Walker County experienced a mix of emotions in 2017. Much was to be celebrated, such as a new high school, retail growth, revitalization and a strengthening education for our youth. Financial hardships troubled the county, …
Walker County experienced a mix of emotions in 2017. Much was to be celebrated, such as a new high school, retail growth, revitalization and a strengthening education for our youth. Financial hardships troubled the county, tempers flared and many were taken away too soon; however, in the midst of trials came fellowship and harmony. The county also found a new, unexpected affinity for peanut butter. Here’s our top 10 stories that made headlines in 2017.
Walker County’s financial woes
The Walker County Commission announced at the beginning of 2017 that the county may be facing bankruptcy, citing an increase in bond payments expected in 2018, due to the county’s debt of nearly $5 million.
In an effort to eliminate a reported $1.4 million deficit in 2018, the county proposed a 1 cent sales tax increase in February that would have generated an estimated $7 million in revenue. A public vote of the proposed tax increase failed in August, with 52 percent of county residents voting no.
Commissioners had previously cited cuts of 15 to 25 percent if the tax increase failed to pass and threatened to go back to dirt roads in some districts since there would be little to no money for road repairs.
In a statement to WBRC on the night of the failed tax vote, Commission Chairman Jerry Bishop said, “This is what the people wanted.”
In a budget passed in late September, the commission voted for general fund department cuts of 10 percent, along with cuts to discretionary spending. Many contributions to area nonprofits and organizations were also cut in an effort to avoid bankruptcy. Some departments made employment cuts, as necessary.
The commission will have another financial review in January to examine the possibility of further cuts as financial hardships continue.
Peanut butter jail break
An escape at the Walker County Jail in July was the talk of the country.
Twelve inmates escaped from the Walker County Jail on July 30. An eight-hour manhunt followed and 11 of the inmates were captured.
The escape happened as a result of prisoners using peanut butter to change numbers above a jail cell, resulting in one jailer accidently letting prisoners loose to go outside, instead of their jail cells. Prisoners then climbed a wire fence to escape.
“When you operate a jail with 240 people in it, it happens. Escapes happen,” Walker County Sheriff Jim Underwood said at a press conference as media outlets across the country reported on the peanut butter jail break. “It was a human error that caused this to happen.”
One inmate remained on the loose, 24-year-old Brady Kilpatrick of Cordova. He was later captured on Aug. 1, in Tequesta, Fla. Hayden Mayberry of Jasper and Jensen Davis Lefan of Cordova were also arrested for facilitating an escape and hindering apprehension. Kilpatrick’s mother, Melinda Lefan, was later charged with first-degree aiding in escape and hindering appearance.
Jasper celebrates new high school
Jasper High School opened its doors to nearly 800 students for the first day of classes on Jan. 11.
The opening was a momentous day for the city, but traffic congestion quickly became a problem for the school district. Due to ALDOT’s delay in beginning road work to widen Viking Drive that leads to the school, traffic was lined up from the high school to the Jasper Civic Center on opening day.
The Jasper City Board of Education quickly acted and began construction of a road behind the school to alleviate traffic, along with an access road near the Daily Mountain Eagle. ALDOT just recently neared completion of their work to widen Viking Drive, but traffic cones still remain along the sides of the road.
The school system also completed a reconfiguration this year to have students in Pre-K through first grade at T.R. Simmons, second and third at Memorial Park Elementary, fourth, fifth and sixth at Maddox Middle School and the remaining seventh through eighth grade students at Jasper Jr. High/High School.
West Jasper Elementary School and North Highlands School closed as a result of the reconfiguration.
Tragedy hits auto dealership
A flash fire injured five employees of Carl Cannon Chevrolet Cadillac Buick GMC on Monday, June 12, and later claimed the lives of three men who suffered fatal burns.
The flash fire occurred while the oil change area was being cleaned, which caused something to ignite.
One day later, employee Jake Jennings, of Trussville, died of his injuries at UAB Hospital in Birmingham. On June 22, another employee, Javan Robinson, passed away, followed by employee Zack Davis on July 2. Both men died from their injuries at UAB Hospital.
Jonah Johnson survived the tragedy and was transported to UAB following the flash fire. He continues rehabilitation from his injuries. Shelton Allen also survived and was taken to Walker Baptist Medical Center following the flash fire for breathing difficulties.
A GoFundMe page has been established by the Carl Cannon family and Cox Media Group to benefit the families of victims. It can be found at www.gofundme.com by searching Carl Cannon Accident Family Benefit.
County assists Hurricane Harvey, Irma victims
Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma victims and evacuees received a helping hand from Walker County residents in 2017.
When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in August, communities, schools and businesses in Walker County collected items that were later transported to the Lone Star State. The communities of Oakman and Parrish held large drives to collect needed resources, with Desperation Church in Jasper later transporting the donations to Texas.
“We’re all Americans. We need to stand up for each other,” Parrish Mayor Heather Hall said at the time. “I remember all the outpouring of love and donations that happened during the tornadoes not too very long ago, and this is our turn, and it’s our time to give back.”
A number of churches, schools, Bevill State Community College and other businesses and organizations also collected in-kind donations for Texans.
When Hurricane Irma hit Florida in early September, Floridians came to Jasper to seek shelter at area hotels and churches to ride out the storm. Jasper First Baptist Church served as a hub for families to eat, do laundry, shower and have a warm place to sleep. Many area churches assisted Jasper First Baptist to provide comfort for evacuees.
Walker County was spared during both hurricanes, but wind damage was reported in isolated areas.
New businesses open in Jasper; mall loses anchor stores
A number of new businesses opened in Jasper this year, while the city also said goodbye to some of its longest-running retailers.
Big Guy’s Express Car Wash, ManKind Barbershop, Tallulah Brewing Company, Yorozu Automotive Alabama, Twisted Barley Brewing Company, Milo’s, Badcock Home Furniture, Jasper Pickers and others joined the Jasper family in 2017. A new Waffle House also opened behind Cracker Barrel in Jasper.
The Jasper Mall, however, had a difficult year as its anchor stores — JCPenney and Kmart — closed their doors. Chick-fil-A in the Jasper Mall also closed.
JCPenney and Kmart stores around the country closed in 2017 due to financial struggles, and the Chick-fil-A closing was contributed to the corporation shifting away from locations inside of shopping malls. Another struggling company, rue21, also closed in the Jasper Mall.
Jones Lang LaSalle Americas Inc. was named as receiver of the mall to handle daily operations, and they attempted to sale the mall in 2017, with no success. Area leaders are still hopeful the mall will secure new anchor tenants.
Guin trial causes drama at county school board
After being placed on paid administrative leave in 2016 for potential ethics violations, Tanya Guin was terminated from her employment as principal of Carbon Hill Elementary/Jr. High School on Aug. 7.
In early 2017, Attorney Patrick H. Boone, who investigated the case against Guin, recommended she be terminated.
The three-day hearing began Aug. 4, and a six-hour deliberation on Aug. 7, resulted in Guin’s termination, citing mismanagement of school monies and other accusations.
The Alabama State Department of Education recommended the revocation of Guin’s teaching license in August, despite the board’s decision to still allow Guin to teach in the school system. The department of education’s website still shows Guin’s teaching license as active, however.
Guin filed an appeal to the board’s decision in September.
Oakman continues train of progression
The Town of Oakman held a number of events in 2017 and received grants to help move the town forward.
Under the leadership of Oakman Mayor Cory Franks, who was elected mayor in late 2016, the town hired a new clerk in March, Lisa Lockhart. Lockhart helped to organize the town’s finances and her grant writing skills proved beneficial.
The town most recently received a $350,000 Community Development Block Grant to repair their sewer system, and they also received grants to help the town’s senior center, volunteer fire department and police department.
To help restore community pride, a new town sign was placed in the heart of downtown Oakman, and many events were held to bring the community together, such as a daddy/daughter dance, Easter egg hunt and Halloween event. The town also held its inaugural Day’s Gap Fest, which brought at least 1,500 people to Oakman.
“We’re going to continue working to improve our community and quality of life for the people of Oakman,” Franks said.
County mourns loss of community members
The county lost many people in 2017.
The community of Oakman mourned the loss of pharmacist Thomas Hadder, 52, who was found deceased in his pharmacy on Jan. 31.
Longtime Pilot Club of Jasper member Gina Nichols lost her cancer battle on Feb. 16. Cancer also claimed the lives of Walker County 5-year-old Natalie Bieberbach on Oct. 19, and 27-year-old Jase Meeks of Jasper on Dec. 17. Both Bieberbach and Meeks were featured in the Eagle to share their fights against cancer.
Roger Wilson, the executive director of Walker County E-911, passed away July 25, after a long illness. He was 60.
Well-known Walker County coal executive Andrew Jackson Taft Sr., 100, passed away Oct. 14, and former Oakman Town Clerk DeAnna Woods, 78, passed away on May 31.
Jasper High (then-Walker High) Assistant Principal Tommy Hobson, 55, passed away in a vehicle accident in Arkansas on March 22.
Jasper coal miner Marius “Slick” Shepherd, 32, died June 19, of a head injury in a rail hauling accident at Oak Grove Mine in Hueytown.
Most recently, former Walker County Circuit Clerk Vinita Thompson, 83, passed away Dec. 20.
Pre-K expansion in county
Thanks to $600,000 from the state’s Education Trust Fund Budget in June, every school in Walker County now offers a Pre-K education for students.
A total of 122 new Pre-K classrooms were added across the state this fall. Curry Elementary, Lupton Jr. High, Parrish Elementary and Valley Jr. High are now offering Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program due to the additional funding this year.
Whether it be First Class Pre-K or a Pre-K/Headstart blended classroom, more students than ever are having access to a Pre-K education in the county.
Pre-K is also offered in Jasper City Schools.
Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, has promised to continue advocating for the expansion of Pre-K.
in Walker County.