The following is a roughly chronological review of major public affairs news stories of 2019. Most represent county matters that were reported initially as breaking news and followed up with subsequent articles.A few are stand-alone stories on major news developments. The list is subjective, but represents an attempt to summarize the major news affecting citizens of Blount County last year.
Oneonta accepts, sells, rezones Heritage Green/Twin Oaks
In a process beginning in late 2018 and reported by The Blount Countian in seven articles, the City of Oneonta accepted the donation of Heritage Green Golf Course and Twin Oaks clubhouse and restaurant to the city, invited bids on the property a short time later, re-zoned it from agricultural to residential, and sold it to Trey and Jimmy Hanvey, who reopened the golf course in April, with the restaurant to follow shortly.
Unit system rises from ashes, germinates, struggles, flourishes, dies before fruiting
The unit system concept of county commission organization returned from the dead with the new year, developing further than ever before to a full-blown, detailed proposal for a referendum of county voters. It endured opposition and prevailed through introduction as a Blount County local bill in the Legislature. Then it failed to survive in committee prior to introduction for a vote to authorize a referendum in the full House of Representatives. Reason, it failed? Credit the Blount County delegation in the House of Representatives. They couldn’t agree that the matter be presented to county voters to decide the issue. Nine articles tracked the unit system’s progress, ending with abrupt failure in early June.
School systems provide continuing portrait of county life and times
Nearly 20 articles, split between the Oneonta City and Blount County school districts, provide a kaleidoscope of the life of county education. And that’s only counting the articles on substantive developments, leaving out routine administrative actions, student activities and achievements, and miscellaneous school-related matters, which would have more than tripled the total. Highlights: new school principals appointed in both systems; international educators and other VIPs visited new STEAM labs in both systems; a resounding accreditation re-affirmation for Blount County Schools; important stands taken on major issues in education, including a resolution to repeal the Alabama Accountability Act which reduces funding to public education (Blount County), along with stands by both systems against repeal of the Common Core academic curriculum; Oneonta High School ranked #19 in the state by U.S. News; decision to pursue bond financing made to meet important school capital needs (Oneonta); Oneonta City Schools 2020 budget: $15 million plus; Blount County Schools 2020 budget: nearly $80 million; board authorized bond financing of $4.1 million (Oneonta) for capital project needs, including a building addition for high school fine arts, athletic facility improvements for football/soccer/track and field, along with other facilities improvements; award of $1.47 million contract for stadium renovations (Oneonta).
Schools get 2018-2019 state report cards
(worth a separate category)
One-time breaking news article Oct. 23 reported results on state school accountability report cards. Blount County Schools overall system score: B (86). Oneonta City Schools overall system score: B (89). Overall improvement from previous year’s B (83) for Blount County. Decline from previous year’s A (92) for Oneonta. Comprehensive report card measures six indicators: academic achievement and academic growth based on Scantron (state test) results in reading, math, and science; graduation rate, chronic absenteeism; college and career readiness; and progress in English language proficiency. Fuller explanation in Oct. 23 article.
Ethics problems, associated dysfunction assail Snead, Blountsville town councils
“Ethics Commission investigator speaks to Snead council” was The Blount Countian’s headline on a Feb. 20 article. It was an unfortunate harbinger of things to come for two county municipalities: Snead and Blountsville. The investigator had spoken generally about routine ethics pitfalls to avoid. Within five months and nine articles later, employees in both towns – in Blountsville’s case a member of the town council – had been referred to the Blount County District Attorney for prosecution. The Snead case seemed to be associated with a general malaise and dysfunction in overall town management, indicated by a general allegation concerning a “hostile work environment” by town employees. Other difficulties were manifested by a failure to pay bills in a timely fashion and dissension among the council generally. The Blountsville case was focused on a more specific set of actions involving the town council itself. It concerned what amounted to a conflict of interest by a council member (sanctioned by the council itself through official actions) who provided, through a family member, financing for the town to purchase a building on the town’s main street. (The town refinanced the loan following the Ethics Commission referral.) A third ethics case, involving a retired principal at a county high school, was referred to the DA for prosecution for accounting/ bookkeeping irregularities. The former principal was subsequently arrested for public corruption.
Alabama Legislature approves gas tax
After approaching the trough and refusing to drink for at least the last two years, the Legislature on March 12, approached and drank, cinching up its courage to pass a new 10-cent tax on gasoline and diesel fuel. Six cents of the tax went into effect on Sept 1. An additional two cents will go into effect on Oct. 1, 2020, and another two cents will go into effect on Oct. 1, 2021. The tax will produce an estimated $320 million in new revenue annually when fully implemented. Two-thirds of the new revenue will go to state highway projects, 25 percent will be divided among the state’s 67 counties, based mainly on population. (Blount County’s allocation is in excess of $1 million annually.) Eight percent will be divided between Alabama towns and cities, again based largely on population. Alabama’s gas tax rate prior to Sept. 1, 2019, was 18 cents per gallon, at No. 41, near the bottom among the states in gas tax rates. The 10-cent per gallon increase puts Alabama near the middle of the pack in gas tax rates nationally.
Year of the jail – a spa it’s not, but it’s lots better now
The May 1 issue of The Blount Countian documented in one main article and four sidebar stories nearly two years of comprehensive repair and refurbishing of the Blount County Correctional Facility. The renovation was critical because it’s the first stem-to-stern going over it’s had in the equivalent of 55 years of hard use. (A jail ages 2.3 times faster than a normal building due to its intensive, 24/7 use. It’s been occupied for 24 years. Therefore 24 x 2.3 = 55 equivalent years.) What was done? Much, if not most, of the interior, cells included, was repainted with “warmer” colors. Lighting was replaced with LED lighting. Carpets and tile floors were replaced. (Adjoining Sheriff’s Department offices were included in much of the repainting and flooring work.) Plumbing was repaired and new flush valves installed in certain areas of the jail to prevent flushing of large objects. Twenty-nine rooms or areas of the jail, including cell blocks, were included in the makeover, as were nine rooms or areas of the adjoining sheriff’s office – in other words, most of the jail, and much of the sheriff’s office administrative area. Cost as of mid-year was $143,466, with the Blount County Commission picking up $41,000 of the tab, supplementing the sheriff’s department’s $107,259.
The final stage of renovation was the recently updated galley, or kitchen. Most of the kitchen equipment was originally installed in the mid-1990s and thus approaching the end of its useful service life. The jail served 184,000 meals in 2019. Think that kind of use might have contributed to wear and tear? It’s virtually all new now, set for the next decade-plus at a cost of $85,600, with the sheriff’s department and commission sharing the cost at a ratio of about 60 percent to 40 percent.
Higher education debuts (again) in Blount County
In terms of pomp and circumstance, this year’s second coming of Wallace State Community College to Blount County outranked the first. This year saw the grand opening of Wallace State’s new academic center campus in downtown Oneonta. It opened for classes for the first time in May for the summer term, then opened in a even bigger way for fall semester in August. Enrollments have out performed projections, as has the parking impact. But as some have said more than once: “It’s a good problem to have.” Now there are two campus centers in Oneonta – the “old” one on Ala 75, now the career/ technical campus, complimenting the new academic center downtown.
Tyson plant fish kill in Mulberry Fork River heightens controversy about Tyson discharge application for Locust Fork River
In early June, a horrendous fish kill occurred in the Mulberry Fork River beginning at the discharge point for a Tyson Foods-affiliated rendering plant in Hanceville. Tyson had applied for a permit from the Alabama Department of Environment Management (ADEM) to increase the volume of wastewater discharge from its Blountsville chicken-processing plant, and to change the location of its discharge point from Graves Creek to a point in the Locust Fork River just upstream from the new Blount County Scenic Overlook Park. Then Tyson changed its mind and announced in a meeting with probate judge Chris Green and members of the Friends of the Locust Fork River, that it would withdraw its request to increase the volume of its discharge from the Blountsville plant, and would withdraw its request to discharge wastewater directly into the Locust Fork River as well. Matters rocked along through the late summer and fall and river proponents became apprehensive because the language of the original ADEM permit had not been changed to reflect Tyson’s verbal pledge to withdraw those provisions.
At a public hearing hosted by ADEM Nov. 19, a Tyson representative acknowledged that Tyson had abandoned its original plan and would not increase the volume of its discharge, or change its point of discharge to empty directly into the river. More than 30 citizens spoke, mainly requesting that ADEM set more rigorous standards for wastewater discharge quality, arguing that such standards have been obtained at another Tyson plant.
Attendees were told the hearing format did not allow ADEM’s representatives to respond directly to comments from the public at the hearing, but ADEM’s chief of external affairs said the agency will consider all the comments before a final decision on the permit is made. There is no deadline for action on the permit, and the public comment period ended the day after the public hearing, according to the ADEM spokesperson.
King sues Calvert
Blount County Circuit Judge Steven King filed a lawsuit against Blount County District 3 Commissioner Dean Calvert on Sept. 20, suing Calvert for defamation stemming from comments he made during a June 13, 2019, commission work session. The filing states Calvert made the statements with malice and knowledge that the statements were false, listing seven specific statements of misrepresentation. Included were allegations that King tried to use his office as judge for personal gain, that he had shut down the courthouse and Family Services Center as part of a political game, that he is responsible for the case backlog in the court system, and for the county jail being overcrowded, and three other misrepresentations. King asked for a judgement against Calvert in an amount to be determined by a jury.
Aluminum recycling plant – NIMBY
(more to come – stay tuned)
This story cycle began quietly enough in mid-October with a motion arising from a commission executive session to purchase an option on four parcels of land for possible economic development purposes. It ballooned three weeks later into a full-blown citizen protest in the next commission work session. A dozen-odd citizens from the Rainbow Crossing area had learned in the meantime that the economic development purpose was to lure an aluminum recycling plant to the tract. They had some distinctly negative points to make, centering on air and water pollution, about the possible impact on their quiet, rural community. They were not opposed to economic development, they said, but not in their back yard. A spokesman for the group suggested the process had been handled in secret, and that information about the plant had been intentionally withheld from the community, prompting a stiff rebuke from the commission chairman that the process had been handled in strict compliance at every step with laws regulating economic development matters.
On the next day after the work session, an individual representing the group filed a complaint in Blount County Circuit Court requesting an injunction preventing the Blount County Commission from proceeding with purchase or resale of the property to any industry that would endanger the air and water quality in the surrounding area. The matter has gone quiet in the weeks since, but there’s likely more to come heading into the new year.
New DHR building underway
Groundbreaking was Nov. 26 for the new $6.2 million, 22,000 sq.-ft. Department of Human Resources Blount County headquarters building. Blount County DHR affects the lives of some 8,000 county citizens each year, many of them elderly or children. It produces an economic impact on the county estimated at $14 million annually. Completion for the building located on Lemley Drive is scheduled for October 2020.
The future of the Agri-Business Center
Officials from the city of Oneonta and the Blount County Commission met in mid-December to discuss the future of the Agri-Business Center, which the city and county jointly own. The meeting was the belated result of the multi-year effort to discover a formula to enable the center to operate at a profit, without the need for subsidies from the owners.
The more immediate trigger was the report from an expo center consultant, delivered earlier in the year outlining costs associated with continuing to operate the center, either on a renovated or new facility basis, in the coming years. Three options were projected: (1) demolish the building and convert the property to other uses – $100,000 plus the cost of conversion to other use(s), (2) renovate and operate with full professional staff – up to $10 million, and (3) build a new multi-use center – up to $30 million.
Discussion generally crystallized around the desire to expand the usage of the center and its surrounding property to include youth sports facilities and the need to operate the center through September to accommodate 2020 events already booked. The third consensus point was to use the intervening time to develop a long-range plan for future operation of the center, beyond 2020. (The consultant also stated that such centers do not make a profit.)
A followup meeting with the Agri-Business Center board of directors generally proceeded along similar lines. The board voted to operate the center through most of 2020 with a loaned Oneonta employee acting as manager, and to join the city/county planning effort with a vote to appoint a six-member advisory board, representing the city, county, and board of directors, to study and develop a recommendation for the future use of the center.
Early warning of impending primary
The deadline for qualifying for the March 3, 2020, primary was Nov. 8. Five Blount County offices are included in the election. Here’s a quick summary of candidates:
• Blount County Commissioner, District 2: Terry Franklin, Ken Mullins, Mike Painter (i), Chad Trammel
•Blount County Commissioner, District 4: Daniel Gilliland, Nick Washburn (i)
• Blount County Revenue Commissioner: Gregg Armstrong (i), Robert J. (Bob) Hoglan
• Superintendent, Blount County Schools: Rodney Green (unopposed)
• Blount County Board of Education, Place 3: Philip Cleveland (unopposed)
Twenty state and national offices and candidates are included in the March 3 primary. Eighty-five qualified candidates (43 Republicans and 42 Democrats) comprise the field for those 20 offices, including 20 candidates for President of the United States. The Blount Countian will print the listing of state and national offices, and associated candidates for each office again before the Mar. 3 primary, along with more detailed information on local offices and candidates. For an advance look at the whole state/ national field, consult p. 12 of the Dec. 4 issue of The Blount Countian.