Looking back at top stories of 2008

 

By KEVIN DONALDSON

CELINA-It’s not often that a nationwide issue would be so closely in step with a local situation, but the overall economic downturn that hit the U.S. in 2008 has been chosen the top news story of the year by the HORIZON staff. Highlighting the other top news stories of the year are the ongoing search for a new Clay County school director, the national and local elections, and a handful of local sports items.

1. Economy takes nosedive, local taxes go up

The overall economic downturn, finally classified as a recession, and the effects of it topped the news locally and nationwide in 2008. The recession, and subsequent U.S. government bailouts, manifested itself in several different ways, and the effects will likely be with us for a good while.

On the local level, Clay County’s jobless rate hit 11.7 percent in November, compared to 8.8 percent in 2007. Ninety more people filed jobless claims last month than in 2007, and perhaps more importantly, there were 70 fewer people in the labor force. November 2007 showed 3,500 people in the local labor force, with only 3,430 this year.

A local governmental budget shortfall also resulted in an approximate 30 percent increase in the Clay County property tax rate. In September, commissioners passed a budget and corresponding tax rate of $3.10, a 73-cent increase, after exhausting efforts to open another revenue stream for county government. In anticipation of a $700,000-$750,000 shortfall, the commission considered several measures to generate additional revenue streams in the past several months. Those measures included business and hotel taxes, which never passed, and most notably, an increase in the wheel tax. Commissioners twice in 2008 passed a resolution authorizing an increase in the wheel tax (and to include motorcycles) that would have generated roughly $166,000. A petition against the increase was circulated, gained enough signatures to be put on the August ballot as a referendum, and was voted down by a 60%-40% margin in the election.

In July, eight commissioners and county mayor Dale Reagan issued a statement on the situation, outlining various possibilities, including what likely increases would be needed in the tax rate with and without an increase in the wheel tax. “There has not been a tax increase in Clay County for a number of years, yet our costs have grown as energy and fuel prices have continued to escalate at an alarming rate,” the statement said. “Additionally, the mandatory increase in the minimum wage is adding cost cannot be avoided. There are also a number of costs that are mandated by state law that increase each year.

“This is compounded by the the severe drop in our fund balance (checking account balance to the rest of us) as a result from the shortfall for the last two years, which has dropped our balance dangerously below the state guidelines,” the statement said. “While none of us like to pay taxes, we all are responsible for paying for the cost of government and the various services that are paid for by your tax dollars, such as law enforcement, emergency services, courts, sanitation, liability insurance and administrative costs to operate the various county offices,” the statement concluded.

Government revenue shortfalls are not just being seen on a local level. Several area counties have experienced problems, and the state of Tennessee is anticipating a revenue shortfall which could reach $1 billion.

2. Search for schools director continues

Schools director Dr. Doug Young announced his retirement effective at the end of 2008 at the November meeting of the school board, and the search for his successor has hit a roadblock and will carry over into at least early 2009. At two meetings earlier this month, the school board narrowed the field of candidates to replace Young to four, and then to two, but a vote on then-finalists Donnie Cherry and Anna Locke did not yield the board-mandated seven votes necessary to hire a new director.

That prompted a move to appoint someone to finish out the remaining half-year of school and then hire a permanent director after the year is completed. That also yielded no results, and Young agreed to stay on the job until the January board meeting, when the voting process will resume, with all four final candidates still in the running. Jerry Strong and Champ Langford were also in the final four, and will return to the voting process at the board’s January meeting. There will be no repeat of the formal interviews then, but additional questions may be posed by board members.

There were 14 candidates to replace Young, originally hired on a two-year contract in 2005 to replace retiring director Alan West. Board members pared that 14 to Cherry, Locke, Strong and Langford at the regular December meeting, and then interviewed those four for roughly 30 minutes each at a special meeting a week later. The candidate receiving the fewest number of votes was eliminated after each round of voting at the special meeting. Langford was the first to be removed from the running, followed by Strong, leaving Cherry and Locke. Eventually, three votes were taken on those two, but neither could muster the needed seven “yes” votes to be hired. Locke got six votes twice. The next meeting will be held Thursday, January 8 at the school system Central Office.

3. Elections bring change on many fronts

The November election saw history-making changes on the national and state level, while the local August election brought about an expected defeat of a wheel tax increase and three new school board members. Barack Obama swept to an electoral landslide in the race for the Oval Office in November over Republican John McCain, becoming the first African-American to win the Presidency. Obama wound up with a hefty 349-163 electoral vote win , and also took 53 percent of the popular vote to McCain’s 46 percent.

In a very unexpected turn of events on the state level, the Republican party gained a majority of both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction. Victories by the GOP increased the party’s majority in the state Senate and gave them a majority in the state House for the first time since 1968, and surprised leaders in both state parties.

In August, the local election saw a resounding defeat of the proposed wheel tax increase (see number-one story), and three new school board members elected an a very low Clay County turnout. County voters overwhelmingly rejected an increase in the local wheel tax, with the measure failing 614 (61%) to 392 (39%). Under the law, the current $25 wheel tax would have been increased to $45 annually, while motorcycles would have been taxed at a $25 rate.

The August election also saw the election of three new school board members. Annette Smith and Anthony Smith were elected to represent District 1, while Heather Hammock was elected in District 4, bringing the number of new school board members elected in the 2006 and 2008 races to seven out of the 10 seats. Only 1,090 voters cast ballots in the August election, a very low 16.83 percent of the registered voters in the county. 46 percent of the total number votes in the election were case in the District 1 school board race. Newcomer Michael Lee won the District 2 commission seat, taking just under 43 percent of the vote in a three-person race. Incumbent property assessor Billy Smith was unopposed.

James D. Storie won the local seat on the Twin Lakes Telephone Cooperative board of directors in an October election.

4. Sports teams, athletes have success

Several Clay County sports teams and individual athletes enjoyed success on the court and field during the year. Topping that list would be a second straight state invitational title by the Celina K-8 Junior High girls basketball team, and a return to the state playoffs by the Clay County High Bulldog football team. Close behind was a second straight trip to regional play by the CCHS softball team, and scholarship signings by a pair of Bulldog athletes.

• STATE TITLE-A balanced attack and hard work by the Junior High Lady Bulldog basketball team keyed a second straight title in a state invitational tournament for the school in 2008. The team wrapped up another state title in February with a 44-33 win over home-standing Middle Tennessee Christian at the James C. Haile tournament, after winning the TNT state tournament in Springfield in 2007. Coaches Paige Smith and Mark Strong guided the Junior Lady Dawgs to the title this year, not quite 12 months after former coach Sharon Kimes’ team won the TNT title in her last game at the junior high level. In August, Kimes replaced Smith as the CCHS coach, when Smith resigned to take a teaching position in her native Overton County.

• BACK IN PLAYOFFS-The CCHS football team, in coach Dickie Brown’s second season, put together a 7-4 campaign which included the first winning season and trip to the playoffs for the team in a handful of seasons. The Bulldogs’ season came to a close with a loss at defending state champ South Pittsburg in the first round of the playoffs. The Bulldogs’ four losses came to the number one, two and three teams in the state (in Class 1A), and to Watertown, who made it to the final 16 in the playoffs. The Bulldogs finished fourth in Region 4-1A, which included eventual state champ Trousdale County.

• ANOTHER REGION TRIP-The CCHS softball team qualified for regional play for the second year in a row, finishing second in the District 7-A tournament, and taking five-time defending champ Monterey down to the wire. The Lady Wildcats edged CCHS 1-0 in the title game after the Lady Bulldogs had forced a winner-take-all championship game with a 14-inning, 11-9 win over the defending champs. Coach Randall Walker’s team wound up playing Monterey six times during the season and the two squads played 21 innings on championship day, the equivalent of three games, to decide the district tourney title.

• SCHOLARSHIPS-A pair of CCHS athletes signed scholarships to continue their careers at the next level during 2008. Former Lady Bulldog softball pitcher Chelsea Cross signed a grant-in-aid to play at Roane State Community College. Cross is thought to be the first softball player from the school to have signed a scholarship to play collegiately. A couple of former Lady Bulldogs who signed junior college basketball scholarships also played some softball for their respective schools, but did not sign scholarships for the sport. Aaron Brown, a CCHS Bulldog for only a year, kept that team nickname, signing a scholarship to play football for Cumberland University. Brown, the son of coach Dickie Brown, transferred to CCHS from White County for his senior season. Aaron was redshirted his freshman season at Cumberland.