In 2006-07, losses jumped to $3 million. The 2007-08 fiscal year ended with a net loss of $2.38 million.

This ocean of red ink is a reflection of a deteriorating economy as well as the result of mounting competition from several hospitals that have opened in the area in recent years, including St. Vincent Medical Center North in Sherwood and Baptist Medical Center in North Little Rock.

Its rainy-day fund running low, North Metro could not keep losing millions of dollars indefinitely. Fearing they might have to close the hospital if the hemorrhaging continued, the North Metro board of directors reached out to Allegiance, which will manage the hospital for the next four years. After that, it has the option to buy the medical center for its appraised value or for its remaining debt, whichever is higher.

Allegiance is reluctant to take on the existing bond debt of more than $10 million used for renovations at the nonprofit facility.

But it does have a business plan, which includes focusing on long-term acute care, a niche it has pursued at the old Southwest Regional Medical Center in Little Rock. The company has had a long relationship with North Metro (and its predecessor, Rebsamen Medical Center), where it operates an outpatient psychiatric care unit as well as an inpatient geriatric unit.

Allegiance could provide other new services to raise more revenue and will probably seek ways to cut overhead to earn its management fee — reduced somewhat from what the city paid Quorum Health Resources, based in Brentwood, Tenn., which has managed the hospital since 1983. Scott Landrum, who was brought in as chief executive officer in 2007 by Quorum, will remain as CEO.

North Metro’s prospects could brighten if the economy improves this year and revenues start pouring in again. What’s more, the Obama administration could make it one of its priorities to keep community hospitals open with additional subsidies as part of its national recovery plan.

But if we lose the hospital, patients would have that much farther to travel for emergency care, endangering the lives of everyone who needs quick medical attention. Think of it: Without North Metro, we’d have to travel longer distances to reach another hospital — for many of us, that could be 10 miles or more. Little Rock Air Force Base would lose a municipal hospital almost at its front gate.

Here’s hoping Allegiance will succeed where others have stumbled.

TOP STORY > >Sherwood is repairing sewer problems

Leader staff writer

A visitor to Sherwood’s wastewater treatment plants would be hard-pressed to find any sign of the problems that so upset the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality last year that the agency slapped the city with a negotiated fine of $15,500 and a consent order.

The facilities are orderly and clean, equipment is humming, and the water discharged into the neighboring waterways is sparkling. The overgrowth of vegetation on lagoon levees that posed a threat to their stability is gone.

The dumpsters that catch solid wastes – those random objects that wind up in the toilet such as toys, jewelry, package wrappers, even money – from incoming wastewater now sit on concrete slabs with retaining walls to catch any spills. Water levels in lagoons that serve as holding pools are down to where they should be according to state and federal regulations.

The excesses of bacteria in discharged waters that raised the ire of state and federal inspectors are a thing of the past, too, now that the ultra-violet disinfecting lamps are in working order. Day-to-day discharge water sampling and record keeping are also back in compliance with state regulators.

The one outstanding violation is the condition of the levees around the lagoons. The lagoons are old and do not meet today’s tougher standards for wastewater treatment. Renovations could be costly.

Bill Miller, manager of Sher-wood’s wastewater utility, foresees a possible expansion of the lagoons, higher walls, and rip-rap rock reinforcements, as well as installation of permanent pumps to pull waters from the lagoons into the treatment basins when levels are too high.

A reconstruction of the entire south plant is also a possibility. Miller is eager for recommendations from Crist Engineering and getting on with the improvements.

“That will be a good day for us, so we have something we can maintain and take care of,” he said.

Crist Engineering, a Little Rock firm which specializes in wastewater systems, has been contracted by the city of Sherwood to do a complete evaluation of its two treatment facilities. Another firm is collecting data about the condition of the city’s sewer lines, some of which are at least 50 years old and have cracks. When rains are heavy, the cracked lines take in groundwater that doubles or triples the wastewater load on the plants.

To upgrade the system so it can stay in compliance won’t come cheap. Asked if he agreed with city engineer Ellen Norvell’s estimate of $2 million to $7 million price tag, Miller said, “Yes, I think that is very right,” then added, “Five to seven million is more the deal.”

Miller started as a wastewater technician with Sherwood in the early 1990s, then for six years was director of public works. He has put in 600 classroom hours and now holds the highest certification in wastewater utility operations the state has to offer.

He came back to the wastewater utility as manager last February when city engineer Michael Clayton resigned.

He is proud what he and his crew, supervised by Charlie Cadie, have been able to accomplish in 11 months to bring the system back into compliance. It helps that Miller’s staff numbers six, about double what it had been at times under Clayton. But, the department, in Miller’s opinion, is still without enough personnel to run the utility as it should be.

“It is better than what it has been, but we could use double that,” Miller said. “It used to be that whenever we had a (repair) call, everybody had to leave the plant and go. But, we’re still way understaffed and have to work diligently to stay on top of things.”

Even in a normal week, with no heavy rains or problems at the plants, every worker puts in a mandatory 48 hours, sometimes more.

As for keeping the city sewer lines in top working order, that just is not feasible, said Miller, who laments that with the size of the crew the work is, “I hate to say it – complaint-driven. We are reactive, putting out fires, rather than proactive.” Contract workers are sometimes hired to keep up. If the utility had more technicians to do more of the work in-house, the city might come out ahead, Miller believes.

“Every wastewater utility has a line crew,” he said. “Our guys are very good at point repairs – we could do the job.”

As for the consent order from the ADEQ, Miller said he welcomed that action, because it helped to shine a light on the wastewater utility and its valuable service to the community. Face it, the sewer system is something folks don’t think about unless the toilet backs up, he observes.

“We’re taking care of something that most people don’t have to mess with, to keep them safe and healthy,” Miller said. “As operators, our job is to protect the receiving water stream. It all goes somewhere, and if there is a violation, downstream, it could hurt someone. People don’t realize the education, training, and dedication, the hours you have to spend, 24/7, 365.”

TOP STORY > >New session set to begin on Monday

Leader senior staff writer

If local legislators were a basketball team, this would be a rebuilding year, with Lonoke, Cabot, Sherwood, Jacksonville and north Pulaski County putting five freshmen on the floor in a tough conference.

Among the new hands at the upcoming legislative session, which opens Monday, there seems to be widespread agreement that getting the new state lottery and the scholarships it will fund is a top priority.

All of their predecessors were forced out by term limits this year.

Only Dist. 19 state Rep. Walls McCrary, D-Lonoke, has previously held elected public office, serving as Lonoke treasurer.

McCrary replaces Lenville Evans.

Dist. 44 Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville, replaces Will Bond. Perry is an insurance agent who has worked toward a stand-alone, Jacksonville-area school district.

Dist. 42 Rep. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, replaces Sandra Prater. English is retired from the fields of economic development and workforce development.

Dist. 43 Rep. Jim Nickels, D-Sherwood, replaces Jeff Wood. Nickels is a lawyer and a University of Arkansas at Little Rock business professor.

Dist. 48 Rep. Davy Carter, R-Cabot, is an attorney. Carter replaces Susan Schulte.

“The big issue is making sure that we establish the (lottery) proceeds to benefit as many as possible,” said Perry. “Fortunately we’re not inventing the wheel.”

More than 40 other states have lotteries and the legislative leadership has been studying what works and what doesn’t.

“I’m interested in education,” Perry said. “That’s the key to the state and to Jacksonville. Jacksonville will benefit immensely.

Anything I can do to supplement what Will and Pat (Bond, the former state representatives) have done, I’m going to do.”

He said he would look to the Bonds, to former state Rep. Mike Wilson of Jacksonville and to others for guidance in working to end the Pulaski County school desegregation agreement and to promote a possible Jacksonville district.

Perry, who does a lot of Medicare work in his insurance business, said he’ll be looking for a way to help senior citizens to make sure they have the right kind of benefits. “If there’s a way to obtain funding to provide dental care in nursing homes, I’d like to do that,” he said.

Perry is assigned to the House Education Committee and the City, County and Local Committee.

Nickels, who is assigned to the House Judiciary Committee and also the House Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development Com-mittee, said eliminating a penny of the grocery tax is a top priority for him.

“In today’s term-limited environment, even a freshman like myself needs to hit the road running,” he said, “jump in there and get with it.”

“I don’t think anyone disputes the need for a trauma center and trauma system,” he said. “But how will it be funded? Current revenues aren’t projected to take care of it.”

Gov. Mike Beebe has proposed an additional cigarette tax of at least 50 cents a pack to pay for it.

Nickels has pre-filed a bill to unfreeze property taxes for senior citizens if declining property values would make them eligible for lower taxes.

“The bill I introduced clarifies that for the county assessors,” he said. Nickels said he’d like to make credits from accredited two-year schools transferable to four-year schools.

He favors a nimble lottery commission, a special agency that can respond quickly to circumstances if needed. He expects quite a bit of debate on how the scholarship proceeds will be allotted.

English is assigned to the House Public Transportation Commit-tee and to the House Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs Committee.

“Getting the money right” is a top priority for English.

“My background is economic development and workforce development and as an economic recruiter, making sure we have a good education center and a well-qualified workforce” is another priority, she said.

Alluding to the current economic environment, she said, “Not everyone who goes to school is 18 years old. There are those going back to get a different job or something that requires greater skill. We’ll have layoffs and plant closures and must make sure people have new skills all the way along the line. I believe in life-long learning.

“I’ve always been a strong believer in manufacturing and I’m thrilled to death to see the Caterpillar announcement (opening a grader plant in North Little Rock).”

She said that most everyone would have to change jobs during their lives and must continually upgrade skills, including technical skills. “Who ever thought of a wind-mill factory,” she said.

“Jacksonville schools are real important to me,” English said. “Will Bond has done a really good job of pushing that. I hope for a quick resolution and I’m excited about charter schools. There’s a good opportunity for things to happen.”

Carter is assigned to the House Judiciary Committee and the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“It’s a quick learning curve,” Carter said. “Even the most learned legislator only has a couple of years.

“The lottery is going to be time consuming and the (economic) downturn is on everyone’s mind,” Carter said. He doesn’t want to see bloated administrative costs, including salaries, suck money out of lottery proceeds.

Carter would make sure that trade-school students aren’t left in the lurch when the state starts making that new scholarship money available.

He supports the effort to create a trauma center in Arkansas and to find a way to pay for it.

He’ll look for creative ways to encourage job development and will try to put some money back in taxpayers’ pockets.

“I’m going to be on the lookout to help the Cabot School District,” he said. “That’s kind of what brings people to town.”

McCrary, who will sit on the House Public Transportation Committee and the House Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs Committee, says a lot of time will be spent establishing the state lottery.

House Speaker Rob-bie Wills, D-Conway, has put a lot of work into it, McCrary said.

McCrary said there’s going to be a lot of demand for money in the state revenue pie. “A lot of the departments — like higher education — that have been cut are coming back and wanting their money,” he said.

“Budget issues will take a whole lot of time,” he added. McCrary likes the idea of a trauma system, but wonders how they will be financed. “All I’ve heard is a cigarette tax,” he said. He said the presumed effort to strengthen the penalties for animal cruelty has worked with the Arkansas Farm Bureau to make sure farmers involved in livestock and other animal husbandry won’t have to worry about standard practices.”

As for state Sen. Bobby Glover’s bill to give towns and counties some control over the dumping of Fayetteville shale gas sludge in their areas, McCrary said, “I think the cities and the counties should have some say, especially in light of some of the things that have happened.”

He said the governor has proposed more money for the inspection of the so-called land farms where the natural gas producers are dumping their waste.

“We want to encourage the exploration of our natural gas,” McCrary said, “with the right inspections and rules protecting both interests.”

TOP STORY > >Downturn here could be worse

Leader senior staff writer

The housing and economic woes that have stunned the nation are working their way down into Arkansas and central Arkansas, but thus far the local impact hasn’t been as severe.

“We’ve seen a pretty big slowdown in the northeast (part of the state), but central Arkansas and northwest Arkansas are declining economically more slowly than the state or nation as a whole,” according to Jonathan Lupton, who researched and wrote “Metrotrends Economic Review and Outlook 2008,” an annual economic analysis by Metroplan, central Arkansas’ metropolitan planning organization.

Central Arkansas actually increased jobs at a rate of 1.5 percent, just higher than northwest Arkansas.

New single-family house starts are down nationally and throughout the state, but locally construc tion has not fallen as steeply as elsewhere.

“Central Arkansas single-family housing construction accelerated its decline during the first half of 2008,” according to the report, “yielding the slowest growth in new single-family units since 1997.


In 2007, the most recent year for which complete data are available, the most affordable new houses in central Arkansas were in Jacksonville and Cabot, with the average Jacksonville permit for a $100,000 home, only about one-third the cost of a $272,500 home in Maumelle.

The Cabot average is $104,747.

Comparing the number of single-family and multifamily housing permits for the first six months of each of the last four years, about 1,500 permits were issued in central Arkansas in 2008, compared to about 2,000 in 2007, about 1,700 in 2006 and an eight-year high of about 2,700 in 2004.

New starts of single-family housing in Sherwood declined from 123 in the first half to 2007 to 91 in the first half of 2008, with no multi-family starts in the first half of either year.

In Jacksonville, the number of new starts in the first six months of 2008 tumbled to 35 from 85 for the same period last year, but new multi-family units increased from 16 to 25.

The number of new starts through June 2008 in Cabot was 62, almost exactly half the number for the same period in 2007, with no multi-family units in either period.

The total single family housing starts in the first six month was 929, about half the 1,895 starts in the first six months of 2005. The number of new starts in the area dropped about 350 since last year.


Of 29 new or expanded businesses in central Arkansas during 2007, only eight were new, including AGL Laser Control Systems at Little Rock and England Oil Field Services at England.

Using economic forecast information from UALR, the report credits rising energy exports (Fayetteville Shale gas and windmills) and local economic diversity with helping to partially insulate central Arkansas from much of the global economic storm.

Central Arkansas has experienced prosperity and above-average growth since 2000, in stark contrast to the anemic growth in the years previous. But the drop-off in the housing markets suggests that local income and employment won’t be immune to current conditions.

The national unemployment rate in August was 6.1 percent, but unemployment for the Little Rock, North Little Rock, Conway statistical area was only 4 percent.

Between 2001 and 2007, the per capita income growth rate in the U.S. was 9.9 percent, while in northwest Arkansas growth was 12.8 percent and central Arkansas was 17 percent.


Between 2000 and 2008, Conway grew 12.1 percent in area, but 33.6 percent in population.

Lupton credits Conway’s progressive approach to development as critical to the area’s growth.

Those policies included the widening of Dave Ward Boulevard as a median-divided boulevard unsuitable for the kind of willy-nilly sprawl anchored by fast food restaurants and muffler shops.

Lupton said it would prove its worth in long-term growth.

Conway also implemented two traffic circles, which eliminate stoplights and increase traffic capacity.

Finally, the town has encouraged the growth of Hendrix Village, a walkable community next to Hendrix College.

A working model for “new urbanism,” the village will integrate work places, restaurants, housing and shops together.

TOP STORY > >Last term for Glover, Capps

Leader senior staff writer

While area state representatives will all be greenhorns when the 87th General Assembly is sworn in Monday, the area’s two state senators are seasoned veterans, both in the final two years of their last six-year terms.

State Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle, pretty much recovered from the stroke that hospitalized him last summer, already has pre-filed three bills and has a fourth about ready.

Two years ago, he successfully managed the 3-cent grocery tax cut in the senate for his friend, Gov. Mike Beebe, and he said early this week that Beebe had asked him to manage the cut of another penny off the remaining 2.875 cents.

This session Glover will chair the legislative Joint Auditing Committee and is vice chairman of the Senate Revenue and Taxation Com-mittee.

Capps, D-Searcy, will chair the senate Transportation, Technology and Legislative Affairs Committee.

He served 34 years as a state representative until being elected to the Senate in 2003.

Except for money that comes available through the federal infrastructure stimulus package, “It looks like we’re not going to have a (state) highway program,” Capps said. “There’s no support for raising any kind of money for it. The dearth of the Federal Highway Administration funding that had long supported the state’s highway program could be slightly softened by the passage of the state natural gas severance tax increase negotiated by the governor’s office last year.

“We’re looking over our shoulder to see what the economy is going to do before we can do anything,” Capps said.

He said education, human services and prisons could get the first bite at what money is available, he said.

“We’re lucky enough to have a balanced budget act that keeps us from being in trouble.”

Capps, like other legislators, says getting the details right in establishing the new state lottery approved by voters in November, would be a top priority — both its governance and the way in which the proceeds could be used to fund scholarships.

“I hope we stiffen the animal-cruelty laws,” said Capps. This year proponents, including the governor, believe they have worked out language acceptable to the Arkansas Farm Bureau, which has successfully helped foil efforts in the past.

The trick seems to be striking a balance that does not make criminals of livestock producers following time-honored practices, but which makes animal cruelty a felony on even the first offense.

“It has quite a bit of momentum right now,” Capps said.

Capps admits to some concerns over a bill Glover is working on that would give cities, towns and counties permitting authority over dumps for the sometimes toxic sludge that is an undesirable byproduct to the lucrative Fayetteville Shale natural gas drilling. The drilling has become a cash cow in White County, which Capps represents, and which kicks severance taxes back to the state. Nonetheless, he says, “We need to watch our environment.”

Constituents in Capps district get the economic benefit of gas leases and royalties to some landowners, new jobs and business. Constituents in Glover’s district seem to be getting chemically-laced sludge, greatly increased truck traffic and roads thus in need of repair, as well as potentially polluted slews, creeks and streams.

Among the things Capps is proud of having done in the state Senate is his bill to streamline the purchasing of automobile licenses. “Gov. Huckabee seemed to want the credit for it,” he said, “but I passed it.”

“I’m proud of what we’ve done in education. Our hands were spanked (by the federal courts) and we were forced to do it but we’ve made great strides.”

“We’ve tried to make the taxing system a little more equitable,” he said. “I still think the sales tax is a regressive tax. We need to redo the taxing structure if we can ever catch our breath.”

In addition to the bill that would give local governments say in permitting natural gas sludge disposal dumps, yet to be filed,
Glover has pre-filed bills that would do away with the tax on mini-warehouse and mini-storage businesses if the state has a $4 million surplus in its general fund.

A second pre-filed bill would change the terms for countywide officials such as county judges, sheriffs and clerks from the current two-year terms to four-year terms.

His last bill would put a constitutional amendment before voters in November 2010. It would repeal the constitutional amendment they passed last November requiring annual sessions of the general assembly, requiring instead the general assembly to meet biennially as it has in the past.

Glover said the legislature needs to replenish the governor’s discretionary fund to help lure new and expanding industry to the state. Last session, the governor’s fund totaled $50 million.

“We want to do all we can to enhance industry for our state,” Glover said. “I’ve seen more new jobs during the time he’s been in office than in any other time.”

“We provided discretionary funds and he brought thousands and thousands of jobs and I’ve not heard one legislator critical of the way he’s used those funds.”

“We’re going to have to tighten our belts,” Glover said.

He said the Department of Higher Education, the Depart-ment of Education, the prisons and human services including Medicaid are going to place higher and higher demands on the state’s resources.

TOP STORY > >Base change of command set for Jan. 28

Leader senior staff writer

Brig. Gen. Rowayne Schatz, under whose command Little Rock Air Force Base was successfully reorganized and who was a strong voice for getting a failed effort for base housing privatization restarted, will leave the command of the 19th Airlift Wing on Jan. 28.

Schatz has been reassigned to the joint staff at the Pentagon, where he will serve as deputy director for global operations, according to Airman Jason Elkins, a wing spokesman.

He will join Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, whom he had served under in previous assignments. Schwartz, too, had been assigned to Little Rock Air Force Base previously.

Schatz will replace Brig. Gen. James Kowalski, who will lead the provisional Global Strike Command.

Schatz took command of the 314th Airlift Wing in May 2007, just as construction of privatized base housing under American Eagle Communities ground to a halt. He leaves just as Hunt-Pinnacle LLC takes over the contract and resurrects construction of base housing.

Taking command of the and of the 19th Airlift Wing, an expeditionary force of the Air Mobility Command, will be Col. Gregory S. Otey, former Air Force Ex-peditionary Center vice commander at Fort Dix, N.J.

The USAF Expedition-ary Center is the Air Force’s Center of Excellence for advanced expeditionary combat support (ECS) training and education.

The center houses the Mobility Operations School, Expeditionary Operations School and the Ex-peditionary Center Resources Directorate.

Otey served as a weapons officer at the C-130 Weapons School at Little Rock from 1995 through 1997, Elkins said.

The 19th Airlift Wing is the host wing at Little Rock Air Force Base under Air Mobility Command. Its mission is to deploy mission-ready combat airlifters, support AETC training mission and execute combat airlift.

Otey, a Bronze Star recipient, is a command pilot with more than 3,000 flying hours in military aircraft, including the C-130E and the state-of-the-art C-130J.

Among 11 other awards, Otey received the Defense Meritorious Service Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal with four oak leaf clusters.

He is a 1987 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and earned his pilot wings in 1989.

Official reorganization of the base took place Oct. 4, 2008, when the 19th AW was stood up and took over as host of the base.

Schatz was transferred to the 19th Airlift Wing.

Schatz also lobbied effectively for Pulaski County Special School District to replace its decrepit Arnold Drive Elementary on base, and he furthered the cause of the Joint Education Center, a $19.8 million college complex serving both airmen and area residents.

Jacksonville residents taxed themselves $5 million to pay for their share.

SPORTS>>Lonoke boys fall, girls win at Stuttgart

Leader sportswriter

The tough trip to Stuttgart proved a little too tough for Lonoke on Wednesday night. The Ricebirds handed Lonoke a 49-48 loss, dropping the Jackrabbits to 8-3 overall and 1-1 in the 2-4A Conference.

It was the second straight loss for the Jackrabbits, the first time they have lost back-to-back since the Jammin’ for Jackets tournament in Dec. ’07. Head ’Rabbit Wes Swift was disappointed with the loss, but is far from ready to hit the panic button.

“We won a state championship last year, and we lost our game at Stuttgart then,” Swift said. “Going to Stuttgart to play is just hard. First off, they’re a good basketball team. They have two new players that combined to score 10 points, and they really hurt us on the backboards.”

Clarence Harris led the Jackrabbits with 14 points. Michael Howard added 13. Lance Jackson had nine and Pierre Smith finished with eight points for Lonoke. For Stuttgart, Phillip Sykes led the way with 15 points.

The Ricebirds led 26-22 at halftime, but an 11-6 run by Lonoke in the third quarter put the ’Rabbits up by one. The Jackrabbits had a chance to go up by five with 1:40 left in thegame, but missed a layup and putback attempt.

Free throw shooting also hurt Lonoke. The ’Rabbits went 8 of 17 from the line, missing four attempts in the fourth quarter.

“You want to create good habits early,” Swift said. “But we’ve played very well at times. It always takes about six weeks for guys that also play football to hit their stride.”

The Jackrabbits will get a boost inside with the return of senior post Juice Lambert. Lambert has been out since the summer with a knee injury, but returned at a recent junior-varsity game at Searcy. Lambert played nearly three quarters in the game, a promising sign to Swift.

“He was winded, but he played a lot more than I thought he could,” Swift said. “I thought he was just going to be able to play a few minutes. I’m going to try to leave him in for half the game at Bald Knob (on Friday). He’ll give us a scoring threat on the low post, and take some of the pressure off our guards, to where they don’t have to try and penetrate all the time.”


The Lady Jackrabbits stayed unbeaten in 2-4A Conference play. The Lady Ricebirds jumped out to an 11-8 lead after one, but Lonoke post player Asiah Scribner went on to lead the way to a win with a 28-point, 13-rebound performance. She also blocked five shots.

“We’ve always gotten off to a slow start at Stuttgart – it’s just kind of a strange place to play,” said Lady Jackrabbits coach Nathan Morris. “In the second half, we started getting off more shots, and we quit turning the ball over as much.”

Cara Neighbors added 21 points, 18 of which came in the second half, along with eight rebounds and five steals. Ashleigh Himstedt finished with eight.

The Lady Jackrabbits im-proved to 11-3 overall and 2-0 in the 2-4A Conference. Morris said the rallies for wins over the last half of December through the New Year are attributable more to mental toughness than superior conditioning.

“We’re not in the best shape of anyone out there,” Morris said. “But I think we have a lot more mental toughness than physical.

I say that because we have those veterans who have been in the fire before, and know how to respond in those situations.”

Lonoke played at Bald Knob last night after Leader deadlines.

SPORTS>>Turnovers costly as Lady Devils fall to Parkview

Leader sports editor

The Jacksonville girls fell behind by as many as 23 points in the final period but never quit in a 51-44 loss to Little Rock Parkview on Tuesday night at the Devils’ Den.

“We knew they were one of the best teams in the conference coming in,” said Lady Red Devil head coach Katrina Mimms. “But you’re notgoing to just come in here and take something. You’re going to have to earn it. Our whole thought process is, don’t give it to them, make them earn it.”

Though Jacksonville’s 17-1 surge to close out the game came against the Lady Patriot subs, Mimms was happy with the way the Lady Red Devils finished.

“Two weeks ago, that might have been a mercy rule game,” she said. “We’re getting better. We just played the best team in the conference. Nobody is more athletic than them.”

That athleticism dealt Jackson-ville fits on the offensive end, where the Lady Devils committed 31 turnovers. Though Jacksonville finished with an 8-rebound advantage, those turnovers resulted in 13 fewer field goal attempts for the Lady Red Devils. Jacksonville, which got 19 points, seven rebounds and seven steals from Tyra Terry, made 19 of 39 shots, but hit only 4 of 9 free throws.

“Tyra had a fantastic game,” said Mimms, whose team fell to 6-7 overall. “That was probably one of the best games she played overall with steals and assists and rebounds. She played a really solid game.”

Jacksonville hung with the Lady Pats early after falling into an 8-0 hole. Post player Jessica Lanier not only couldn’t get off any shots in the first half, she couldn’t get her hands on the ball.

“We were ready for a man-to-man,” Mimms said. “What they played was more of a match-up (zone). It took us a little bit of time because that’s the first time we’ve seen a match-up.”

A three-pointer and a baseline drive by Terry and two baskets by Lanier in the second period had Jacksonville hanging tough at 20-13 at intermission. And Terry’s two baskets and a free throw to open the third period narrowed the margin to 20-18.

But Parkview turned up the defensive heat, scoring 14 of the next 16 points to reassert control. Jacksonville got as close as nine on a steal, lay-up and free throw by Terry, but Parkview’s 14-0 run put the game out of reach.

Lanier finished with eight points and seven rebounds, but no other Lady Devil scored more than four points. Apollonia Sims grabbed a team-high eight rebounds.

Jacksonville tried to rebound when it hosted Little Rock Hall in a game played last night after Leader deadlines. Mimms was already declaring the game against the struggling Lady Warriors a must-win.

“Those are the games we have to have if we’re going to make the playoffs,” she said.

SPORTS>>Harper says he’s up to challenge at Searcy

Leader sports editor

Tim Harper led his Des Arc Eagles to the 2A state championship game in December.

Now, he’s leaving the comfort of an established, successful program to take on a major challenge as head coach at Searcy, which won just three games over the previous four seasons.

Harper figures if he’s willing to accept that challenge, his players should be willing to do the same, and that is the message he imparted when he met with them earlier this week.

“I told them you can only be backed into a corner so long until you eventually have to come out fighting,” Harper said in a phone interview on Friday. “But you’re going to have to work harder than you ever have before. To be truly a team, you have to share that sacrifice.”

Harper, whose Eagles won their first 13 games last season before falling 10-8 to Junction City in the championship game, replaces Bart McFarland, who compiled a 3-37 record over four years. Harper said he understands and appreciates what McFarland went through.

“I know it’s been a tough road for him,” he said. “And I understand that if I’m not careful or fortunate, I could be the next victim, so to speak. I haven’t heard anything but good things about him. But I understand he was under the gun. It’s tough to turn a program around and it wasn’t on real good footing when he got there.”

Harper’s resume would suggest he’s up to the task of taking a program from the ashes and resurrecting it. His first coaching job was at Lewisville back in the mid-90s. The Red Devils had lost 30 straight when Harper took over. What Harper wasn’t aware of was that the junior high team was on a 24-game losing streak.

“The future looked bleak at best,” he said with a laugh.

But over a three-year period, the varsity and junior high teams posted a combined record of 25-30-1.

“We felt like we turned it around,” Harper said. “The situation is very similar to the one at Searcy and that mayhave been what helped me get the job at Searcy.”

After his stint at Lewisville, Harper, who is a Baptist minister, spent a year working with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in southwest Arkansas before taking the Des Arc job in 2003. There, he turned around another struggling program. After going 3-7 his first season with a team comprised of 17 sophomore starters, the Eagles improved to 10-2 in 2005.

Harper said he is proud of the disciplined approach he takes as a head coach and said he intends to instill a rigorous offseason program.

“It will be to the point of not only developing them physically, but improving their mental toughness as well,” he said. “I did that at Des Arc.”

Harper figures that approach might lose him some prospective players, but he’s okay with that, he said. The good news is that 74 players between 9th and 11th grades have announced they are playing and eight more who are playing junior high basketball are also committed. Five more since Tuesday have expressed interest and three others are planning to get their schedules changed so they can play.

“I’m hoping they’ll buy into what we’re doing,” Harper said. “The numbers are improving already. We think we’re right around 90, but once we start pushing them, those numbers will probably start dwindling. But that’s what it’s going to take at this level, better numbers.”

Searcy has averaged around 60 players over the past four seasons.

As an example of Harper’s disciplinary approach, he said no player missed more than one or two practices this entire past season, which has been a problem at Searcy over the past few years.

All 22 jobs are open, Harper insisted, adding that even the three returning All-Conference players will have to earn their jobs.

Harper’s style of play has always been multiple, with a slight emphasis on the run over the pass. The Eagles have rushed for more than 3,000 yards over the past four seasons, but Harper said he’d be thrilled for the Lions to hit the 2,000-yard mark at the 6A classification.

Harper said he will continue to preach at the Higginson First Baptist Church, where he has commuted 27 miles over the past six years.

“I feel like I’ve been called to coach as much as I have to preach,” he said. “It has never been a conflict of interest with me and I don’t foresee it being one.”

While Harper said it is tough to leave the community of Des Arc, he is thrilled with the challenge that lies ahead.

“Anybody who loves to coach loves the challenge,” Harper said. “There’s a lot of things I’d like to do here and I think we can do it. But the kids will have to pay a high price for success. And the bar has to be raised not only for the kids but for the parents, too.”

SPORTS>>Devils rout Pats

Leader sports editor

The Jacksonville Red Devils spent the past week of practice battling each other with an intensity and an attitude head coach Vic Joyner hadn’t seen since the preseason.

Then they reunited and turned that intensity on Little Rock Parkview on Tuesday night in the 6A-East Conference season opener.

Behind 18 points, nine rebounds, two steals and two blocks from Demetrius Harris, the Red Devils stunned the perennial power Patriots 69-49.

“We had two days of practice where we had blowups and attitudes toward each other and that’s a good thing,” said Joyner, whose Devils improved to 8-2. “They were getting mad at each other because they were battling each other. They were fighting each other for playing time because I keep spots open every day.

“It was two of the most intense practices since preseason. And it showed out there.”

It wasn’t just intensity, but patience, that played the key roles in Jacksonville’s surprisingly easy win. The result was torrid shooting (28 of 45) off 15 assists, five from long-range shooter Deshone McClure, who Joyner praised for his unselfish play.

“Deshone is a team player,” Joyner said. “People sometimes think he’s a hot dog, but he’s not a selfish player. ‘Shone’ shoots the ball when he needs to and he has deeper range than most people realize.

“But he gave it up for the team out there tonight and I want everybody to know that.”

Jacksonville controlled this one from the start, racing to a 15-9 lead after one period when McClure banked in a three-pointer at the buzzer. In the second period, Jacksonville began to assert its dominance on the boards on its way to a 36-21 rebounding advantage, and also began to exploit Parkview’s press for fast break buckets.

Consecutive rebound buckets by Harris and Cortrell Eskridge extended the Red Devil lead to eight points and three straight fast-break baskets pushed the lead to 32-19 late in the first half.

When McClure passed ahead to Antonio Roy for another breakaway bucket, the lead was 34-21, and Laquinton Miles’ end-to-end weave and jam as time expired had the near-capacity crowd in a frenzy at intermission.

“We wanted to attack them on the back side and make that one pass (against their press),” Joyner said. “We didn’t want to have to set up because they’re too quick. But we’re trying to be more patient. We got a little hot-doggish there at the end. When we get down there in those hostile environments, we can’t get like that.”

Stan Appleby’s alley-oop pass to Antwan Lockhart for a resounding dunk had the lead at 18, and Appleby led a fast break for a Lockhart lay-up to push the lead to 44-24 midway through the third period.

“I thought Stan came out and handled the pressure real well,” Joyner said. “He made some good passes and moved the ball well. I thought Antwan and Antonio played solid inside. And Demetrius is getting his basketball legs under him.”

Harris has played organized basketball only two seasons, but looked like a veteran on Tuesday, with three rebound baskets and several nifty moves inside.

Jacksonville had six players score eight or more points, revealing a balance that could serve them well through the rugged conference run. Roy had 10 points, six boards and two blocks, while Lockhart added 10 points and a block. McClure had six boards, nine points and a block in addition to his five assists.

Miles had three assists, four rebounds and a block to go along with his eight points.

Eskridge added eight points, six rebounds and a block. Jacksonville blocked eight shots, with five players recording at least one.

Jacksonville struggled at the free-throw line, making just 12 of 25, but it hardly mattered on Tuesday. The Red Devils’ defense limited Parkview’s 6-7 Aaron Ross to 14 points, but only five before the final period when the game was well in hand.

“I thought our defensive intensity was great,” Joyner said. “We had a lot of energy defensively. We just played good, solid help defense and challenged their shooters. (Parkview coach Al Flanigan) is a legend. And that team over there is not going to fold just because we beat them by 20. I wouldn’t want to be their next opponent.

“I’m happy. We know this conference is going to be a booger. We understand what it’s going to take.”

Things got no easier for Jacksonville when it hosted defending 6A champion Little Rock Hall last night in a game played after
Leader deadlines.

Hall opened league play with a 70-17 win over Marion.

SPORTS>>Survivor’s tale

Leader sportswriter

The vivid detail and slightly twisted humor Troy Green uses to describe the fateful day in November of 2006 is astounding.
Perhaps most astounding is the fact that he’s still here to tell the story.

While today Green is fighting through screens and for rebounding position, the North Pulaski junior guard found himself fighting for his life two years ago, after he was hit by a car only days after earning a starting spot on the Falcons’ ninth-grade basketball team.

“It happened fast,” Green recalls. “I had got off the bus. I was walking across the street. I looked over, and the car was real far back. I started to walk across the street, because she was so far back.”

That driver was under the influence of narcotics as her vehicle approached Green, who was coming home from a typical day of school. That would be his last normal day for a while.

“She had sped up, and I heard the engine roaring,” Green said. “I said, ‘Lord Jesus, please don’t let this woman hit me.’ I was fixing to start running. I knew she was far back, so that meant she had to have sped up, so I was going to start running. By the time I lifted my foot up, all I saw was white.”

Green was dead at the scene when the paramedics arrived moments later.

“I was like, either I’m waking up in the morning and this was just a dream, or something bad just happened. I remember at first, everything was white. I’m thinking, yeah, I’m gone, but at least it’s white, that means I’m going to heaven. Then, everything turned black and I was like, no, no, no, turn it back white, I don’t like the black.”

Green said he remembers hearing the ambulance.

“This woman that was there told me that by the time the ambulance got there, I was laid out dead on the street. I guess they resuscitated me with those (defibrillators), and then they had rolled me over. At first, I just wanted to stay there, because it hurt when they started moving me.”

Green stayed in the hospital for more than a week, sometimes with as many as five IVs running into his arm. He sustained a broken collarbone, broken arm, and had ligament damage in his knee. He also had severe lacerations to his face and windshield glass embedded in his scalp, which took days to remove completely. He had to have two surgeries before leaving the hospital, and was out of school for the remainder of the year.

“They did 10 different things to me a day, and I hated it, real bad,” Green said. “But they got me there. I’m still recovering to this day. I still have to go to the hospital from time to time.”

The recuperation and rehabilitation process was long and agonizing for Green, who still suffers at times from the effects of the accident. Some light scarring on his left cheek is the only outward sign of the event, but he still has persistent aggravation in his knee. The accident also compounded an asthmatic condition he had.

“They told me I could go into rehabilitation,” Green said. “I had fluid in my knee, and they told me it would be a while. I thought that it was either going to be over for me my ninth-grade year, or I had to work four times harder than everybody else to catch back up.”

Green has yet to earn a starting position on coach Ray Cooper’s deep team, but his playing time is increasing. Cooper calls Green the most athletic player on a talented team. He is the Falcons’ fifth-leading scorer, averaging 5.3 points per game. He is also third on the team in three-point shooting and 62 percent at the free-throw line.

Green missed his entire sophomore season and is still in the process of catching up. Cooper said that process has gone better than he could have ever imagined.

“He’s lucky to be alive,” Cooper said. “Coming back last year, he missed a lot of the season. It was pretty much over by the time he started playing. This year, it’s almost like coaching a sophomore. He has a lot of ability, but he hasn’t played enough to know how he needs to play for the varsity level.

“It’s remarkable how far he’s come, and for as little basketball as he played, he’s doing well. He’s fighting through it. He’s got a ways to go yet, but it’s remarkable. He’s a tremendous athlete, he’s just got to learn how to play a little bit.”

His biggest game to date was in a blowout win over Joe T. Robinson, when Green showed the crowd how far he had come with a pair of dramatic dunks that sent the Falcons’ Nest into a frenzy.

Cooper said he has seen no signs of any lingering emotional damage that often accompanies such a traumatic event.

“T.J.’s kind of the same kid every day,” Cooper said. “He’s real easy going, real laid back. He just takes things as they come.

He’s got a tremendous attitude — just a good kid. I haven’t seen any difference in him from before.”

Green seems to have put it all in perspective.

“I feel blessed,” he said. “On the same day I was hit, a little girl was hit, and she wasn’t as fortunate as I was to make it and she passed away. So I feel like I’ve been blessed and been given the gift of basketball so I can further my life.”

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

TOP STORY > > Leader writer featured on PBS

Leader staff writer

A recent PBS documentary relied in part on Leader senior staff writer John Hofheimer’s reporting of the housing construction problems at Little Rock Air Force Base and a pointed narrative by Brig. Gen. Rowayne Schatz, the base commander.
The film can be seen at It aired on the nationally syndicated “Bill Moyers Journal” last month.
Tom Jennings, a New York City film producer, visited with Hofheimer in October in The Leader’s newsroom, where he explained how this story unfolded.
Hofheimer’s work supplemented that of Eric Nalder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which uncovered massive fraud at a half a dozen military bases.
With the help of a whistleblower at American Eagle Communities, the company responsible for building hundreds of homes at Little Rock Air Force Base and other military bases throughout the country, Nalder uncovered shoddy building practices for homes that were long overdue to have been completed.
Nalder’s reporting showed that the Pentagon awarded a $1 billion contract to a company run by politically well-connected officials with questionable business practices.
Merrill McPeak, a retired Air Force general, allegedly used his contacts at the Pentagon to help secure the deal for American Eagle without being vetted properly.
American Eagle’s managing director had previously run a California real estate company that defaulted on a multimillion-dollar project and had serious tax problems, Nalder found. He also discovered that the owner of American Eagle had been censured by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for misusing project funds at another company.
Hofheimer discovered that many local companies hired to help build LRAFB homes had been stiffed by American Eagle. Some of those eventually filed for bankruptcy. Hofheimer also found that American Eagle was not paying subcontractors at its other building sites.
After researching American Eagle, Hofheimer realized that LRAFB problems were not isolated. The company’s building projects at the other five projects were also behind schedule.
American Eagle was also skirting its duties at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts, the Army’s Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and naval installations in Washington state.
“It seemed like American Eagle was not treating the airmen fairly, and that they needed to be held accountable,” said Hofheimer, who was shown riding his yellow Harley-Davidson motorcycle on a lonely Lonoke County road on his way to work at The Leader.
He said that it was inspiring to have his work featured with that of a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Schatz’s frustration with American Eagle is clear as he tours the ghost town subdivision with dozens of homes that stand incomplete and abandoned.
Construction will soon resume under a new management company, the Hunt-Pinnacle Group.
“General Schatz is passionate about making sure that his airmen get what they need,” Hofheimer said of the base commander.
When Sen. Mark Pryor visited The Leader last year, Hofheimer used the opportunity to alert him of the bases housing woes.
The senator quickly began an investigation and is seeking to ban American Eagle and its owners and directors from getting government contracts in the future. Pryor’s response to the scandal was another aspect of Hofheimer’s reporting that Nalder admired.
Hofheimer last year won the I.F. Stone Award, a prestigious investigative-journalism prize, from the Arkansas Press Association for his reporting on this story.
Reporting like this highlights the importance of newspapers and community journalism.
“It is essential. Papers like yours are especially important, because you have taken a harder look at what is going on in your community. Without that street-level journalism, people in your community won’t know what is going on,” Nalder said.
It helped to give him a “good picture, from afar, of what was happening in the other states,” he said of Hofheimer’s reporting.
“I still have a balance of 14 minutes left on my 15 minutes of fame,” Hofheimer quipped about all the recent attention he has received.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

EDITORIAL >>We’re No. 1

Speaking of national rankings, finally there is one that puts Arkansas at the top, far ahead of even No. 2. The state’s flagship university, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, spends more on athletics as a proportion of its total instructional expenditures than any other school in America.

The U. S. Department of Education prepared the data from university budgets. The university’s spending on the Razorbacks equaled 56.5 percent of the total instructional budget of the university. You had to drop down to 50.2 percent for second place, the Crimson Tide of the University of Alabama.

The Southeastern Con-ference predictably produced five of the top 10 schools: Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn at No. 7, Ole Miss at No. 8 and Louisiana State University at No. 9. Another SEC school, Vanderbilt University, which defeated Ole Miss and Auburn in football this year and regularly beats all five of them in basketball, ranked last in the nation. Its athletic budget was only 6.4 percent of instructional spending.

On the same day that a Northwest Arkansas blog re-ported the disparities in athletic spending, the chancellor of the Fayetteville campus announced that it was going to have to raise tuition significantly next fall to pay for academic programs.

Yes, yes, we know that there is little organic relationship between the cost of the athletic empire on the mountain and instructional spending. The athletic costs are borne mostly but not altogether by the Razorback Foundation and Razorback philanthropy, while the taxpayers and students pay the instructional costs. But are the university’s values — our values as a state — not seriously out of line?

Our bliss in Razorback success might be worth the cost of ignorance, but what we have is the costliest mediocrity in America, in athletics as well as academics.

—Ernie Dumas

EDITORIAL >>One tax idea that’s helpful

Governor Beebe and the incoming leaders of the General Assembly said yesterday that they would work for a sizable tax increase in the legislative session that begins Monday. That is music to no one’s ears, but it is an instance when the dreaded phrase “higher taxes” should raise hopes, not fears.

Arkansas is one of only three states without a statewide trauma network and the only one without a single hospital that can deliver what is called Level I care — an emergency room with a full range of specialists and equipment available around the clock for critically injured people. Despite efforts by former Rep. Sandra Prater of Jacksonville to establish trauma networks, in much of the state there is no trauma facility close enough to do the lifesaving work that exists in most of the United States. The Elvis Presley Memorial Trauma Center at Memphis, a hospital in Shreveport, La., and two hospitals in Springfield, Mo., provide some treatment to people in the outer regions of Arkansas, but getting people there in a timely way is a problem. The hour after a severe injury usually is the difference between life and death or permanent impairment.

As a result, Arkansas ranks near the top in deaths from trauma. In 2005, 2,119 people died from injuries of one sort or another. Another 23,200 were hospitalized from injuries.

So, much of the proceeds from the cigarette tax, $30 million to $35 million a year, would develop and operate a statewide trauma system: as many as three highly specialized centers in central Arkansas, including the Arkansas Children’s Hospital, and a network of Level II and Level III centers around the state.

The state recognized that need long ago. Back in Governor Jim Guy Tucker’s brief tenure, in 1993, the legislature authorized the state Health Department to develop a trauma network. But that took money and nothing much was ever done about it. The state had more pressing needs, like education and prisons.

A deep recession may not be the time to do it either, but when will there ever be a right time? Each of us may one day encounter the need for lifesaving attention.

The new speaker of the House of Representatives, Rep. Robbie Wills of Conway, suggested an excise tax of at least 50 cents a package. Sen. Bob Johnson of Bigelow, the incoming president pro tempore of the Senate, was noncommittal on the size of the tax but indicated that he could support something. Governor Beebe said 50 cents was too low.

We think so, too. Adding a dollar to the current tax of 59 cents a pack would produce enough money for a trauma-care network and meet other critical health-care needs, like expanding the area health-education centers and community mental health centers.

Why burden cigarette smokers and not the rest of the public? Yes, the cigarette tax is regressive because poor people are more likely than others to smoke. But smoking is a major contributor to public-health problems. One study concluded that it would take a tax of $7 a package to pay for the tobacco-related public health costs in Arkansas. A stiff tax also will drive more people, particularly youngsters, to give up smoking or not to take it up. The tax can never be too successful in that way.

The tobacco industry is gearing up to stop the tax, which will require an extraordinary three-fourths of both houses to pass whether it is a penny or a dollar a pack. A Washington group calling itself FreedomWorks headed by Dick Armey, the former Republican leader of the U. S. House of Representatives, has issued a call to arms to stop the Arkansas tax. Tobacco has proved to be a powerful lobby in Arkansas — it could always bring Governor Mike Huckabee to heel — and three-fourths is a nearly impossible threshold.

The governor and legislative leaders ought to think about replacing cigarette excise taxes with a stiff sales tax on tobacco. It would require a simple majority and insure that Arkansans get the medical-care system they deserve.

TOP STORY > >Apartments given a new lease on life

Leader editor-in-chief

The Jacksonville apartment building whose owners let the building go to hell — broken windows just about everywhere and utilities shut off because the owners wouldn’t pay their electric and water bills — is under new management and is getting a new lease on life.

Fannie Mae, the federal mortgage lender, which foreclosed on the Manor House Apartments on Redmond Road when its owners went bust, has freed up funds to make necessary repairs and keep the utilities on for the dozen or so apartments that are still occupied.

It looks like Manor House will make it with Fannie Mae’s help. City officials want someone to buy it so they don’t have another eyesore on their hands.

It was touch and go there for a while. The manager at the Manor House Apartments told us after Christmas, “We’ll know in the next two weeks if we’ll stay open.”

Fannie Mae became aware of the problems at Manor House a couple of months ago, when it received reports that tenants had no electricity, heat or running water, a clear violation of the loan agreement with PB and Associates, which bought the property two years ago and is owned by Benjamin Cameron and Peter Thern, who are said to be serving in the military overseas and may not even know that Manor House is in receivership.

They had borrowed $980,000 through FEMA, but in today’s economy, someone could buy the apartments for a fraction of that amount.

“We became aware of maintenance issues in mid-November,” Jon Searles, a FEMA spokesman in Bethesda, Md., said Tuesday.

“We don’t want to displace tenants if at all possible, especially during the holidays.”

The Leader ran an article last month about Manor House residents who found their utilities were cut off even though they were supposed to be included in their rent.

Their problem was they couldn’t have afforded the security deposit if they went elsewhere — usually two months rent.

While several residents had moved out when the apartments became pretty much uninhabitable, those who stayed finally had their electricity and heat turned back on when temperatures plummeted into the 20s around Christmas. Code violations were fixed, broken windows replaced and squatters were forced out.

The city council offered to help find homes for those residents if they were left out in the cold, and there are several other individuals who made the holidays more tolerable for the tenants. The property-management firm that’s taken temporary custody of the apartments until a new owner is found has made significant improvements.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said John Chiver, the property manager with First Capital Residential Management, referring to the help he has received from city officials who reached out to his tenants.

“The city has been generous with its help,” he added.

Chiver’s company is managing the apartments while they’re in receivership. He has secured funds from Fannie Mae to fix up the building and make sure the utilities stay on.

The building has had its share of bad luck over the years — a young woman was murdered there by the apartment manager — but Chiver says it’s in a good location near the freeway.

Although occupancy is down to 25 percent, he thinks the apartments could be fully occupied after additional improvements are made.

Sadly, there’s nothing unusual about real estate investments that turn sour — there are some 60,000 apartment buildings in foreclosure across the country — but this story is different.

Despite hard times, Chiver is convinced Manor House is a good investment for somebody.

He had praise for city officials who made sure Manor House tenants had a decent place to live and cared enough to make sure the utilties weren’t cut off and squatters weren’t moving into empty apartments.

Chiver singled out Jacksonville city administrator Jay Whisker and city planner Chip McCulley, who understood the tenants’ predicament and let them know help was on the way.

Whisker and McCulley had reached out to tenants while temperatures were freezing outside. They say they were just doing their job.

They were often on the scene, along with Chiver, assuring tenants they didn’t have to move out if they had nowhere else to go.

“We’re grateful it worked out,” Chiver told us.

TOP STORY > >Beebe approves $3.4M budget

Leader staff writer

The Beebe City Council met in special session Monday night to pass an ordinance for the $3.4 million city budget approved by a voice vote in November.

The budget is about $400,000 more than the 2008 budget and contains 3 percent raises for most city employees and larger raises for the city clerk and some top police officers. But the mayor turned down any increase in pay.

The special meeting was necessary so the raises could be included in the first paychecks of the year.

Alderman Les Cossey recommended increasing Mayor Mike Robertson’s pay from $25,000 to $30,000, but the mayor said “no.”

“Maybe next time,” Robertson said. “I have another job, but the rest of (the raises) I think are justified.”

The police department has changed drastically since 2007 when Robertson fired Chief Don Inns for a host of alleged improprieties and illegal activities most of which could not be proven by an Arkansas State Police investigation. However Inns will go to court in February for the misdemeanor offense of cashing a $150 rebate check made out to the city.

Throughout 2007, the mayor and city council weeded out the police officers described by one alderman as “young smart alecks” and replaced them with older, more experienced officers who were paid more than their predecessors.

Now, the mayor says the salaries for the top three police officers should be larger because they work long hours without overtime pay. The council agreed and increased Ballew’s salary from $33,580 to $39,500. Assistant Chief Ron Lewis’ salary was increased from $30,853 to $36,000 and Eddie Cullum’s salary was increased from $28,012 to $30,000. Cullum is the head of investigations.

The salary for Carol Crump-Westergren, the city clerk-treasurer, was increased from $31,129 to $34,500 and Milton McCullar’s salary was increased from $25,708 to $28,000. McCullar is head of the street department.

In other business, the council approved an ordinance taking away council members’ city medical insurance and giving them monthly paychecks of $748, essentially the amount the insurance costs.

For many years, council members have been given the choice of taking the insurance or the money and many took the money.

The mayor said the state auditor recommended the change.

“This is no different from what’s been done for 20 years. It will actually be a benefit to the city,” Robertson said, adding that with fewer people on the city’s insurance plan, claims will go down and that could lower the premium.

The council also approved an ordinance setting a $250 fee for rezoning requests and an ordinance that will allow employees to sell to the city all but five days of their annual vacations.

The mayor said the new fee will cover the city’s cost for advertising. If a rezoning request is not approved, $200 of the fee would be refunded.

The council discussed but took no action on a proposal to pay the American Legion $350 to $400 a month for rent on the building the city uses as a library. Many years ago, the city took possession of the building for $1 a year. The defunct American Legion didn’t need it. But the organization is back and working with veterans and needs money to pay rent on a building on Beech Street.

A $1 lease is not fair to the organization, the mayor said.

TOP STORY > >Legislator sees end for school lawsuits

Leader senior staff writer

“There’s no turning back from (efforts to end Pulaski County’s expensive) desegregation agreement now,” House Speaker-elect Robbie Wills, D-Conway, said Tuesday. Wills, Senate President Bob Johnson, D-Bigelow, and Gov. Mike Beebe visited with reporters and editors at the Arkansas Press Association offices in Little Rock.

At the meeting sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors and the APA, neither Wills nor Johnson said they foresaw continuation of the major effort shepherded by state Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, over the last six years, but Wills said he thought the path to end the desegregation litigation was set.
Mark Perry, who succeeds the term-limited Bond, has said those school issues are a top priority for him.

Declaring Pulaski County Special School District, North Little Rock School District and Little Rock School District all unitary—desegregated — would phase out the approximately $60 million a year the districts split in supplemental state appropriations and would clear the way for the stand-alone Jacksonville-North Pulaski County School District long sought by many area residents.

Mostly though, the two lawmakers and the governor identified setting up the state lottery and determining how its proceeds would be channeled into scholarships as the largest task facing lawmakers when the 87th General Assembly convenes on Monday.

An interim committee has worked on drafting legislation, Wills and Johnson said. Because 41 states already have lotteries, Arkansas is in the favorable position of being able to evaluate what works and what doesn’t work. The two men and the governor favor an independent commission to run the lottery with some degree of flexibility and they agree that the scholarship money should follow the student to a school rather than being simply given to the school.

They said not every student is destined to go to a four-year college, but that scholarships would be available to those going to vo-tech schools and other post secondary institutions.

Citing the need for non-college trained workers, Johnson noted that anyone needing a lawyer for a lawsuit could get five good offers in a day, but anyone calling a plumber or an electrician will get told, “I’ll put you on the list.”

“In my 14 years here, some of the issues we’ve dealt with including energy deregulation, insurance reform, the cyber college… all put together, they pale in comparison to the issues we confront this year, mainly the lottery and the structuring of the scholarships,” Johnson said. “The work that we do will out live any of us as long as we do it right.”

Other high priorities identified included funding and setting up a statewide trauma system with level one centers located at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, at a second, undesignated Little Rock hospital and also at a Memphis hospital.

The entire trauma system, which Beebe said was a major need, could eventually cost $68 million a year to fund, with the proceeds most likely coming from an additional cigarette tax of at least 50 cents a pack.

Beebe wouldn’t back away from his intent to see the remaining 2 7/8 cent grocery tax reduced by another penny this year and said he had prepared a budget with that in mind.

Both Johnson and Wills said they favored the penny reduction in the grocery tax, but Wills said he’d rather vote on that issue at the end of the session when lawmakers would have a little better idea about state tax revenues and expenses.

Beebe said that despite rough economic times, plant closings and layoffs, Arkansas still had a net gain in jobs this year.

He attributed that in part to the $50 million quick-acting closing fund that he as governor can dip into to help attract new industry such as the Caterpillar road grader satellite that will bring 160 jobs to Little Rock. The governor made the Caterpillar announcement Monday.

Johnson said that one of his main regrets as a lawmaker was voting for the three-strikes and you’re out law in his freshman year.

Putting a 25-year-old drug addict in prison for the rest of his life is not a good idea, he said. “We could send them to private school for what it costs to keep them in prison,” he noted.

Beebe also said he was against privatizing Arkansas prisons.

“We tried that and it doesn’t work,” he said.

“Nationally we have to stabilize the message on alternative energy,” Beebe said.

Beebe said that the nation fell asleep at the wheel after the last energy crises. He added that ethanol made from corn is not a good idea because it has driven up food prices.

Cellulose-based ethanol, however, can be made from switch grass, rice stalks, tree tops and any number of other sources, he said.

While the governor refused a moratorium on the SWEPCO coal-fired electric plant near Texarkana, he said, “I don’t think we need any more coal-fired plants.”

TOP STORY > >Icy, wet weather causes misery

Leader staff writer

A layer of arctic air layer and a humid southerly front came together on Monday, creating icy conditions across much of Arkansas, leaving thousands without power and making some roads unsafe.

In the morning, ice began to build up on trees, vegetation, bridges and overpasses. By late afternoon, crews from First Electric and Entergy were answering calls across the state as trees weighted with ice bent and broke onto power lines.

By evening, 11,500 Entergy customers in its 63-county service area were without power, including almost 500 in the city of Lonoke and south Lonoke County. Another 450 customers in Jacksonville, Sherwood, and Cabot were in the dark. The areas worst hit were southwest Little Rock, Sheridan, and Hot Springs, where ice accumulations were heaviest.

First Electric Cooperative, which services 17 counties, including parts of Pulaski, Faulkner, White, Lonoke and Prairie, reported 2,000 customers without power on Monday. The highest concentration was 1,500 customers along Highway 5 at Greystone and to the north, who went without power for a couple of hours, according Neal Frizzell, First Electric vice president of marketing and communications.

Repairmen worked through the night and into Tuesday to remove fallen trees and restring lines. The hope had been to be on top of the outages by noon Tuesday, said Barbara Merrick, Entergy customer service manager, but the repair work has been “slow going, and it could be Wednesday, before it is finished.” By yesterday afternoon, 5,000 Entergy customers were still without power statewide. More outages could occur, Merrick warned, as warming temperatures released bent pines from icy shackles, causing them to spring back, sometimes into power lines.

Frigid temperatures made driving difficult on elevated roadways. By nightfall Monday, ice on the Main Street railroad overpass in Jacksonville made it treacherous for pedestrians and motorists.

In Cabot, police reported accidents on the Hwy. 321 overpass and where Hwy. 89 crosses over Hwy. 67/167.
A head-on collision on West Main Street totaled both vehicles.

“The weather had a lot to do with it,” said police Sgt. Brent Lucas. “One officer said there was ice on the overpasses.”

Record-high temperatures on Saturday helped slow the impact of the arctic front that began to move into the state on Sunday, said Chris Buonanno, U.S. Weather Service.

But by Monday, the low layer of frigid air began to chill ground, road surfaces, and vegetation enough to turn warm rain to ice.

By Tuesday afternoon, the icicles had melted and by evening power had been restored to most area residents.

The forecast for Wednesday is clear and highs in the mid-50s. For Thursday, the forecast calls for sunshine and an afternoon high near 60 degrees.

TOP STORY > >Terms end for many

Leader senior staff writer

With big issues like implementing the state lottery facing the 87th General Assembly when it convenes Monday, local state representatives will all be rookies.

Term limits have wiped out 30 years of experience and institutional memory and will deprive area residents of the leadership provided by state representatives Will Bond, Sandra Prater and Jeff Wood in the Jacksonville, Sherwood and North Little Rock areas.

Also termed out are Susan Schulte of Cabot and Lenville Evans of Lonoke.

Evans has said he may run to succeed state Sen. Bobby Glover when Glover is forced out by term limits in two years.

Prater says she’s interested in succeeding state Sen. John Paul Capps, who also is serving the last two years of his final term.

Bond seems disinclined, for now at least.

The members of the next General Assembly face many broad statewide issues, perhaps none more important than figuring out how to implement the new state lottery to make sure the money—Bond estimates $60 million to $70 million a year—will be spent to get kids and adults into or back into colleges and vocational technical school—“and catapults us into a more educated workforce with more college degrees,” he said. “It’s important to get the lottery right.”

Arkansans passed Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s constitutional amendment allowing a lottery with 63 percent of the vote.

The Economist magazine reports that Arkansas is last among states in the number of college degrees per capita and ahead of only West Virginia in income per family.

Bond said an uncertain economy would challenge legislators to create the mandated balanced budget.

“Any time you don’t have decent growth you have to make some tough choices,” Bond said.

Gov. Mike Beebe, who takes the lead in the budget process, has proposed cutting another one-cent from the remaining three-cent state sales tax on groceries.

“The challenge is still there to get the school situation in Jacksonville straightened out,” Bond said. “Despite all the hard work by a lot of people we haven’t fixed it yet.

“Still I think we’ll have our own district in the next 12 to 24 months, but it’s going to take some more work,” he predicted.

Bond championed state involvement in ending the expensive school-desegregation agreement binding Pulaski County Special School District, North Little Rock School District and Little Rock School District during his three two-year terms. He also authored language and legislation that would encourage a stand-alone Jacksonville/north Pulaski school district, which is probably dependent upon the release of all three districts from the agreement.

Bond said the state still hadn’t come to grips with how to rehabilitate lawbreakers. “We’re still holding too many in prison.” He said the legislature needs to fund more transitional housing. “We need follow-through.”

He said that at the end of their sentences, inmates are given “$100 and a bus ticket, and like the Motel 6, ‘We’ll leave a light on for you.’ The recidivism rate is in excess of 50 percent.”

Among his disappointments, the legislature failed to pass a bill changing term limits to 12 years for each house. The bill would have instituted the “cup-of-coffee” provision prohibiting legislators from accepting more than a cup of coffee from a lobbyist.

Bond said it would have cleaned up the appearance of impropriety, and “we would have gotten much better policy.” Bond sponsored the bill.

Bond said he had great faith in his replacement, fellow Democrat Mark Perry of Jacksonville.

Prater, a Democrat who represented parts of north Pulaski County and North Little Rock, is a nurse with a six-year history of working on health issues in the House.

Area Republicans turned out in large numbers to support presidential candidate John McCain and to keep unmarried couples, including gays, from being foster parents, which helped Republican Jane English succeed termed-out Prater.

Prater says she’s proud of the bill she sponsored and passed requiring additional training for certified nurses’ assistants in the area of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The nursing assistant who beat a nursing home patient, perhaps with brass knuckles, spurred Prater to action.

“We may not always get what we want, (but) I’ve been able to be a voice for healthcare issues, keeping healthcare out front,” she said, “and also be a voice for nurses in the state.”

She successfully promoted vision screening for public school children, passing a law that revealed that many children are having vision problems that might not otherwise have been caught.

Prater also authored a bill creating a traumatic-brain-injury commission, to which Gov. Mike Beebe appointed her. She says many returning war veterans have such injuries and their friends and families need some assistance helping them.

She said she was disappointed that Beebe’s budget didn’t include any money for helping those with traumatic brain injuries.

Implementing the lottery and dealing with harsh economic times will be two of the main challenges for this legislature, she said. “Two years ago we had almost a billion-dollar surplus. This time they’ll have to look (carefully) and make sure they aren’t cutting necessary services.”

State Rep. Jeff Wood, a Sher-wood Democrat, recently finished a 17-month active-military duty stint, much of it in Iraq as a judge advocate general. Many of the bills he sponsored or wrote were to help members of the military.

First he helped pass a bill to raise the state tax exemption for enlisted men and women, including activated National Guard, from $6,000 a year to $9,000. Then last session, legislators extended the same courtesy to officers.

He sponsored a law that judges could only temporarily change custody agreements while a soldier is deployed. “The first time the 39th Infantry Brigade deployed, ex-spouses were getting custody changed while they were gone. Now a lot of judges make the order expire upon the return of the deployed parent.

“I know of 10 soldiers that benefited,” he added.

Those who served in Iraq can get their vehicle license free for life.

He said the new legislature might face raising the tobacco tax and tying the proceeds to a lot of worthwhile causes, but that it’s always difficult to get a tax increase of any kind.

Taking Woods’ place is Sherwood attorney Jim Nickels, a Democrat.

Evans, the Lonoke-area state representative, says the economic crisis will be the big issue. “We don’t know where that’s going,” he said. “That would be my main concern. I don’t think there’s anything out there too controversial.”

Evans said he was proud of the legislature for raising money to address the educational crisis. “By no means did we fix it, and
I’m not fond of a tax increase, but we got the ball rolling and out from under the court on the school issue.”

Walls McCrary of Lonoke, the former retailer and city treasurer, will succeed Evans.

His advice to McCrary?

“Listen to his constituents and their needs, return their calls and do what he can to help them. That’s what we’re here for, to serve the people,” Evans said.

“The main thing is not the bills you present,” said Evans, “it’s the bills that are not so good. The main thing is your voting record.”

“I just felt honored to be there and to be part of our working government,” said Susan Schulte, a Cabot real estate appraiser and the only Republican in the outgoing group. “I’m just concerned for our state and nation because of the economy.”

Davy Carter, also a Republican, will replace Schulte in the House. “Davy struck me as a very sharp young man,” Schulte said.

She advised him to “take things slow, listen, learn and ask a lot of questions before making decisions.”


Leader sports editor

Gas was 50 cents, Jimmy Carter had just assumed the Oval Office, disco was on the rise and the Cabot Panthers were in the state basketball tournament.

The year was 1977. Carter was gone three years later, disco died and we all know what happened to gas prices. As for the Cabot Panthers, well, they pretty much disappeared from the state scene after that year.

Nothing in Cabot’s 0-3 start to the 7A Central league race last January suggested the 2007-08 season, however promising its beginning, would be any different. The 31-year state-tournament drought appeared destined to reach 32.

Then, suddenly, the talented group of Panthers, led by Adam Sterrenberg, Miles Monroe, Austin Johnson and Sam Bates, began to play to their potential, starting with a come-from-behind win at Bryant that ignited a four-game winning streak.

Still, nothing was assured and another loss to Conway in a game they led by six with less than six minutes remaining, halted the Panthers’ momentum and left them at 4-4. They were very much in the hunt for one of the six playoff berths but had nothing secured as the second half of the conference race began to heat up.

Derek Clarkson’s game-winning three-pointer with 33 seconds remaining in a 36-35 victory over eventual state champion Catholic in early February brought the Panthers one step closer to ending their long postseason absence. It also set the tone for the rest of the season. Remarkably, their next six games were decided by two points or less.

The following game against North Little Rock, originally slated for a Tuesday night, was moved to Wednesday after strong storms in central Arkansas postponed the girls’ game at halftime.

It may have taken the Panthers an extra day to achieve their long-denied goal, but on Wednesday night, Cabot rallied from a 9-point deficit to take a lead late in the game. When Adam Sterrenberg sank a pair of free throws with 8.5 seconds remaining to secure the win, the Panthers had nailed down a state tournament bid.

The question remained, though, as to what seed Cabot would carry into Conway, site of the 7A state tournament in late February.

The close games kept coming, not all with happy endings. The North Little Rock win was followed by one-point losses to Central and Bryant and a two-point loss to Russellville on senior night. In between was a two-point win at Pine Bluff. The loss to Russellville cost the Panthers a four seed and they entered the state tournament as a six.

The nail-biter trend continued in the tournament’s first round when it took Austin Johnson’s two free throws with three seconds left to secure a 65-64 win and a trip to the quarterfinals against Central Conference champ Little Rock Central.

This time, head coach Jerry Bridges didn’t have to chew on his nails or pull out any hair as Cabot controlled the game after intermission on its way to a 64-50 win and a slot in the semifinals against Conway.

It all came to an end with Cabot’s third loss of the season to Conway. The Panthers fell behind by 22 points before storming back to whittle the deficit to five behind a 30-point peformance by Sterrenberg, but Conway held on and Cabot’s season ended at 20-11.

But it was a special season that brought to an end Cabot’s long absence in postseason.

“This season was fun,” Bridges said afterwards. “I probably should have my head examined about why I got back into coaching.

But after this week, that’s why.

“Give my boys credit. Five years ago people would have never said Cabot would be in the final four.”


Leader sports editor

Nick Benton had nearly pulled off the miraculous comeback at the Bruce Jenkins Memorial a week earlier, storming back from five shots down to come within a missed birdie putt of forcing a playoff with winner Austen Moix.

The Cabot senior entered the following week’s Arkansas State Golf Association Boys Junior Match Play with confidence and fire after playing well but coming up short against Moix, and wasted little time in serving notice that he would be a serious threat to defend his 2007 Match Play title.

Though exempt from having to qualify, Benton fired an opening-round 65 and won his first match at Foxwood Country Club 5 and 4 on June 16.

Benton, the ASGA Junior Player of the Year in 2007, followed that up with 6 and 5 and 5-4 cruises into the quarterfinals. There, he met his first real test, surviving with a narrow 2-up win over Richard Zimmerman. Later that day, Benton found himself in a heated battle with Sylvan Hills’ Nick Zimmerman, again barely surviving in a 2 and 1 victory to reach the finals against 15-year-old Matthew Mabrey of Little Rock.

Not since Doug Ward in 1973 and 1974 had anyone won back-to-back junior match play titles. That Benton was there with a chance to end a 34-year drought of repeat winners was an unlikely prospect three weeks earlier, when his game was in the doldrums.

“My tempo was way off,” Benton admitted later. “(Coach R.D. Roulston) got my balance going and my weight transfer going and it finally started to kick in.”

The title match on the morning of June 19 was a back-and-forth affair with Benton losing the first hole to a birdie and the third hole to a par. But his own birdie on two and his par on four evened the match, which was how it would remain until Benton bogeyed the eighth to trail briefly once more.

But Mabrey found trouble on the ninth while Benton two-putted for a match-evening par. Benton then seized control on the back nine, nipping a hard-pan wedge to 10 feet for a birdie and a lead he’d never relinquish, though Mabrey proved one tough customer the rest of the way.

Benton’s par on the par-3 11th extended his lead to two, but he suffered a bogey on the par-3 14th and Mabrey had drawn to within one, still with four holes left. When Mabrey lipped out a par putt on the 15th, Benton had some breathing room, but it was the 16th hole that would prove pivotal.

Down two, Mabrey clipped an approach to within three feet while Benton found himself behind the green with a delicate downhill chip. It appeared as though Benton would be carrying a precarious one-shot lead into the final two holes.

“I told my brother (caddy Colby Benton) right before I hit it that I was going to land it just short of the green and it’s going to roll up and go in,” Benton said later.

Which is precisely what happened. After Mabrey tapped in his birdie put, Benton was dormie, meaning he held a two-shot lead with two holes to go and could only lose in extra holes.

But this one would not only not go to extra holes, it wouldn’t reach the 18th. Benton knocked his approach to four feet on 17 and when Mabrey missed his 25-foot birdie putt, he conceded and Benton had indeed won back-to-back junior Match Play championships.

Benton was being followed that day by UALR golf coach Wyn Norwood, who later landed the Cabot senior.


Leader sportswriter

The 2006-07 Lonoke girls’ season ended in bitter disappointment when several late calls went against the Lady Jackrabbits and the Whitney Zachariason-led CAC Lady Mustangs held on for a 50-45 win in the 4A state championship game.

Lonoke returned to the title game in 2008, and the result was the same again: So close, but no championship.

Huntsville held on to win 44-40 in a clean, hard-fought game to earn the 4A state title, and made third-year Lady Jackrabbits coach Nathan Morris 0-2 in his young career at the big dance.

There were many interesting dynamics to last year’s Lonoke squad. The team was young overall, with guard Hayley O’Cain and post Carrie Mitchell the only two seniors on the team. Both started for Morris, along with sophomores Michaela Brown, Asiah Scribner and Ashleigh Himstedt.

Though technically sophomores, Brown and Scribner had plenty of court experience after starting on the ’06-’07 team as freshmen. They joined seniors Jenny Evans, Calisha Kirk and Kristy Shinn that year for the first of two trips to the state finals for Morris and crew.

Scribner proved to be Lonoke’s most consistent scorer throughout the season, althoughsophomore Himstedt and O’Cain each had some hot-hand nights of their own along the way.

Slow-paced defensive struggles earned the Lady Jackrabbits the No. 2 seed out of the 2-4A Conference before they avenged their only regular-season loss of the year against Bald Knob in the district finals. That put them in the state tournament as a No. 1 seed.

They started out with a 56-49 win in double overtime over Prairie Grove in the quarterfinal round, and then handed the host Lady Bobcats their first-ever loss in their home gym in the semifinal round to earn their second straight trip to the finals.

The Lady Jackrabbits came into the contest intent on stopping Huntsville’s ability to score outside, which they did by allowing only a pair of three-point baskets, but Huntsville sophomore post Martha Robinson sparked a rally late to help erase a 10-point Lonoke lead.

Huntsville’s plan was just the opposite, limiting the Lady ’Rabbits to only 10 inside points from posts Scribner and Mitchell.

The Lady Eagles added to their defensive heat in the second half by adding pressure to O’Cain, Lonoke’s top outside scoring threat.

Scribner scored late on a lay-up to cut Huntsville’s lead to 42-38 with only 14 seconds remaining, but the Lady Eagles tacked on a pair of free throws to hold on.

An interesting side note to the game was the gap between 47-year veteran Huntsville coach Charles Berry and Lady ’Rab’s coach Morris, who wasn’t even born until the second decade of Berry’s career.

“Coach Berry and I have actually been hanging out in the hotel the last couple of days, and he kept telling me how good a game it was going to be,” Morris said. “I don’t think we disappointed.”


Leader sports editor

A season that began with great hope and detoured into tragedy finished in celebration when the Sylvan Hills Bears captured the 6A state baseball championship on May 17 at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.

The transfer of three top-notch Abundant Life players infused the Bears, already talented with the likes of Hunter Miller, Mark Turpin, Clint Thornton and Nathan Eller, with enough firepower to go largely unchallenged all the way to the title game with Watson Chapel.

There, it took every bit as much drama as the Bears had endured throughout a season in which they lost a beloved former player to a car crash and a stadium to a tornado.

Trailing 4-1 heading into the final inning, Sylvan Hills rallied, getting a dramatic game-tying three-run home run to deep left by Thornton.

But the Bears, who had adopted a “No excuses” motto, weren’t content merely to tie it. Miller beat out an infield hit and stole second. Staff ace D.J. Baxendale, who struggled in the early innings as Watson Chapel surged to a 4-0 lead, delivered the game-winning single with two outs.

Eller came on in relief to retire the side in order for the save, while Chris Dalton got the win after pitching a 1-2-3 sixth.

It was Sylvan Hills’ seventh state baseball title, moving the Bears into a tie for second overall, three behind Pine Bluff.

Though Sylvan Hills cruised to a 29-6 record, including a 13-1 waltz through the 6A-East, it was anything but an easy season.

Before it even began, the Bears found themselves mourning the death of Taylor Roark, a three-year Bear starter who played on Sylvan Hills’ 2005 5A state title team. Roark had moved on to Henderson State and was set for his freshman year when he was killed on icy 1-30 near Arkadelphia in January.

Less than three months later, still stung by the tragedy, the Bears woke up on the morning of April 4 to find the Sherwood Sports Complex in shreds, their own field destroyed by tornadoes that rolled through the night before. Teammate Jack Chambers’ house suffered severe damage.

Through it all, the Bears kept rolling. After an early conference test against Jonesboro — a narrow 5-4 win — Sylvan Hills blasted most of the rest of the league, losing only once in 6A-East play.

They met remarkably little resistance in the state tournament at Texarkana in early May, opening with a 5-0 win over Searcy in the quarters before facing host Arkansas High two days later for a chance to move on to Baum.

Despite having pitched 48 hours earlier, Baxendale was masterful in mowing down the Razorbacks, tossing a two-hitter and striking out 10 against a potent Arkansas High lineup.

At Baum, it was the expected pitchers’ duel until Watson Chapel erupted for four runs in the fifth. The Bears got one back in the sixth before their dramatic 4-run rally in the sixth.

“We just had to find a way to get it done, and we finally got it done in the end,” said Miller afterward. “We could have given up when we lost a teammate. But we didn’t. We stuck together and came closer as a team when that happened. We’re all like brothers now.”