Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

TOP STORY > >Murders, storms, gas prices

Compiled by Rick Kron
Leader staff writer

Too many murders and too many tornadoes and storms darkened 2008, but on the more joyous end of the spectrum after too many years of hard work, Jacksonville’s efforts to operate its own school district cleared major hurdles and most area payday lending companies closed after too many people paid too much in interest for too long of a time.

And if you ask the residents of Gravel Ridge, there were too many votes on annexing that community.

These are the top stories of 2008 as decided by the staff of The Leader.

HOMICIDES

Jacksonville had eight homicides (six have been cleared or solved) during the year, while Sherwood had two, Cabot had two (both solved or cleared) and even Ward had one. But the two murders that attracted the most attention were not in any of those cities.

Jacksonville resident, businessman and politician William A. “Bill” Gwatney, 48, was shot and killed in Little Rock and a Sherwood couple was found murdered in Festus, Mo., at the hands of a serial killer.

State Democratic Party Chairman Bill Gwatney was shot several times in the upper torso and head about noon Aug. 13, while at work at his party headquarters in Little Rock by a man he apparently didn’t know and was pronounced dead about four hours later at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Gwatney’s assailant, Timothy Dale Johnson of Searcy, who had been fired earlier that day from his job at a Target store, then fled, after pointing a gun at a worker at the nearby Arkansas Baptist Convention Headquarters, telling him he had lost his job.

Johnson got into a blue pickup truck and led law enforcement officials on a 30-minute chase to Sheridan (Grant County) where he died in an exchange of gunfire with officers from at least three jurisdictions.

The homicide case was quietly closed in late November without offering an explanation of why the attack occurred.

“I wish there was a conclusion, but there wasn’t,” said Lt. Terry Hastings, a spokesman for the Little Rock Police Department.

“There’s really no answer as to why he did it.”

The bloody bodies of Jill and Tom Estes, both 52, of Sherwood, were found June 30 behind a dumpster at a gas station in Festus, Ill., not far from the Comfort Inn where the couple had spent the night. Jill Estes worked as para-professional at Tolleson Elementary in Jacksonville, helping special-education students. She has been with the Pulaski County Special School District since 2001, working first at Oakbrooke Elementary in Sherwood and then at Tolleson. Her husband Tom worked for the Union Pacific railroad.

According to police reports, the Esteses checked into the Comfort Inn in Festus, a small community about 35 miles southwest of St. Louis, and attended a graduation party in nearby Florissant. Hotel guests found the Esteses’ two small dogs, covered in blood, wandering in the hotel parking lot. The dogs were unharmed and the couple’s 2007 Corvette untouched, but the couple was nowhere in sight.

The bodies were later found behind a trash bin at the gas station not far from the hotel.

The man charged in the double homicide, Nicholas Sheley, 28, of Sterling, Ill., is also wanted in the deaths of at least five other people.

WEATHER

The local area was hit by waves of tornadoes and hurricane remnants during the year.

Strong winds blew across the state in late January leaving thousands without electricity and causing fires that destroyed several buildings at Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith.

In Lonoke, as darkness approached, rescuers were cutting limbs and parts of a house with chainsaws in Lonoke where a woman, pinned to her bed by a huge fallen oak tree, was believed dead, according to Mayor Wayne McGee.

The tree was uprooted by the same straight-line winds that played havoc throughout the area, downing electrical lines, uprooting trees and damaging structures throughout several counties including Lonoke and north Pulaski.

James Thompson, spokesman for Entergy in Little Rock, said 40,000 customers lost power across the state including 2,900 in Jacksonville, 1,700 in Cabot and 1,800 in Beebe. First Electric Cooperative in Jacksonville reported 2,816 local customers out and 13,565 across all five districts of the cooperative. Besides rural Jacksonville customers, First Electric serves customers in
Lonoke, rural Cabot, Ward, Austin and in White County.

No major problems were reported locally as severe thunderstorms moved through central Arkansas in early February, but before the storms arrived they generated a number of tornadoes to the west and north, causing at least three deaths in Atkins.

The statewide storms also disrupted voting in the state’s presidential election and cut the power to Pulaski County’s office building, preventing election officials from tabulating the results of the Jacksonville-Gravel Ridge annexation vote.

The storm threat caused Cabot school officials to stop and cancel the high school basketball game being played in Cabot. The girls’ game was stopped at halftime and the boys’ game never started as officials cleared the gym at Cabot High School about 7 p.m.

Dan Daugherty, a spokesman for Entergy Arkansas, said the storms blanked out power for about 43,000 of its customers, including 300 in the Jacksonville area.

Severe weather sirens went off twice in Gravel Ridge. Sounding at 6:47 p.m. and again at 6:59.

Wind, rain and tornadoes cut a path of damage in early April through Sherwood, Gravel Ridge and Cabot. Sherwood’s sports complex suffered severe damage and remained closed for most of the remainder of the year.

“Overwhelming,” is how Sherwood’s Parks and Recreation Director Sonny Janssen described the damage to city’s sports complex the morning after an EF-2 tornado roared through the area.

The tornado also caused about $750,000 worth of damage to Sylvan Hills High School, forcing seniors to temporarily move to the Bill Harmon Recreation Center.

The storm also damaged Sylvan Hills Middle School and elementary school. Classes were cancelled there for one day, as well as Northwood Middle School and Cato Elementary, both in northern Pulaski County, because of flooding.

Cabot and Lonoke schools were also closed for a day because of damage and power outages. Cabot High School got hit the worst.

“It was our worst situation. Even with power, the high school would not have been open because there was so much damage,” school superintendent Tony Thurman said. Part of the roof on the new two-story high school structure was peeled back during the storm, he said. It was patched during in preparation for classes that week.

A week later, another wave of storms dumped 1.74 inches of rain at Little Rock Air Force Base and left the entire base without electricity for four hours.

From 11:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. the base’s electricity, provided by Entergy, was out because of minor damage to the base’s government-owned and maintained base switch substation and power lines that crossed and arced, according to the 314th Civil Engineer Squadron.

During the outage, 35 permanent backup generators kicked on. Five mobile generators were run to support base facilities such as the dining hall, since the outage occurred during lunch hours.

Other mobile generators were used at the front gatehouse, base filling station; pump house (Bldg. 1378) and liquid fuels pumping station.

Power remained out in one part of housing until 5 p.m. because a transformer box that had flooded and several fuses had blown.

In early May, two tornadoes hit Lonoke communities.

Officials from the National Weather Service say one tornado laid a path of destruction more than 40 miles long, extending from Grant County, through southeast Saline and southern Pulaski counties to within five miles of Lonoke.

The EF-2 tornado packed winds up to 135 miles-per-hour and caused damage in Keo and Pettus in Lonoke County.

At least five power transmission towers were damaged in Lonoke County.

Another tornado, rated EF-1 and packing winds up to 110 mph, hit Carlisle.

According to storm surveyors, the tornado began one mile west southwest of Carlisle, went through the town and ended 1.6 miles east northeast of the town.

The total path length of the tornado was 2.6 miles and up to 200 yards wide.

Hurricane Ike made its mark on Cabot in early September as one of the feeder bands spawned a tornado near South First Street, destroying a mini-storage building, damaging the roofs of an apartment complex and knocking out windows at a shopping center.

The National Weather Service confirmed an EF-1 tornado hit Cabot and traveled two-thirds of a mile.

GRAVEL RIDGE

The rural community of Gravel Ridge became Sherwood after a multitude of public meetings and three annexation votes.

The first vote came in January and included residents of Jacksonville and Gravel Ridge. The question was should Gravel Ridge become part of Jacksonville and the vote said yes.

Then about a month later residents of Sherwood and Gravel Ridge voted. The question was should Gravel Ridge become part of Sherwood and the vote said yes.

That led to a third election of just Gravel Ridge residents in April. The question in that election was should Gravel Ridge become part of Sherwood or Jacksonville.

“Leave us alone,” was the preferred sentiment of the rural community, but not a ballot choice. The vote went Sherwood’s way and by May, Gravel Ridge was part of Sherwood. The vote brought to an end a four-month effort by both Jacksonville and

Sherwood to annex the 2,500-acre community of 3,500.

According the Pulaski County Election Commission, 632 residents, or 74 percent, voted to join Sherwood, while 221, or 26 percent, voted to become part of Jacksonville.

“We are so excited to have our neighbors in Gravel Ridge joining us,” said Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hill-man.

Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim said, “The residents had the wonderful opportunity to voice their opinion and sided with Sherwood. We’ll just move on.”

NORTH HILLS

It’s taken more than a year of public hearings, council meetings and lawsuits, but Sherwood now owns 106 acres of green space formerly known as the North Hills Country Club.

What it will do with the property won’t be decided until a master parks study is completed sometime in February 2009. But in the meantime, the city’s advertising and promotion commission has coughed up $100,000 to renovate the clubhouse for city use, meetings and rentals. The city had a volunteer clean up in early September of the old golf course and the parks department is keeping the weeds and undergrowth under control, but is not maintaining the property as a golf course at this time.

The purchase of the 106-acre, defunct golf course with all the related fees, was set in late August at $5.35 million.

Sherwood’s public facilities board got the money on a three-year loan from Twin City Bank and is leasing it for $29,000 a month.

At the Aug. 28 council meeting, the aldermen and the mayor signed the necessary paperwork to put two lawsuits related to the golf course purchase behind them.

Sonny Jannsen, the parks and recreation director, told the council that he has had crews out bush-hogging the fairways. “It was almost a hay field out there,” he said.

The purchase price was decided after the city had condemned and taken the property to prevent its sale to developers who had plans to turn the acreage into a residential subdivision.

PAYDAY LENDERS

After a multi-year battle by the state and other organizations to close payday lending firms because of their high interest rate and preying on those in financially-stressed situations, the war may just about be won.

As of the first of the year, Jacksonville will have only one remaining payday lender as such businesses shutter their doors or pull up stakes.

Payday lenders typically make small loans, perhaps $300 for a fee of $50, but on an annualized basis, such interest is more than 300 percent, far in excess of the state’s usury cap of 17 percent.

Borrowers can get caught in a cycle of debt, able to pay off old loans only by taking out new ones.

It’s too bad for the lenders, who would no doubt have been reaping a windfall Christmas bonanza in the face of a shrinking economy, but it’s great news for the consumer, who must now find alternatives to such predatory lenders and will avoid the debt trap they represent, according to Hank Klein, founder of Arkansans Against Abusive Payday Lenders.

On Dec. 3, Peggy Matson, director of the regulating agency, sent a letter to all remaining licensed payday lenders notifying them that the Arkansas Supreme Court had found the so-called Check Casher’s Act unconstitutional.

At the beginning of the year, there were 275 payday lenders operating in the state. After the Attorney General’s Office sent cease-and desist-orders to many of them, that number fell to 139 and then to 80, according to Klein, a consumer activist who turned his focus on payday predatory lenders in the state.

That’s because the state Attorney General’s office, the state Supreme Court, the military, the Federal Insurance Deposit Corporation and even the once-disinterested regulator of payday lenders have piled setback after setback on the companies.

This time last year, Jacksonville had five such lenders, but three shut down in this fall alone, two of those since the beginning of the month.

The only remaining payday lender in Jacksonville is First American Cash Advance, located on Loop Road next to the Subway shop.

There also is a check-cashing-only shop on Main Street between Delores Flowers and the main branch of First Arkansas Bank and Trust.

Payday lenders also have closed or are closing in Sherwood, Cabot and Lonoke.

C. Cosby Hodges had two stores remaining in Jacksonville, but they stopped initiating new loans in late December and remain open until the first of the year only to collect on loans already out.

There are still about 45 check cashing store around the state.

GAS PRICES

From January through September gasoline prices in the area, in the state, and all across the nation skyrocketed over the $4 mark. In Jacksonville, the highest recorded was $4.04 for a gallon of unleaded regular gasoline. The highest price in the area was at the Hwy.31/38 Grocery in Ward at $4.59 a gallon in mid-September on the heels of hurricanes hitting the Gulf coast.

Gas at the time was selling at most area stations for $3.89. That particular station, among others, caught the eye of the attorney general’s office for possible price gouging, but it was later exonerated.

The high gas prices had area officials looking at shortening or staggering work weeks and scrambling to revise the fuel consumption budgets.

From those peaks, gas prices fell even faster than they had risen, hitting a low of $1.27 at a pair of Sherwood stations and $1.29 at a pair of Cabot stations in late December.

SCHOOL DISTRICT

Cheers erupted from supporters of a stand-alone Jacksonville school district in September in the Pulaski County Special School District boardroom as the board unanimously approved a resolution favoring creation of such a district.

The approved resolution calls for petitioning the state board of education for a Jacksonville/North Pulaski district once the three conjoined districts are declared unitary by the federal courts. Little Rock has already achieved that status, leaving North Little Rock and PCSSD to become unitary.

The resolution favoring the district doesn’t force any action, but is an expression of the will of the board—the first time in decades of denial that PCSSD has gone on record as agreeing in principle with the concept of a Jacksonville/north Pulaski County district.

Carving a Jacksonville district out of PCSSD can be done without hurting the county district, according to a report commissioned by the Jacksonville Education Foundation.

A proposed Jacksonville-area district is feasible and presents no insurmountable financial impediments to either district, the study said.

Currently, Jacksonville is the largest city in the state without its own school district, according to Rep. Will Bond. It has an active duty military base demanding improvement and, the proposed district would have about 6,000 students, making it immediately one of the 15 largest in the state.

Three studies have been conducted since 2002 that support formation of the new district, according to Bond, with the latest saying it’s a win-win for the kids. PCSSD will have more to spend and Jacksonville will have a great opportunity to improve facilities immediately.

The proposed Jacksonville district would include Arnold Drive Elementary, Bayou Meto Elementary, Homer Adkins Pre-K, Jacksonville Elementary, Murrell Taylor Elementary and Pinewood Elementary.

Also, Tolleson Elementary, Warren Dupree Elementary, Jacksonville Boys Middle School, Jacksonville Girls Middle School, North Pulaski High School and Jacksonville High School would be in the district.

NORTH METRO

In January, the buzz was about a multitude of positive changes including a new name, going from Rebsamen Medical Center to North Metro Medical Center.

But the bottom line was the city-owned hospital was losing money.

By July rumors were persistent that North Metro Regional Medical Center was on the verge of closing. Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim, who also serves as chairman of the hospital’s board of directors, issued a statement saying emphatically that the facility would remain open.

Scott Landrum, the medical center’s CEO, also denied that there was any truth to the talk around town and among hospital employees that the city-owned hospital, which has served the greater Jacksonville community since the 1960s, was going to shut its doors, despite persistent financial troubles.

Landrum said that one critical question up for review by the board is whether the hospital should continue as an acute-care provider, as it has done historically, or become a “specialty hospital.”

A month later came word that the hospital’s obstetrics unit was closing.

Expectant mothers who had planned to have their babies delivered at North Metro Medical Center after Sept. 30 were told that they need to make other arrangements or have labor induced, because the hospital’s obstetrics unit was closing.

With one physician retiring and another considering getting out of deliveries because of the high cost of malpractice insurance, the demands of around-the-clock, on-call coverage at the hospital was too much for the remaining two physicians in the group, explained Margie Litton, office manager for Horizons for Women. The hope was that the hospital could step in with another physician or two to fill the gap, but given the financial difficulties that the medical center is facing, that was not forthcoming.

All the time the city was looking for someone to lease the hospital.

In late September, the city council authorized the mayor to negotiate a lease with Allegiance Health Management of Shreveport, La.

Due to an economic downturn, that agreement fell through and another was negotiated and signed in late December leasing the hospital to Allegiance and giving the firm first option to buy the hospital.

“This has been an effort to maintain an acute-care hospital in the city of Jacksonville,” said the mayor.

“We can not continue to maintain a hospital,” the mayor told the council at its Dec. 4 meeting. “North Metro is losing $400,000 a month,” he said.

Swaim said Allegiance has plans to consolidate aspects of its operations that are in other leased locations to North Metro and believes it can make the hospital profitable within about six months.

Swaim said the city had tried to make deals with Baptist and St. Vincent, but neither submitted proposals. He said Baptist has reported recent losses of $17 million and St. Vincent is $3 million in the red.

C-130Js

Throughout the year, the newest of the C-130 fleet, the C-130Js, were flown into Little Rock Air Force Base, making the base their new home. The influx of the C-130Js assured that the base will continue to have a major role in future military and Air Force plans.

With more C-130Js on the way, Brig. Gen. Rowayne Schatz said the future looks bright at Little Rock Air Force Base.

Currently, the new 19th Airlift Wing has 13 state-of-the-art C-130Js and is slated to receive three more over the next six to nine months, according to Schatz, who is base commander and commander of the 19th Airlift Wing.

Schatz said that starting in about 2012, the wing should start receiving more C-130Js, “a second squad’s worth,” he said. That would, in time, be an additional 12 C-130Js.

“That’s the current budget and the current long range defense program,” the general said.

The 314th Airlift Wing has another seven C-130Js that it uses to train all U.S. military crews flying or maintaining that plane, as well as crews from allies around the world.

Despite tough economic times likely to have the military looking at belt tightening, “there is broad-based support throughout the Air Force and other joint services and special operations command for the C-130J,” he said.

The general said the C-130J has proven itself in the theater of war. “We have several of them right now deployed in the Southeast Asia theater. They are performing very well and exceeding expectations with their extra power, range and additional capacity with two extra pallet positions,” the general said. “It’s the C-130 of choice.”

BASE HOUSING

The idea of remodeling and privatizing Little Rock Air Force Base housing was stalled most of the year with American Eagle abandoning the project in the middle of 2007. The military didn’t come up with a replacement company until the end of the year.

In fact when representatives of the new firm, Hunt-Pinnacle, toured the housing area recently they found shells of new homes and concrete slabs that American Eagle abandoned mid-build 18 months ago.

The yards were in need of bush hogging, doorless garages stood open and empty, and construction wrap slapped against water-swelled chipboard sheathing, a suburban ghost town awaiting the bulldozer.

Hunt-Pinnacle is a partnership between Hunt—a company that has built 67,000 military housing units — and Pinnacle, a 30-year-old property management company that manages more than 175,000 units nationwide, including 15,000 military units on 20 different installations.

In 2003, American Eagle Communities won an Air Force privatization contract to demolish about 500 homes, build 468 new housing units and remodel 732.

But by May 2007, when the bankers pulled the plug on American Eagle for nonperformance, only 25 homes had been completed, another 25 started and perhaps 50 concrete slabs poured. Subcontractors and suppliers were owed millions of dollars at Little Rock and three other Air Force bases where American Eagle had won privatization contracts.

Under the new name of The Landings at Little Rock, Hunt-Pinnacle will finish out 10 of those housing starts and tear down the balance, including the slabs, which don’t confirm to the new developer’s blueprints.