The News 2011 Year in Review

Friday, December 30, 2011

Among 2011 major stories reported in The News: Fulton County voters approved a financing plan for a new jail, the Fulton County Hospital took on a new manager to help it deal with financial problems and Izard County government faced ups and downs as it worked to build a new radio communications system.


On Jan. 1, Fulton County residents worked to help Richard Navarro and his family. Navarro's house burned on New Year's Eve, just hours before he became Chief of the Camp Volunteer Fire Department.

Volunteers from all over the country continued to arrive in Mountain Home in January to help care for more than 100 sick and neglected horses seized from the Viola farm of Rodney Kankey in December of 2010.

On Jan. 28, Kankey sought to have charges against him dismissed claiming a search warrant used to enter his farm was "defective." District Judge Jim Short ruled the warrant was legal and, unless Kankey posted a $50,000 bond, the ASPCA should be given ownership of the horses. Charges against Kankey will continue over into the new year.


In February, the Viola Fire Department ordered a new $180,000 tanker truck, part of an effort to improve fire service and reduce the town's fire insurance rates.

On Feb. 23, the Salem Fire Department experienced a major change as long-time chief Heath Everett resigned. The city council quickly named Nick Blanton, a 10-year department veteran, as the new chief.

Senior Courtney Falco put Salem High School on the map by winning two championships at the Arkansas State Indoor Track and Field Championships. The February medals were actually her second and third, since she won the state cross country championship in the fall of 2010.


On March 8, more than 60 Gepp residents attended a public meeting to oppose a U.S. Postal Service plan to close their post office.

In early March, State Rep. Lori Benedict celebrated passage of the first bill she introduced in the General Assembly. The bill was aimed at allowing more homemade food products to be sold to the public. Benedict was attending her first session since being elected to serve Fulton County and parts of Sharp and Baxter Counties.

On March 18, 38 area residential and business properties were sold in one day, as FNBC auctioned off foreclosed properties it was holding. 26 properties were sold at "absolute auction," three were vacant storefronts on the Salem square, two of which now have businesses operating from them.


Every available Izard County first responder was involved in fighting three April wildfires, when the county's communication system went down. Emergency Management Director Bill Beebe told Quorum Court that citizens and responders were endangered by the inability to communicate by radio. New efforts were launched to replace the antiquated system.

Chris Youngblood, 27, of Salem was arrested on April 14 in connection with the theft of guns taken from a Camp home, which burned in an April 12 arson fire.

Hungry fans were waiting in line as the Senor Carlos Restaurant in Salem reopened on April 14. It had closed six months earlier after an employee, Jesus Mesa, was murdered. Two fellow employees, Pablo Gonzalez and Diego Villanueva were arrested for the murder.

Many bridges and roads were damaged by April flooding, but the town of Oxford was without water for 36 hours after flood waters damaged a water line. Residents faced a "boil water" advisory for several days after the break was located and repaired.

Area musicians gathered on April 29 to say goodbye to their friend, Gene Cooper. Cooper, 71, a well known singer, musician, disc jockey and television station operator, died March 31. Musicians performed to raise money to help Cooper's family with funeral and hospital expenses.


The Calico Rock Museum and Visitors Center opened in early May, in an historic building on Main Street. Inmates from the state prison in Calico Rock provided carpentry, painting and other skills to speed up the building's renovation. In addition to historical exhibits, area artists and craftspeople provide demonstrations and sell their work at the Museum, which is aimed at attracting more tourists to help the town's economy.

Mid-May was high school graduation time. Salem seniors continued a long-time tradition, getting together for breakfast on graduation day. 43 of Salem's 51 seniors had enrolled to continue their educations in college or technical schools.

May was also the start of the 2011 festival season. As Salem prepared for its Memorial Day Homecoming Festival, the event's annual fish fry was cancelled because of high catfish prices. A drop in the number of Arkansas catfish farms caused a shortage, pushing catfish prices to record levels over the summer.


Fulton County cancer survivors joined friends and family on June 10 for the American Cancer Society's "Relay for Life." Ten corporate sponsors, 13 teams and about 250 participants helped raise about $30,000 to assist local cancer victims, and to contribute to cancer research.

The city of Melbourne spent June looking for ways to cut spending because of a budget deficit. A sales tax increase remains a possible solution to the continuing problem.

June 13, the Arkansas Board of Correction voted to increase the North Central Unit at Calico Rock by 100 beds. With another 100-bed expansion already underway, the prison will be able to hold an additional 200 inmates when the second expansion is finished in 2014. At least 15 new jobs will be created by the project to be completed next fall.


As July 4th approached, a large new fireworks stand joined the competition in Salem. The First Assembly of God pitched a big tent to sell fireworks for Uncle Sam's, a northwest Arkansas fireworks retailer. Members of The Chosen Generation, the church's new youth group, staffed the store to raise money for its programs.

Richard Gordon of Viola was convicted of murder on July 14, following a retrial in Mountain View. Gordon was charged with the murder of Joseph Clifton, a neighbor, in September of 2010. The two had been involved in a land dispute. Gordon's first trial, in September of 2010, ended without a verdict, when a Fulton County jury deadlocked. Following the verdict in Mountain View, Gordon was sentenced to life in prison, plus 15 years for using a firearm in the commission of a crime.

The Arkansas Department of Health warned in July the state was seeing an increase in tick fever cases. People who play or work outdoors were warned to avoid high grass and weedy areas, and to use a repellant containing Deet to avoid becoming a tick fever victim.


Facing growing debt problems with little cash on hand, the Fulton County Hospital Board fired administrator Joe Hammond on Aug. 9. It also voted to contact Baxter Regional Hospital, the Ozarks Medical Center and private management companies to seek proposals to manage the hospital. The hospital board also approved cutting staff and taking other steps to reduce spending, as it seeks the help of a partner to operate the hospital.

On Aug. 8, Fulton County Quorum Court became the first known public agency in Arkansas to pass a resolution banning video-taping of its meetings. A local couple began taping the meetings because of problems hearing discussions at meetings. Three Attorney General opinions say that the public and news media have the right to record and broadcast public meetings. Quorum Court claimed allowing taping is a "gray area," and it has refused to budge, even though many other government agencies in Arkansas encourage video-taping of their meetings.

Izard County Judge David Sherrell announced at the August Quorum Court meeting that state and federal grants should help the county build a new, much-needed radio communication system for first responders. The court approved $68,000 for the project, which must be up and running by early 2013 to avoid federal fines.

On Aug. 15, Salem students returned for the start of the new school year. Over the summer, improvements were completed inside the elementary and high schools, the high school parking lot was paved and sealed and a new playing surface with an irrigation system was installed at Greyhound Stadium.


On Sept. 9, the Gepp Post Office was suddenly closed. A sign advised residents to use the Viola Post Office for service. A filing in Washington challenged the legality of the closing, since there was no advance notice and Gepp residents had filed an appeal of a recommendation to close the post office, which is still pending.

On September 14, Horseshoe Bend's historic Hillhigh Resort went on the auction block, because of high maintenance costs and a declining number of guests. Wilson Auctioneers of Hot Springs promoted the auction of the hotel, spa, restaurant and bar and golf course throughout the region. On auction day, however, there were few bidders, and Cooper Realty of Melbourne bought the complex for $250,000, far less than the opening suggested bid of $500,000. Crown Point Resort, which operates a time share resort in Horseshoe Bend, later bought the Hillhigh Resort from Cooper Realty. It has renamed the facility the Cedar Glade Hotel, Spa and Golf Course, and has begun major renovations.

On Sept. 26, Baxter Regional Hospital made a proposal to manage the Fulton County Hospital for two years, and provide an immediate $300,000 contribution to help ease cash flow problems. After two years, Baxter would begin a long-term lease, in which it would pay the county an amount to be determined.

The Ozark Medical Center and Quorum Health Resources, a private management company, declined to make management offers, after initially expressing interest.

At a Sept. 29 meeting, the hospital board rejected Baxter Regional's offer without discussion.

On Thursday, Sept. 29, Dr. Carl Arnold died. Arnold started a Salem clinic in 1959 and spearheaded a drive to build the Fulton County Hospital. While he retired in 2004, Arnold remained an advocate for the hospital up until his death.


On Oct. 12, Ozarks Medical Center CEO David Zechman made a surprise proposal for his West Plains hospital to begin managing the Fulton County Hospital. Zechman offered to manage the hospital for 60 days, without charge, while a three-year management agreement could be negotiated.

An Oct. 3 offer by the LHC Group to buy the hospital's home health care license for $1.7 million was seen as a way to lessen the hospital's debt problems, and give the hospital board and OMC time to develop a plan to become financially stable.

County Judge Charles Willett warned, at an Oct. 11 public meeting, of dire consequences if voters turned down a plan to finance a new jail. Willett said the county's substandard jail would be shut down, and the county could be bankrupted by paying to house every jail inmate in other counties.Willett emphasized the county wants to use income from an existing sales tax, and the November vote does not involve a new tax to fund the $2.1 million project.

Sturkie residents told postal officials that their post office should remain open, because Amish residents moving into the area would be put in danger traveling by horse and buggy to Salem for postal services.

Expected federal funds have fallen through, but Izard County government is continuing to work on a plan to install a new communications system in 2012. A state rural development grant is still available for the project.


On Nov. 8, Fulton County voters overwhelmingly approved the proposal to use an existing sales tax to finance a new jail, the state says must be built. Construction may start by next spring.

On Nov. 9, Areawide Media began publishing The News, The Villager Journal, and The South Missourian with color photos, graphics and advertising.

On Nov. 22, Pablo Gonzalez and Diego Villanueva avoided capital murder trials by pleading guilty to Second Degree Murder in Fulton Circuit Court. Charged with the 2010 murder of Jesus Mesa, a co-worker at the Senor Carlos Restaurant, the two agreed to 45 year prison sentences, and will face deportation to Mexico if ever released from prison.


Former Fulton County Sheriff Walter Dillinger died on Dec. 11, losing his fight with cancer. Dillinger served as sheriff from 2005 to 2010, before losing to current Sheriff Buck Foley in the May 2010 primary. Viola residents raised about $13,000 at an auction last fall to help Dillinger's family with medical expenses, and the community rallied around the family after Dillinger's death.

On Dec. 20, The Fulton County Hospital Board approved an agreement which will allow the Ozark Medical Center to begin a three-year management contract. The board is stepping up efforts to close the sale of its home health license to the LHC Group.

A Dec. 1 finish date passed, and the hospital badly needs the sale revenue to pay debts and keep the hospital in full operation.

On Dec. 19, Fulton County Quorum Court received the good news that it will have about $80,000 more revenue next year to work with than earlier thought. That relieved pressure to cut $100,000 from its proposed 2012 budget.

The court was able to reduce a $15,000 cut to senior citizen centers to just $5,000, reducing the likelihood that one of the three centers will have to be closed next year, or home delivered meals will have to be scaled back.

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