2014-01-02 / Front Page

2013 Year In Review

– TOP STORIES –
By Jean Snyder
STAFF WRITER

Economy continued a slow recovery; Meadow Grounds Lake is empty

Fulton County began 2013 still hoping for an improved economy and struggling to maintain its schools and local governments with decreased aid from the state and federal government.

While the end of 2012 brought sadness to the heart of the entire nation as 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., were gunned down by a mentally troubled young man who took his own life as well as the life of his mother on December 14, the end of 2013 still saw no resolution to the issues of gun control, availability and access to mental health services and the continued quest of how to assure safety in schools.

The year was a weather buster once again as tornadoes swept the country. There were 798 confirmed tornados the United States with 53 fatalities. On May 20, an EF5 tornado struck Moore, Okla. – the first EF5 tornado to occur in nearly two years. Another powerful outbreak struck the Midwest and Ark-La-Tex area in the final week of May. That outbreak produced an EF3 in the Oklahoma City Metro Area that hit El Reno on May 31, killing storm-chaser Tim Samaras and injuring The Weather Channel’s Mike Bettes’ Tornado Hunt team.

On a brighter note, the British Royals welcomed a new baby boy. Prince George of Cambridge was born to Prince William and his wife, Catherine, on July 22, 2013. The birth marks the second time that three generations of direct heirs to the throne are alive at the same time, a situation that last occurred between 1894 and 1901, in the last seven years of the reign of Queen Victoria.

In February, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation and, in March, the papal conclave elected an Argentinean cardinal to succeed him. Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope and has already been lauded for his humility, his concern for the poor and his commitment to build bridges between people of all backgrounds, beliefs and faiths. “Who Am I To Judge?” has been his watchword phrase as he steers the Vatican in a unique direction that has created praise and yet concern from some of the more conservative Catholics. Pope Francis was named Time magazine’s 2013 Person of the Year, beating out CIA leaker Edward Snowden and Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, among others.

Gay marriage was a winner in 2013 while the Affordable Healthcare Act became even more controversial following a rollout that was rife with technical difficulties.

President Obama in the fifth year of his presidency ended the year with record low ratings as he tried to roll out his signature healthcare plan and to find common ground with an oppositional Congress.

Meadow Grounds Lake

Here in Fulton County, the biggest news story of the year was the draining of Meadow Grounds Lake. News that the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission planned to drain Meadow Grounds Lake for an indefinite period of time spread quickly around the community and sparked a firestorm of controversy and community activism that continues into the new year. The news left many shocked about the temporary loss of the popular recreational spot, and left others wondering if the loss of the 204-acre lake would be temporary or permanent. Meadow Grounds Lake has been a staple in the lives of area fishermen and nature lovers. Hosting everything from marriage proposals, to weddings, to bass tournaments, the loss of the popular spot is being mourned by county residents as well as others who visit here.

In a press release only issued after county residents began questioning the plan, PFBC press secretary Eric Levis announced that “defiiciencies” in Roaring Run dam at Meadow Grounds Lake have prompted officials to initiate plans to “completely drain” the lake until the dam can be rehabilitated to meet engineering and safety standards.

In December, PFBC and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) engineers inspected the dam and found that ongoing seepage had “become more severe.” “The condition of the dam’s structural integrity necessitates that a complete drawdown of the lake to be performed so that further testing and analysis can be conducted,” said PFBC Deputy Director of Operations Andy Shiels in the announcement.

In the summer of 2010, Levis was quoted by the “News” as saying Meadow Grounds Lake was one of 37 dams in the commonwealth deemed “high-hazard” by DEP. A high-hazard dam is defined as dam that is unable to handle 50 percent of the estimated maximum precipitation an area could receive. “Of the 37 high-hazard dams, 16 are considered unsafe because of structural issues such as cracks and erosion underneath. These 16 are the commission’s top priority for repairs,” said Levis in 2010, noting Meadow Grounds was not on that list. “As such, we do not have plans in place to fix it.”

Several attempts to control dam seepage have been made since 2005 with only slight success. Meanwhile, spillway design is also a looming concern for DEP and Fish and Boat officials, who are estimating needed repairs in the $4 million range. With no funding sources identified, the lake will remain drained indefinitely.

The lake drawdown began in March and was basically completed over a period of 15-20 weeks. Although efforts were made to relocate fish, there were also fish that perished during the drawdown.

In the meantime, a group has been formed (Friends of Meadow Grounds Lake) to continue to push legislators and public officials to repair the dam and restore the lake.

At the end of the year, the good news was that funds were identified to begin geotechnical work that was slated to get under way at Meadow Grounds Lake. Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) press secretary Eric Levis said that URS Corp. will oversee the boring and probing of Roaring Run Dam. The company was awarded the geotechnical work after submitting a low bid of $63,322. According to Levis, the geotechnical work will help identify the issues lying beneath the surface of the dam. As a result, URS was scheduled to bore approximately 10 holes throughout the earthen dam. A total of 20 to 30 soil samples were to be collected from the drilled area, said Levis, who noted the entire process should take around two weeks to complete.

Business and Economy

The year ended with an economy that is showing signs of improvement although local employment figures have not kept pace with state and national figures. In 2013, unemployment rates seesawed between 8 and 9 percent. The highest unemployment rate posted was in January when the rate reached 9.7 percent, while the lowest rate was in September when the county had an 8.3 rate. During the year, the jobless rate never went below 8.3, and yet never went back into the double digits recorded in 2011 and 2012.

In another move that county citizens say could affect their economy, the United States Postal Service (USPS) announced in early 2012 that it was targeting three county post offices for possible closure. The offices included Wells Tannery, Crystal Spring and Waterfall. In May, of that year, however, it was announced the offices would likely stay open but with reduced hours. During 2013, a series of public meetings was held and surveys were sent out regarding the three post offices, and it was determined that the offices will remain open but with reduced hours.

In other economic news, at year’s end, two out of three of the county’s three school districts announced they would raise taxes to balance their 2013-14 budgets. In May, the Southern Fulton School District approved a budget that hiked real estate taxes by .5607 mills to a total of 23.9220 mills, while the Central Fulton School District hiked the real estate tax rate by .328 mill to 28.85 mill. The Forbes Road School District held the line on taxes.

At the beginning of 2013, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners voted to raise real estate taxes by 1.2 mills, taking the millage from 10.95 to 12.15 mills. At the end of the year, the county hiked the real estate tax an additional .25 mill taking taxes to 12.40 mills for 2014.

The borough of McConnellsburg also increased 2014 taxes by 1 mill to cover costs of equipment replacement as well as bridge repair. The total borough real estate tax is 6 mills.

On a positive note, at its annual state-of-the-company meeting in November, Fulton County Medical Center (FCMC) announced a profit of $2.1 million, up from the previous year’s profit of $460,000. In May, FCMC acquired an additional 68 acres surrounding the Medical Center in order to provide expansion capacity in the future.

In other economic news, in January it was announced that a solar panel power project for Ayr Township was scrapped for economic reasons. Citing a “continuing depressed solar energy market,” Element Power announced it would pull the plug on a solar energy panel project it had announced for Ayr Township in July 2011. Element Power, a Charlottesville, Va.-based company, submitted final plans in August 2011 for a $60-million solar energy project that was ultimately to contain about 187,000 solar panels on 300 acres of land leased to them by Ayr Township farmer Lee Glazier. Jim Madden, the project manager at that time, said the location would be good for the company because it sits adjacent to the business park as well as close to West Penn Power’s transmission station. Element Power had hoped to sell solar energy to West Penn Power. Then in a letter to Ayr supervisors in January, Madden said that “because the solar energy market is expected to remain depressed for at least the next two years, Element Power has made the difficult decision to terminate development of the Cove Creek Project and withdraw our application for approval of our preliminary plan.” His letter also implied that the company was having trouble securing “offtake” agreements needed to make the project successful.

In February, a new supermarket with a full-service deli opened in Hustontown. Businessman Jim Delaplaine opened a 5,000-squarefoot market in the completely remodeled former Miller & Kerlin True Value building. The Hustontown Country Market has been well-received by Hustontown and neighboring communities.

In May, Ayr Township supervisors OK’d plans for a 43,000- square-foot manufacturing facility in the Fulton County Business Park. The building, completed in November, houses Marmon/Keystone, a Berkshire-Hathaway company, with corporate offices in Butler, Pa., a leading wholesale distributor of tubular products for over 100 years. Locally the company cuts metal largely for JLG Industries.

Ground was also broken in the business park for the new Pennsylvania State Police McConnellsburg barracks. The new 7,500-square-foot building is being built on the south side of Fulton Drive directly across from Tri- State Community Health Center. Although the Ayr supervisors had approved five waivers on the project back in December 2012, construction did not get under way until the end of August. Construction completion is projected for spring 2014.

The McConnellsburg United Methodist Church razed its education building to make way for construction of a new 8,300- square-foot fellowship hall. At the end of the year, construction continues on the new building.

In July 2013, the Fulton County Partnership Inc. and the Fulton County Center for Families merged into a new entity, the Fulton County Family Partnership. The merger was made to provide the two nonprofit social-service agencies with more opportunities for growth and to provide consumers with a one-stop approach to services. Elen Ott and Julia Dovey head the new entity.

Longtime attorney Jim Schall announced in 2013 that he would sell his law firm effective January 1, 2014, to the law firm of Dick, Stein, Schemel, Wine & Frey LLP (DSSW&F), a law firm with offices in Greencastle and Waynesboro. Schall will join the firm on a limited basis but has plans to eventually retire to the Ashville, N.C. area. A “semi-retirement” party was held for Schall in December.

And finally, in June, Eagles Aerie, a landmark located on Tuscarora Mountain, went to the auction block and was knocked down for $31,500 to a Spring Grove, Pa., man. The landmark, built in 1925 and familiar to all who travel Route 30 east, had mostly become known as the old, abandoned building that had been vandalized and seemed as if it could topple off the side of the mountain. It had not been in use since the 1950s.

Schools

In school news, the Forbes Road School District voted in May to eliminate its elementary school principal’s position as a cost-cutting measure, ending Paul Swope’s nearly three-year tenure as the elementary principal. High school Principal Christina Ramsey was reassigned as the K-12 district principal. Ramsey resigned in early September to take a principal’s position in the Everett School District. Maria Scott was hired as her replacement as K-12 principal in October. Scott had been employed by the Bedford County School District.

Also, on a school district-related note, at the end of 2013, all three school boards reorganized. Cory Gress will once again head the Central Fulton board and Allen Morton will preside over the Southern Fulton board. At Forbes Road, the board elected a new president and Merrill Arnold will now lead that board.

The November election saw Central Fulton gain two new board members: Julia Dovey and write-in candidate Gen Harper won the voters’ approval to serve on the board.

Write-in candidate Margaret “Peggy” Bolinger, was the apparent winner of the fourth and final slot on the Forbes Road School Board as the other incumbents running were re-elected.

In the Southern Fulton School District, all five incumbents were re-elected.

Politics

When Judge Richard J. Walsh of the Court of Common Pleas of the 39th Judicial District announced in January that he would retire at year’s end after 14 years on the bench, in 2013 a new judge was elected for a full 10-year term. Franklin County Assistant District Attorney Jeremiah Zook was elected to the bench, beating out his challenger, Jeff Evans. Judge Zook will take the bench in January 2014.

Patty Suders Fix was re-elected to the position of prothonotary, a position she has held since 1993.

In July 2013, Mack Shaffer resigned his position as borough councilman. The council named Adam Gress to replace him. Gress will serve out the unexpired term before he would have to run for the office in 2015.

The election’s “cliffhanger” was in Ayr Township as incumbent Tom Nesbitt narrowly beat out Russell Harmon to hang on to his supervisor’s seat. Harmon had beaten Nesbitt in the primary to win a spot on the ballot, but Nesbitt mounted a write-in campaign and won by just one vote.

In September, the county mourned the loss of longtime legislator Rep. Dick Hess (R-78). Hess, 74, died unexpectedly in a Pittsburgh hospital following surgery. Hess had served in the House for 27 years. Speaker of the House Samuel Smith issued a writ of election, setting the special election date for Hess’s successor as Tuesday, January 28, 2014.

County Renovations

In 2013, the county wrapped up a two-year long renovation of the county’s campus and various buildings. Bids were awarded in March 2011 for a renovation of the county’s courthouse complex. The final work completed in 2013 included the jail renovations, which includes a brick-facade restoration sponsored by the Fulton County Historical Society. The bricks were handmade by Redland Brick of Williamsport, Md., and their appearance is similar to ones made in the 19th century. Now that it is completed, the building, once again, houses the sheriff’s department. Also in 2013 the old brick Annex #1 on the east side of North Second Street was razed, and Magisterial District Judge Wendy Mellott’s office now occupies the newly renovated offices that once housed domestic relations. In addition, the parking lot on the east side of North Second Street has also been repaved. The county hosted an open house and tour of the new facilities on Fall Folk Festival weekend.

Crime

A local crime received national media attention in August 2012 when Vicki Jo Mills, 33, Mc- Connellsburg was arrested and charged with 10 counts each of aggravated assault, simple assault and recklessly endangering another person after admitting to poisoning her live-in boyfriend with eye drops over a three-year period. Mills was sentenced in February to two to four years in a state prison.

A Union Township man, Lance Alan Hixon, was ordered to a minimum five-year sentence in a state correctional institution in May for the aggravated assault of his former girlfriend’s 27-month-old daughter. During the sentencing, Judge Carol Van Horn noted the child experienced severe pain and the injuries were sustained over a period of time. Joscelyn Murray, the child’s mother was sentenced to serve a 20- to 84-month sentence in a Department of Corrections boot camp for her involvement in the abuse.

In March, a Burnt Cabins man was arrested on 1,260 criminal allegations related to the ongoing rape and sexual assault of a girl. Warren David Kerlin III, 50, was arraigned Friday, March 22, before Magisterial District Judge Devin Horne on 100 counts of rape, 160 counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, 300 counts of aggravated indecent assault, 50 counts of sexual assault and 600 counts of indecent assault. Bail in the case was set at $500,000. Kerlin eventually pleaded guilty to one count each of rape by forcible compulsion, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault and indecent assault. In September, he was named a Megan’s Law offender and sentenced to 10 to 20 years in a state correctional institution.

Roy Barnhart was convicted of assault of a child less than 13 years old and the corruption of minors in a jury trial held in September and in December was sentenced to 18 months in a state correctional institution.

Bard Securities Fraud Case

After the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania entered a final judgment and order in the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) securities fraud case against Warfordsburg financial advisor Robert Bard and his firm, Vision Specialist Group, in 2012, in which the judgment ordered the defendants liable for disgorgement of ill-gotten gains of $450,000, a $2.5 million civil penalty and pre-judgment interest of $53,039, a total of $3,003,039, Bard then, during criminal proceedings in 2012, pled not guilty during arraignment to 21 charges of securities fraud, wire fraud, mail fraud, bank fraud and making false statements to the FBI brought against him by the U.S. Department of Justice for allegedly defrauding 43 investors of more than $3 million.

A federal grand jury handed down the 21-count indictment July 18, charging the former financial advisor, whose clients lived mostly in and around Warfordsburg, with one count of securities fraud, 14 counts of wire fraud, three counts of mail fraud, one count of bank fraud, one count of investment advisor fraud, and one count of making false statements to the FBI.

The court set the criminal trial for early October, but Bard was granted a series of continuances until August 2013 when he was found guilty of 21 felony counts of securities-fraud-related offenses and faces years in jail when sentenced. Bard, 47, was convicted in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg following a seven-day trial before U.S. District Court Judge Sylvia H. Rambo. No sentencing date has been set.

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