Top stories of 2009

Following is the conclusion of last
week’s initial installment on the top
public affairs stories of 2009. The stories

are listed in order of reader interest
and/or news value impact. Stories covered

last week in order were the story of
Cleveland’s 2009 civic dysfunctions,
developments in the reopening of the
Rosa Mine, county roads problems, citizens’

use of the commission work session

to address diverse problems, covered

bridges concerns, local impact of
the economic recession, and the resignation

of the Oneonta school system
superintendent and hiring of a successor.

The caption for each story below is
followed by a summary, concluding
with its current status.

8. Highway 160; hurry up and wait.

Making Ala 160 safer and easier to travel has been a priority in the west Blount area for years. Getting the state to do it has been a thorn in citizens’ sides for much of that time. By 2005, it appeared that years of effort to get the highway-widening project nailed down on the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) schedule was finally paying off. Even Gov. Riley got into the act, promising citizens at an event at Hayden High School in 2006 that he would personally see the project through. By early this year, it appeared that delays were piling on top of delays as the completion date drifted from 2011 to 2012, 2013 – who knew how far beyond? The rumor mill was rife with whispers of indefinite delays. Meanwhile, citizens continued to die on the 12-mile stretch between I-65 and Cleveland, including three cheerleaders in a tragic 2007 accident, to the anguish of their friends and kin. Injuries and deaths have continued to mount to a total of at least 16 since 2000, according to an official tally of fatalities, which some suspect is flawed. As a result of pressure by a new citizens group called Highway 160 Promise, the attention of DOT, the Department of Public Affairs, and the governor’s office finally appeared to focus on responding to citizens’ outcries. In mid- October, state troopers began applying a full-court traffic control press to the Ala 160 corridor to slow traffic and improve safety. Mobile speed radar signs were installed along the road to prompt citizens to slow down. On Nov. 2, the new citizen’s group hosted a county-wide meeting at Crossroads Baptist Church, and DOT dispatched community relations director Tony Harris to calm the citizenry. He promised better communication with the community, but made no promises about improved progress. His bottom line: by the time Riley leaves office, 160 should be “under construction or close to construction.” Asked later to confirm that statement, he backed away, claiming he had said “final engineering plans should be complete or nearly complete” by the end of Riley’s administration. The drumbeat of local public opinion has continued since that meeting, with letters to the editor on the state’s handling of the 160 project – and on the continuing parade of injuries and deaths – coming regularly. There are no concrete indications of increasing daily progress on the project, but the last word may not yet have been heard from the citizens of Blount County.

9. The 2010 fiscal year budget.

Always a major public affairs story even in ordinary economic times, budgets take on added importance when the economy plummets. Expense budgets of three county entities were presented in the Sept. 30 edition of the newspaper: Blount County, $17,282,595; Oneonta, $5,968,425; and Snead, $1,877,806. Blount County and Oneonta budgets were itemized in detail. Oneonta’s budget anticipates a 3-percent employee wage increase in the coming year, while the county’s budget holds wages at 2009 levels. The Oneonta budget projects modest increases in major budget categories including revenues for the coming year, while the county budget projects a decline in revenue and only a slight increase in expenditures for the 2010 fiscal year. An exception is funding for county road maintenance and improvement, which will increase by 15 percent over last year. The county’s annual revenue, expenditure, and debt statements showing 2009 financial results were published with notes and comments on Dec. 9. Results reflected decreased revenues and reduced expenditures as a result. The debt load continues to decline and reflects a sound financial picture relative to many other counties.

10. The great Christmas “tax grab.”

This story involving the Warrior city council made its initial appearance late in the year on Dec. 23, immediately sprouting legs with which to march energetically into the new year. The crux of the matter is that the City of Warrior passed an ordinance to collect sales taxes and business license fees within the area of its police jurisdiction, which it believes itself legally entitled to do. Problem is that the police jurisdiction extends approximately a mileand a-half across the county line into west Blount County. A constitutional amendment passed last year prohibits annexation of Blount County property by municipalities outside the county without a vote of county citizens. Does the Warrior ordinance constitute an annexation, within the intent of the amendment? The total impact on Blount County could be in the hundreds of thousands dollars of tax revenue annually, although a precise estimate has not yet been made. It would affect Blount County businesses for a mile or more east of I-65 along the Ala 160 corridor, and for a shorter distance west of I- 65. Precise boundaries are not yet known. The action caught Blount Countians off guard, and when they attended a Warrior city council to protest against it, they found the ordinance had already been passed. The result was somewhat like pouring salt in an open wound. A challenge to the Warrior ordinance appears destined to surface in Blount County Circuit Court, with District Attorney Tommy Rountree calling the ordinance a “tax grab” in a statement in which he promised legal action. A spontaneous boycott of Warrior merchants by west Blount businesses and citizens seems to be well on its way. See front page for further developments on this story.

11. The unseemly matter of the Quilters Guild vs. the Palisades Park board.

A controversy over the amount of “rent” to be paid by the Quilters Guild for its occupancy of the Quilter’s Cottage at Palisades Park erupted into a standingroom only confrontation before a county commission work session in May. The park board wanted to quadruple the club’s rent to $400 per month, arguing there’s no reason the Quilters Guild, alone among civic clubs, should get a virtual free ride for use of park facilities. The Guild countered that it adds value to the park as an attraction in itself, devotes vitually all of its income to worthy charitable activities, including assisting the park with contributions and decoration – interior and otherwise – and that the cottage had been in effect built for and donated to the club in exchange for its good works. The subject came before the commission on a couple of other occasions during the year. Caught in a swivet between its own appointed board and the formidable ladies of the Guild, the commission pled with both sides to work out a dignified compromise. The public got involved with letters to the editor. So far, at year’s end, an agreement has not been reached, though the matter still simmers below the surface.

12. New sheriff comes to town.

It’s easy to forget in late 2009 the sense of excitement and anticipation with which citizens greeted the appointment of Blount County Sheriff Loyd Arrington in early 2009. After months of tawdry stories, rumors, and concerns that the sheriff’s department was adrift in troubled waters without effective leadership in 2008, people were delighted to have a new head lawman on the job. Subsequent developments seem to have fulfilled their hopes as Arrington, a career law enforcement officer with 37 years of experience with the state troopers and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, has quietly made friends and influenced people with appearances around the county to assure citizens that the sheriff’s department is back on an even keel and doing its job professionally. He also initiated the Crime Stoppers program for citizen participation in law enforcement.

13. Oneonta school system and county commission at impasse over back taxes issue.

As a result of an error involving complex accounting requirements, sales taxes collected by the Blount County Commission over a period of approximately 10 years were not forwarded to the county’s two school systems as required. The error was discovered early this year and a settlement proposal made to both systems. The county school system agreed to settle for $44,482.73, an amount roughly equal to one year’s tax collection. The Oneonta Board of Education announced in its October meeting that, after several months of negotiation with the county, they were unable to reach an agreement on the amount of the settlement. The amount of tax monies not forwarded to the system over the 10-year period is estimated to be in the $60,000 to $75,000 range. “This has happened in other counties and I don’t know of a one-year settlement anywhere else,” said Oneonta superintendent Jack Housch. Board member Geoff Smith appeared to sum up the board’s stance when he said, “I believe the taxpayers would want that money to go to our children – where it was meant to go to begin with.” In its November meeting, the board authorized its attorney to take action to recover the money owed the system by the Blount County Commission.

14. Municipal option bill on alcoholic beverages passed; Blount County excluded.

In its 2009 session, the state Legislature passed a bill allowing any municipality with a population of 1000 or more to hold a local election to approve or disapprove local sale of alcholic beverages. Three counties – Blount, Clay, and Randolph – were excluded from the bill on the motion of their elected representatives.

In Blount County’s case, the action to exclude was taken by Rep. Elwyn Thomas. The implications for county municipalities qualifies this as one of the more significant spot news stories of the year. It was reported in June.