Year in Review 2018

By NICOLE SMITH
Posted 12/30/18

1. Election the talk of countyAfter tough battles this election year, many new leaders were named in Walker County.The race for Walker County sheriff was the most heated, with Republican Nick Smith …

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Year in Review 2018

Posted

1. Election the talk of county

After tough battles this election year, many new leaders were named in Walker County.

The race for Walker County sheriff was the most heated, with Republican Nick Smith ultimately winning the post. The June 5 primary resulted in a runoff between Smith and incumbent Sheriff Jim Underwood, with Smith prevailing in the runoff with 53 percent of the vote.

Smith went on to win in the general election by just over 64 percent, defeating independent candidate Mike Cole. 

A new countywide school superintendent was also elected in 2018, as Dr. Joel Hagood prevailed against incumbent Superintendent Dr. Jason Adkins and independent candidate Dr. Tanya Guin.

Hagood won 64 percent of the primary vote against Adkins, and Guin later dropped out of the superintendent's race before the general election was held. Prior to the general election, Hagood was named interim superintendent of the Walker County Board of Education.

New Walker County Schools board members were also elected — Trent Kennedy for District 1 and Vonda Beaty for District 3.

Lee Tucker was elected as the new probate judge for Walker County after defeating John Mark Dutton in a runoff.

Despite Richard "Bull" Corry's run for the Alabama House District 14 seat, state Rep. Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley, retained his seat.

The general election marked one of the highest voter turnouts in Walker County history — 49 percent.

2. Opioid epidemic

A number of drug-related crimes occurred in Walker County in 2018 — all while the county reportedly has one of the highest rates of opioids being prescribed in the nation, as well as one of the highest drug death rates.     

The Daily Mountain Eagle reported on a number of drug arrests in the county in 2018. In March alone, five were arrested in an Empire drug raid and nearly 30 were arrested for drugs, burglary and/or theft in roundups that month. The Walker County Sheriff's Office arrested another 14 in a drug roundup in April, followed by another large roundup in June, where over 40 people were arrested.

Dozens of other drug arrests were reported throughout 2018, and a recent roundup in November resulted in the arrest of 28 individuals.

To help combat the drug problem, particularly opioid abuse, Capstone Rural Health Center secured a nearly $300,000 grant this year to fight addiction and substance abuse in Walker County. 

"We're working with about nine partners in the area to come up with a rehab, recovery and prevention strategy for Walker County, particularly the northern part of Walker County," Capstone Rural Health Center Executive Director David Jones told the Eagle. "We want people to see some hope and to see people care, and buy into this." 

He said the key to combatting the drug problem will be eliminating drug dealers and pill mill doctors in the county.

Other efforts to fight opioid addiction were implemented in Walker County in 2018, including the placement of drug take back receptacles in five locations and the continued implementation of the Mercy Project to help individuals through recovery. Several cities and towns also joined a national opioid lawsuit against drug manufacturers and distributors.  

With drug-related crimes continuing to plague Walker County in 2018, a number of murders, burglaries and sex crimes also occurred.

Major headlines included a shooting at a paint shop in Jasper, an illegal immigrant who attempted to kidnap a woman in Gamble Park, a shootout at the Ice House West package store in Jasper and the murder/suicide that involved Parrish Town Council member John Softley.

3. Financial vitality in Jasper

The City of Jasper reported a strong fiscal year, with a growing General Fund balance. 

The city has realized a 269 percent growth in the General Fund balance since September 2016, from $1.419 million to $3.815 million.    

Over $11 million was invested for improvements in the city this past year, which included numerous paving projects and storm drainage work, as well as installing LED light fixtures for cost savings.

The pay for police officers and firefighters has also increased under the city's leadership. 

Jasper Mayor O'Mary has previously stated that an increase in funds was made possible through a number of factors, such as expense management and an increase in sales tax revenue.

“It is refreshing to work with a municipal government that has a well-defined strategy on the table to move the city ahead,” state Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, told the Daily Mountain Eagle in November. “There certainly seems like a great deal of effort has been put into the financial part of managing the city, but to be in a place where you can look forward is just a fabulous thing.”

The city has a work session planned in January to set out goals that will continue to grow their General Fund balance.

4. Sheriff, commission at odds over finances

The beginning on 2018 started a months-long disagreement between the Walker County Commission and the Walker County Sheriff's Office regarding funding for the jail.

It all started in November 2017 when Sheriff Jim Underwood sued the commission for wanting to shift the financial responsibility for inmate food services to the sheriff. The commission did, however, decide to postpone their food service requirement in March until the new sheriff, Nick Smith, takes office.

The commission also criticized the sheriff, citing a $200,000 deficit, compared to other departments. Another lawsuit from Underwood accuses the commission of not providing adequate funding for the Sheriff's Office. In an interview with the Daily Mountain Eagle, Underwood said the department's budget had been cut by the commission every year for the past five years, despite much needed repairs at the jail. 

In an unexpected move, the commission announced a revenue increase in September and gave the Sheriff's Office and jail a 2.5 percent increase in funding — for a total of $5.175 million.   

The commission is set to discuss electronic upgrades to improve security at the jail in January. 

5. 'Poop train' creates stink in Parrish

A weeks-long battle between the Town of Parrish and Big Sky Environmental garnered national attention.

It began when around 250 metal containers — filled with sewage — were sitting on train tracks through Parrish in February. The waste was to be taken to Big Sky Environmental, a solid waste facility, but instead remained in Parrish.

“From what I understand, the containers on those railcars were already en route to another location where they were initially being off-loaded,” Parrish Mayor Heather Hall explained at the time. “But apparently an injunction came down from a judge sometime earlier this month that the containers could no longer be transported through the town of West Jefferson. So they had to halt the train at the nearest railroad spur location available, which just happened to be Parrish.”

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management provided no support to the town, saying the rail containers held a legal, non-hazardous material.

The Parrish Town Council went on to deny Big Sky Environmental a business license and ordered the metal containers be removed. The town then voted to file an injunction against Big Sky if the their terms were not met to remove the containers.  

It wasn't until April that Big Sky removed the last of the sewer containers.

6. Bevill State works to manage finances

After Dr. Kim Ennis was announced as the new president of Bevill State Community College in April, she relayed her discovery that the college had been deficit spending by dipping into its reserves.  

To improve the college's financial standing, two rounds of budget cuts occurred that resulted in a reduction of faculty and staff. The college even proposed the elimination of five programs, which created a public outcry.

Ultimately, the programs remained.

The college went on to have a strong year by opening their new HVAC Training Center, a partnership with Alabama Power. Bevill State also created an entrepreneur program, began a new manufacturing training program and announced a partnership with Mercedes-Benz to strengthen student training options.

A new dean of finance was also hired in July to help improve the college's financial health. 

7. Widespread roadwork in Jasper

The City of Jasper began the first of a three-phase project to pave roads in the city.

O'Mary has estimated 75 to 80 percent of all the roads in Jasper will be paved at the completion of the project.

Phase I included many downtown streets, and Phase II is underway, which includes Airport Road, Arkadelphia Road, Gamble Avenue, The Trace and many other roadways. 

Work also continues near the Jasper Civic Center to improve drainage issues.

Phase III is estimated to begin in spring 2019, which will focus on many remaining roads in the city.

"These are streets that haven't been paved in 20, 25, 30 years," O'Mary stated in August. "This will be quality work from start to finish and make a big difference in our city." 

8. Sumiton revitalization

The City of Sumiton is looking different these days, thanks to community support to revitalize the city's Main Street. 

With the development of the Sumiton Main Street Renovation Committee, Main Street saw some buildings be remodeled and other eyesores torn down to make way for progressing their downtown district.

Businesses are now calling the once-deserted Main Street home, including Southern Vintage Market, The Blend Coffee House, Salon L and others. Community favorite Little Giant Produce also reopened in Sumiton late this year.

The city council has discussed a grant proposal that would hopefully allow for new gutters and curbing in the city, along with sidewalks and lighting. A potential industrial park has also been a talking point.  

In addition to new businesses, the city also held a clean-up day in September to bring the community together. 

9. Weather causes headache in county

An unpredictable year of severe weather caused structural and flooding damage in Walker County.

On April 3, straight-line winds caused damage to the Parkland Shopping Center on Highway 78 in Jasper.  

Store signs for Dollar General and Lee's Famous Recipe Chicken were damaged, but the Sears building received the brunt of the storm. A portion of the store's awning was destroyed, along with the front facade. Papa John's Pizza had roof, awning and ceiling damage.

Despite the storm's destruction, businesses appeared to be operating as usual the next day.

Floods created the most widespread damage in the county. Flooding in April and late in December caused roads in Oakman to be washed out, and other areas of the county also experienced flooding issues.

The most destructive flooding occurred on July 16, destroying an entire floor of the Jasper City Board of Education and causing damage to the Alabama Power building downtown.   Alabama Power later announced it would move, constructing a new facility across town. 

10. Distemper outbreak

The city and county animal shelters still remain on an intake  and adoption freeze, following a distemper outbreak.

After one dog rescued from the City of Jasper Animal Shelter broke with distemper in October, the disease spread. 

Multiple cases were ultimately diagnosed at the city shelter, resulting in euthanasia. A dog adopted from the Walker County Humane and Adoption Center was diagnosed with distemper the following month, and the county was forced to euthanize some dogs as well.

The Walker County Commission has said the county animal shelter should be up and running again in January, and the city shelter also has plans to reopen next month.

An extensive disinfection will occur at both animal shelters prior to reopening.