2012-01-05 / Front Page

Year In Review – TOP STORIES –

Economy showed little signs of recovery; county elects two new commissioners
By Jean Snyder
STAFF WRITER

Economy

Fulton County began 2011 much in the same way as 2010 ended, with a sluggish economy and unemployment wavering between single and double digits that continued throughout the year. In November, Fulton County was in the 61st spot out of 67 counties. In the previous month of October, Fulton had attained a ranking of 52, the best ranking for the 2011 year. For most of the year, only Cameron and Philadelphia counties posted higher rates from January-November 2010. The county posted a 10.83 percent unemployment rate in January and a preliminary November rate of 9.4 percent. 8.8 percent was as low as the rate dipped throughout the year, but still better than 2010, when 11.4 percent was the lowest the unemployment rate dipped during that year.

In other economic news, at year’s end, two out of three of the county’s three school districts announced they would raise taxes in their 2012 budgets. The Central Fulton School District hiked real estate tax rates by .9996 mills to 27.8810 mills. The Southern Fulton School District bumped taxes from 23.13 to a new rate of 23.3613 mills, and Forbes Road held the line on their millage rate of 35.042 mills.

In other school news, both Forbes Road and Central Fulton school districts settled teacher contract issues. In July, Central Fulton teachers signed a three-year contract with the district. As a result, 12 teachers signed off on a retirement package that gave them a $40,000 incentive for their retirement. Other aspects of the new contract included salary increases and health insurance packages.

After two years of negotiations, the Forbes Road School District Board of Directors and the teachers union came to a three-year agreement in May. The agreement comes after the board voted twice in the previous two years of negotiations to reject Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board fact finder’s recommendations. The collective bargaining agreement, which will run retroactively from July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2012, focused on two main topics, salary and healthcare. The agreement included a one-year freeze for teachers and a $750 increase in years two and three. Other topics related to the agreement included an extra workday for professional staff, and increased time in the teacher’s length of school day.

On a school district-related note, at the end of 2011, all three school boards reorganized. Cory Gress will once again head the Central Fulton board, while Teressa Bard will chair the Forbes Road board, and Timothy Mellott will preside over the Southern Fulton board.

At year’s end, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners voted to raise real estate taxes for the first time in more than five years from 10 to 10.95 mills. The budget contained a general salary increase of 2.9 percent for employees. Following taking office, the newly elected board of commissioners will have the month of January to reopen the budget and make any adjustments it finds necessary. If the board decides to amend the budget adopted, a final budget must be approved by February 15, 2012.

In June 2011 it was announced that Tower Bank was sold for the third time. The Tower Bank, as a division of Graystone Tower Bank, in McConnellsburg, was originally The First National Bank of McConnellsburg, chartered in 1906 and headquartered in McConnellsburg since its inception. The First National was sold to The First National Bank of Greencastle in a cash and stock deal that closed in January 2006.

In 2009 the Greencastle bank, with its holding company Tower Bancorp, was acquired by Graystone Bank, with the new holding company being named Graystone Tower Bancorp. Locally Tower Bank had branches in Needmore, Pa., and Hancock, Md., as well as main banking facilities in McConnellsburg. The last local area bank directors, Dr. Harry D. Johnston and Patricia Carbaugh, resigned from Tower Bancorp Inc. board in January of 2011.

Then in November 2011, shareholders of Susquehanna Bancshares Inc. (Susquehanna) and Tower Bancorp Inc. (Tower) approved a merger agreement under which Susquehanna would acquire all outstanding shares of common stock of Tower in a merger transaction. Under the terms of the merger agreement, Tower shareholders had the option of receiving either 3.4696 shares of Susquehanna common stock or $28 in cash for each share of Tower common stock, subject to proration so that $88 million of the merger consideration is paid in cash.

Under the acquisition, which is expected to be completed on February 17, 2012, the local Tower bank will now be known as Susquehanna.

Also in November, it was announced that the Tower branch bank in Needmore would close effective February 17, 2012. The Needmore bank opened in 1988 as a branch bank of The First National Bank of McConnellsburg and five bank employees are employed there.

At its annual state-of-thecompany meeting in November, Fulton County Medical Center announced a loss of $983,000 for the 2010-11 fiscal year. Citing the sluggish economy and high unemployment rates that have caused the loss of health insurance benefits for many, FCMC’s chief financial officer and chief executive officer both said that their uncollectible debts or “write-offs” for the year totaled nearly $2.6 million while the previous year’s was $1.8 million.

Politics

The 2011 county commissioner race saw one commissioner retire from her post and one commissioner was not re-elected. Bonnie Mellott Keefer, chair of the current board, announced in December 2010 that she would not be a candidate for commissioner in the 2011 election. Keefer, who said she “was not retiring, just retooling,” served Fulton County for 21 years – one year in the Probation Department, 12 years as county treasurer and eight years as county commissioner.

Ten commissioner candidates’ names appeared on the spring primary ballot, seven Republicans and three Democrats. Republican candidates were incumbent Craig Cutchall and Joe Hagarty, Rodney McCray, Lisa K. Mellott-McConahy, Ricky Leese, borough Councilman Rick Buterbaugh and borough Mayor Michael Chilcote. Democrats on the ballot were incumbent David R. Hoover, Irvin Dasher and borough council President Travis Bard. The results of the primary election put Cutchall, Hoover, McCray and Dasher on the ballot for the November general election, and McCray, Cutchall and Dasher prevailed in that contest.

Construction

The past year saw the completion of one construction project and the groundbreaking of plans for a second major upgrade.

County renovations

Bids were awarded in March for a renovation of the county’s courthouse complex. Palmer Construction was awarded the general contractor’s bid for nearly $1.5 million. The multi-phase renovation included: a geo-thermal heating-air-conditioning system for the courthouse, the Neighborhood Service Center and the jail, demolition of the extra jail cells located on the western side of the jail and elimination of the exercise yard; constructing a connecting walkway between the second story of the courthouse and sheriff’s office; reconstruction of the handicapped accessible ramp at the courthouse to allow additional accessibility to the sheriff’s office; new paving and parking areas; creation of an underground stormwater retention area on the former Shelly & Witter property; renovation of the basement of the Neighborhood Service Center facility to house probation offices; eliminating existing first-floor bathrooms in the courthouse and relocating to the former commissioner’s office area; installing new flooring as well as wall and ceiling coverings in the main courthouse hallway; renovation of the courtroom to include new and more accessible lighting, new wall and floor coverings; and sidewalk repairs and landscaping in Mc- Connell Park. The total project when completed was estimated to cost $4,545,000. Although those phases have been all but completed, earlier in the year it was discovered that there was significant structural damage in the old jail that has resulted in plans to possibly raze the old building and replace it with a new building at a proposed cost of $500,000. However in February, three local men, Fulton County Historical Society President Richard Miller, society employee Glenn Cordell and local businessman Andy Washabaugh met with county commissioners and set in motion a “Save the Jail” campaign that eventually would prove successful and lead to plans to renovate the building. Calling the jail a significant historical building, Cordell noted the considerable sacrifice people made when they donated private money (as required by law) to build public buildings, the courthouse and jailhouse, when Fulton County was established in 1850. The commissioners eventually agreed to stand the costs of the interior renovations to the historical building, while the Fulton County Historical Society agreed to pay for exterior renovations. At year’s end, work is continuing on the jail renovations, which will include a brick facade. The bricks are being handmade by Redland Brick of Williamsport, Md., and their appearance is similar to ones made in the 19th century. When completed, the building will, once again, be used as the sheriff’s office.

Sewage plant upgrade

At the end of 2010, contracts were awarded for a $5.4 million upgrade to the existing plant south of McConnellsburg, with work scheduled to begin shortly after the new year. Officials then said the authority is forced to make the upgrade in order to be in compliance with new laws and regulations that mandate a reduction in nitrogen and phosphorous

(nutrients) flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. The general contractor bid was awarded to Galway Bay of Mt. Braddock, Pa., for a total of $3.43 million. The electrical contract was awarded to B&B Design of Orbisonia for $372,000. An additional $1.4 million will be spent for equipment, engineering costs and land acquisition. After the 2011 upgrade, physically, the plant will still look much the same. A new lift station will replace the old one, and an 80-foot-by-80 foot composting building will also be built. That building will allow the plant to mix sludge with wood chips and produce a Class A sludge that can be spread on farmland, gardens, etc., without a permit. The authority also announced that because of the upgrade, customer rates would increase from $30 per month to $40 per month beginning in January 2011. The rate increase occurred on April bills and quarterly bills for single dwellings have now gone to $120. It is the first rate increase in more than five years. All 180 plants in Pennsylvania that are mandated to upgrade were given until May 2012 to complete the upgrades and come into compliance. At year’s end, work on the project continues and must be completed by the May deadline.

Solar energy project

In July, Ayr Township supervisors reviewed a plan submitted by Element Power, a Charlottesville, Va., company, to construct a $60 million solar energy project that will ultimately contain about 187,000 solar panels. The project is to be located adjacent to the business park south of town on land owned by the Glazier family. According to a company official, the company hopes to sell energy to West Penn Power, whose transmission station is also located just off Route 522 south of McConnellsburg. The location provides for an easy way to hook on to the station. Madden said when the project is “built out,“ his company expects to have a 20-megawatt facility. Each megawatt of solar power provides enough power for 150 to 250 houses.

Crime

Crimes against children dominated the news again in 2011.

Shane Pittman, Needmore, charged with the 2009 death of 2- year-old Kylie York, was granted a continuance for his trial in 2010, and the trial was scheduled for the January 2011 term. Pittman, who has pled not guilty, was charged with one count each of criminal homicide and endangering the welfare of children in the December 2009 death of the todthough ler who was in his care at the time of her injury. York died at Hershey Medical Center after the failure of various treatments that were used to reduce brain swelling. A series of tests completed showed Kylie lacked brain activity and nerve function. She died on December 5, three days after arriving at Hershey Medical Center, where she was taken from Fulton County Medical Center. Pittman, who remained incarcerated throughout his legal proceedings, was granted a continuance in January until the May trial term. In May, he entered a guilty plea in the death of his girlfriend’s 24-month-old daughter, but later retracted the plea. Following a twoday trial in October, where he was found guilty of third-degree murder, he was sentenced to 20-40 years in a state correctional institution, nearly two years after the toddler’s death.

In November 2011, a Hustontown man was arrested and charged with three counts each of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault; two counts of rape and one count of statutory sexual assault, indecent exposure, corruption of minors and unlawful contact with a minor relating to alleged ongoing sexual encounters between Dennis Lane, 62, and a minor boy, who is now 16 years old. The time line for the offenses was September 26, 2007, through November 5, 2010. A preliminary hearing originally scheduled for Monday, November 22, was rescheduled for January 10. Lane was originally remanded to jail in lieu of $100,000 bail. In March, the bail was increased to $250,000 after Lane had pleaded guilty. The bail increase was granted after new information came to light regarding Lane’s alleged attempt to make contact with his victim. Sentencing is now scheduled for February 2012.

A McConnellsburg man accused of sexually assaulting and molesting several young boys over a five-year time frame entered a not-guilty plea in Fulton County Court of Common Pleas in December 2010 to all 55 criminal offenses filed against him during the summer. Woodrow “Woody” Keefer pled not guilty to a long list of charges that included six counts of rape, nine counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, three counts of unlawful contact with a minor, three counts of statutory sexual assault, 24 counts of indecent assault, four counts of indecent exposure and three counts of the corruption of minors. The charges against the 63-year-old man came to light earlier in 2010 after three young men, ranging in ages 16 to 22, provided Pennsylvania State Police officers from the McConnellsburg barracks with information regarding the alleged acts that occurred between January 1999 and December 2004. Following a two-day trial in December 2011, a jury of his peers found him guilty of six counts of rape; nine counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse; 24 counts of indecent assault; four counts of indecent exposure; and three counts each of unlawful contact with a minor, statutory sexual assault and the corruption of minors. He will be sentenced in 2012 after a presentence report has been completed.

In October, Dale Arnold Newton, Warfordsburg, was charged with six counts of simple assault; two counts each of aggravated assault, endangering the welfare of children, recklessly endangering another person; and one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in connection with allegations that he struck a 2-year-old boy and the boy’s 4-year-old sister with a broken wooden stick in addition to his hands. The 25-year-old man stands further accused of punching the children’s mother in the chest, pushing her onto the floor, kicking her in the head and side of the body and striking her in the face with a pack of cigarettes. The 2-year-old male suffered “fresh bruising to both ears and his face” and also had several older bruises on his face, lower back, chest and biceps. His groin area was also swollen from recent physical injury, the charging documents state. In addition, documents show the girl suffered recent bruising on her legs and buttocks and an apparent recent bruise to her head and forehead. The alleged assaults are believed to have occurred between August and October 21. Newton initially waived his right to a preliminary hearing, but later entered a guilty plea and in June was sentenced to a minimum of 23 months in a state correctional institution.

A former Fulton County resident waived his right to arraignment in March after being arrested on reports of suspected child abuse and indecent assault. Forty-oneyear old Thomas John Tomlinson, formerly of Todd Township, appeared in Fulton County Court of Common Pleas for mandatory arraignment on 30 counts of indecent assault and 10 counts each of indecent exposure, corruption of minors and unlawful contact with a minor. In November, he was found guilty on all counts by a jury of his peers and is scheduled to be sen- tenced in January 2012.

A Brush Creek Township man released in July on unsecured bail for a variety of sexual offenses was arrested again in August on accusations he assaulted two young girls this year. L.D. Andrew Keebaugh Jr. was arraigned on 12 counts each of indecent assault involving individuals less than 16 and 13 years of age and four counts of the corruption of minors. Already listed as a sex offender dating back to 2000 through Megan’s Law, Keebaugh was remanded to the Franklin County Prison in lieu of $150,000 bail. Two months after his arrest for a sex crime dating back to February 1998, he entered a plea to rape and aggravated indecent assault, while two additional indecent assault cases brought to light later were withdrawn as part of a sentencing agreement. He is currently awaiting sentencing.

A Big Cove Tannery man accused of the indecent assault of a young boy remained incarcerated in November in the Franklin County Prison. Sixty-one-year-old James Edward Brown was arrested by Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Michael Davis in late September on 12 counts of indecent assault, four counts of indecent exposure and one count of the corruption of minors. He has remained in custody in lieu of $100,000 bail. Brown waived arraignment proceedings in November and entered a plea of guilty to one count of indecent assault of a person less than 13 years old and the corruption of minors. He is scheduled to be sentenced in February 2012.

Two Fulton County residents were jailed in November amid allegations of child abuse after a 2- year-old child was hospitalized with what medical personnel deemed as lifethreatening, if left untreated, injuries.

Twenty-six-year-old Joscelyn Amber Murray and Lance Alan Hixon, 32, were arrested on November 16 by Pennsylvania State Police following an investigation that got under way earlier in the month when the female juvenile was taken to Fulton County Medical Center for treatment of injuries. Murray and Hixon were arraigned by Magisterial District Judge Devin Horne on one count each of aggravated assault, endangering the welfare of a child and simple assault. Judge Horne set their release from the Franklin County Prison at $100,000 straight bail. Hixon posted bail the following day.

In February, a McConnellsburg man fatally shot his exgirlfriend before taking his own life near the woman’s home on Cito Road in Ayr Township. The tragic story surrounding the kidnapping and subsequent homicide of 39- year- old Tina Marie (Sipes) Souders began mid- morning on a Friday in February. According to police at the McConnellsburg barracks, murder suspect Ricky L. Hann of McConnellsburg unlocked the door to Souders’ trailer by using a key he had obtained when he and Souders had dated. Souders was apparently sleeping when Hann entered her mobile home at around 9:30 a.m. on February 18. Police say that Hann informed Souders they were going for a ride, but she refused. Hann then proceeded to assemble a shotgun he had been carrying inside of a bag and kept his ex-girlfriend at her home until the following morning, police stated. In a press release, state police said Souders was able to convince Hann to let her go. Police further said that Hann, 51, reportedly left the trailer when he had to retrieve some paperwork or do something work-related. Souders went to the McConnellsburg barracks at 9:30 a.m. Saturday and reported the incident to investigating officer Trooper Garry Ford Jr. As a result of a tip regarding Hann’s vehicle being observed in the area, troopers were able to take Hann into custody without further incident at around 2 p.m. Saturday in Mc- Connellsburg. He was arraigned before Magisterial District Judge Carol Jean Johnson on charges of kidnapping (a felony one), burglary, terroristic threats, unlawful restraint, recklessly endangering another person and simple assault. Unable to post $100,000 straight bail, Hann was remanded to the Franklin County Prison. Updated reports shared with News by state police indicate that a friend of Hann’s was able to post bail by approximately 11 p.m. Saturday. Neither the McConnellsburg barracks or Trooper Ford received notification from the jail of Hann’s release and a check of cellphone records shows that Souders also did not receive notice regarding Hann making bail late Saturday night. Operating his sister’s truck and wearing a camouflage jacket and baseball cap, Hann returned to Souders’ trailer Sunday at noon. In front of her two teenage sons, mother and several other people, Hann dragged his ex-girlfriend into the woods behind her home but not before firing shots over the onlookers’ heads. Troopers arrived within minutes of receiving a dispatch for another kidnapping and heard several shots ring out. A PSP helicopter flew over the wooded area and the bodies of Souders and Hann were observed on the ground. Souders had previously requested and been granted a protection-fromabuse order against Hann. That order was reportedly violated in early November 2010. A native of the Hustontown area, Souders was a 1989 graduate of Forbes Road Junior/ Senior High School and had been most recently employed at Fulton County Medical Center.

Hann’s sister was subsequently charged with 14 counts of a person to possess, use, manufacture, control, sell or transfer firearms; five counts of unsworn falsification to authorities; and one count of the sale or transfer of firearms. In August, she entered a plea of guilty to two counts of a person not to possess, use, manufacture, control, sell or transfer a firearm, which carried a maximum penalty of 10 years incarceration and $20,000 in fines. The charges came about as a result of Keefer’s failure to keep her brother from taking the gun used to kill Souders from Keefer’s home. She signed an “affidavit of safekeeping” after a protection-from-abuse (PFA) order was issued against her brother by Souders in September 2010. Until the provisions of the PFA were lifted or the order expired, Hann was unable to possess a weapon and therefore the guns would remain in his sister’s possession. A total of seven guns were listed on the document. The guns were taken to Keefer’s home in Belfast Township for “safekeeping” in an unlocked bedroom. Keefer was sentenced to a total of 36 months probation. She was also ordered to pay a $25 monthly supervision fee and $75 to Scott’s Auto Body for towing. Keefer is also unable to own, possess or transfer a firearm.

In a related matter, Fulton County District Attorney Travis Kendall argued successfully that Paul Weachter, the bail bondsman who arranged the $100,000 bond for Hann should have to forfeit the bond. The judge in the case concurred and in April ordered the forfeit to the county. The order is currently under appeal, however.

A Hustontown man incarcerated since May 2010 was convicted of third-degree murder in neighboring Franklin County in April. A jury comprised of six women and seven men took more than three hours to review three days of testimony, opening and closing statements, and photographs depicting damage to a 1986 Ford F-150 truck before rendering a guilty verdict in the commonwealth’s case against 42-year-old Gerald “Choo” Buterbaugh. During the early morning hours on May 31, 2010, Buterbaugh and two passengers were leaving the Hillside Tavern when their 1986 Ford F- 150 struck and fatally wounded Dale Henry of Burnt Cabins. In June, Buterbaugh was sentenced to 15-40 years in a state correctional institution on the third-degree murder charge.

Tragedy

Highway accident deaths brought sadness to the county in 2011. In January, a one-vehicle accident on Route 40 in Maryland claimed the life of a Hancock, Md., teen while two Fulton County men were seriously injured in the crash. Thomas James Kratz was driving the vehicle and died in the accident, and Joshua David Wertz, 20, of Warfordsburg, and Travis Michael Shives, 22, also of Warfordsburg, were passengers in the vehicle and suffered serious injuries.

A Harrisonville man delivering bulk mail to post offices in southern Fulton County sustained fatal injuries during a collision along Great Cove Road. Charles Emory Sipes of 11380 Pleasant Ridge Road, Harrisonville, was pronounced dead at 7:15 a.m. on March 8. According to reports, a 2004 Chevrolet 1500 truck pulled from Rock Hill Road and into the path of Sipes’ 1989 Dodge Wagon. Sipes was unable to avoid the collision and struck the truck operated by Aaron Shives.

A Needmore woman died on March 6 at a Maryland hospital after suffering serious injuries in a single-vehicle accident in Brush Creek Township. Thirty-year-old Amanda Starr Willey was pronounced dead at 8:07 p.m. at Meritus Medical Center located in Hagerstown. Willey was not wearing a seat belt when she suffered the injuries hours earlier along SR 643 at 5:20 p.m. Pennsylvania State Police at the Mc- Connellsburg substation stated Willey was heading eastbound in a 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Having just rounded a left-hand curve in the roadway, the Jeep travelled onto the southern berm where it struck a large tree.

Other top stories making “News” headlines in 2011 included:

Cowans Gap State Park was closed to swimmers in July after more than a dozen children became seriously ill after swimming in the lake. Public health officials eventually linked the sickness to the toxin producing O157:H7 strain of E. coli, a bacteria that lives in the intestines of humans and animals. Most strains are harmless, but others can make people extremely sick. Every infected person had been swimming in the lake at some time during the later half of July. The majority of them were in the water over the weekend of July 30-31. The final number of confirmed cases was 14. Officials never released a suspected cause of the contamination, and it was speculated that the exact circumstances may never be known. Although it reopened for boating and other recreational activities, the lake remained off limits for swimming through the end of the season.

No final resolution of security fraud accusations, first made against Robert Bard and Vision Specialist Group in a civil lawsuit filed in federal court July 2009, occurred in 2011, In the suit, the SEC maintained that Bard’s securities fraud occurred from at least July 2006 through July 2009 and that Bard had cheated investors out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. A federal judge had ordered Bard’s civil penalty hearing to take place Dec. 13, 2011, in a summary judgment ruling made Nov. 10 that found the defendant and his company, Vision Specialist Group LLC, in violation of federal securities laws. The judge also determined that a permanent injunction prohibiting Bard and Vision Specialist Group from providing financial services to clients was warranted. Bard was ordered to pay $450,000 in disgorgement, plus prejudgment interest, for profits connected to the securities violations. The SEC had asked for $852,383. The hearing, which was continued, has been rescheduled for Jan. 19, 2012, at 10 a.m., in U.S. Middle District Court of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, Pa.

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