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2012: Top 10 stories

A changing of the guard in county administration, schools and economic development combined with an angry group of school retirees denied their Local Optional Retirement Plan benefits made 2012 a year for the record books in Halifax County.

The year started on a sad note when a January fire destroyed the historic River Road landmark Creekside, home of Jane Edmunds.

Then a yearlong investigation into the financial dealings of former Halifax County Sheriff Stanley Noblin led to a grand jury returning a 21-count indictment in November, and local judges and prosecutors immediately recusing themselves from the fray.

Before the year came to an end, Halifax Regional Hospital directors made headlines when they announced a merger agreement with Sentara Healthcare.

Meanwhile, the Halifax/County South Boston YMCA attempted to merge with its Mecklenburg County counterparts but was forced to put any such plans on hold after several unsuccessful tries. Now the Ys plan to sever ties effective Dec. 31.

A pair of long-awaited school studies were returned in the spring — an efficiency review and curriculum audit — that called for shuttering two schools, laying off paraprofessionals, restructuring Central Office staff and selling high school lockers for scrap metal.

Halifax County attracted people from all over the United States and even several foreign countries when a grand opening was held this fall for the premiere of the National Coatings Center at Riverstone Technology Park.

Throughout the year local opponents of uranium mining waged a strong battle to keep the 30-year ban on uranium mining despite Virginia Uranium’s vigorous effort to get the green light to dig up a 119-million pound deposit of ore located on Coles Hill in nearby Pittsylvania County.

And then there were the U. S. Presidential, Senate and House elections in November that proved the nation remains evenly divided with Barack Obama being reelected to the White House for a second term, while Democrats maintained control of the Senate and Republicans kept their majority in the House.

Before looking ahead to a bright and prosperous 2013, let’s take a moment and review these top stories of the past year:

 

School board denies LORP benefits to retirees

In what some education retirees described as “the ultimate betrayal,” Halifax County School Board members voted unanimously to terminate the Local Optional Retirement Plan July 24, less than one month after some employees had agreed to take early retirement in exchange for participation in the program.

Retirement benefits were based on 20 percent of the final contracted salary earned before the effective date of retirement, with the school board reserving the right to change the percentage annually.

Retirement program participation was available for not more than seven years, and the employee’s share of social security, federal income tax and state income tax was deducted from retirement pay.

Estimating the retirement plan cost over $1,433,000, Superintendent Dr. Merle Herndon recommended the board terminate the program.

After several attempts to get school board members to reinstate the retirement program, the sting of betrayal lingered with retirees who decided in October to retain their own lawyers and pursue legal action.

Former LORP participants pooled resources to hire the services of attorneys from the Richmond law firm, Blackburn, Conte, Schilling and Click P.C.

Aside from acknowledging the school system had “received notice” from the retirees’ attorneys, Herndon and board members have refused to comment publicly on the dispute saying they have been advised by School Board Attorney Craig Woods not to discuss the matter with the public pending litigation.

 

Former sheriff indicted on 21 counts

Following more than a yearlong state police investigation for allegations of embezzling or misusing asset forfeiture funds, a Halifax County Grand Jury indicted former Halifax County Sheriff Stanley Noblin on 21 embezzlement and forgery charges in November.

The grand jury returned 21 felony true bills Nov. 12 against Noblin, 14 for forgery of a public record and seven for embezzlement.

The 14 forgery charges cover dates from April 30, 2009 to March 3, 2011, and the seven embezzlement charges cover dates from Nov. 13, 2008 to Dec. 31, 2011.

According to affidavits, funds totaling $113,180.50 are unaccounted for.

Nearing the end of 2011, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli authorized the investigation of Noblin acting on a request from Substitute Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric A. Cooke of Southampton County.

Cooke was appointed to prosecute the case when then-Halifax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Kim White recused herself from the investigation.

Since being indicted by the grand jury last month, Noblin has hired Altavista attorney Glenn L. Berger to represent him when he appears in Halifax County Circuit Court on the 21 embezzlement and forgery charges.

 

Changing of guards

Halifax County saw a changing of the guard in its top county administrators, school central office staff, industrial development authority executive director and Town of Halifax police chief position this year.

County Administrator Jim Halasz, a 20-year veteran of local government administration, replaced outgoing Manager George Nester who announced last December he would retire at the end of March after serving the county since April 2009 when he replaced former County Administrator Brian Foster.

After the process took longer than expected, Nester agreed to stay on until the end of June until a new administrator could take over.

Halasz was hired at an annual base salary of $140,000 and provided other health, VRS, travel and vacation/leave benefits as part of his employment contract.

He beat out 33 other applicants for the position and began work July 9.

Prior to coming to Halifax County, Halasz worked for the past 12 years in Staunton as an assistant and deputy city manager, and he brought with him over 10 years of experience as manager and assistant manager in the communities of Milford, Cadillac and Paw Paw Michigan.

Around the time the county was hiring a new administrator this spring, the school system introduced its new school superintendent, Dr. Merle P. Herndon of Brookneal, who beat out more than 24 applicants for the position.

She came to work in the county July 1 after serving as the director of professional development and school business partnerships at Lynchburg City Schools.

Herndon’s three-year contract continues through June 30, 2015 and includes a salary package with a $140,000 annual salary and a car allowance of $500 a month, 21 days annual leave, 12 sick days each year, hospitalization premium, medical insurance and the Virginia Retirement System group life insurance.

The board began actively searching for the new superintendent in January after Halifax County Public Schools Superintendent Paul Stapleton announced he would retire the end of June after serving eight years in the position.

Other top administrators leaving Central Office at the end of last year and during 2012 included Deputy Superintendent Larry Clark and Chief Financial Officer Bill Covington, both taking with them decades of experience as veteran school administrators.

Replacing Covington as financial officer was Jay Camp, and Valdivia Marshall assumed many of Clark’s duties.

While the county administration and central office staff in Halifax were undergoing major changes and restructuring, Halifax County Industrial Development Authority Board members also announced county resident Matthew Leonard had been hired as the authority’s new executive director replacing Mike Sexton who retired from the position in March.

Sexton had served as executive director for three years.

Leonard, who was selected from 33 applicants, assumed the authority executive director duties July 16 at an annual salary of $100,000.

Formerly, Leonard was the manager of the construction services group with Dewberry & Davis Inc, where he planned and managed public and private projects and programs, training owners, designers, funding sources, regulatory agencies and contractors.

It would take Halifax Town Council almost a full year to find the right person to fill the position of Halifax Police Chief after David Martin announced at the end of last year he would be leaving to accept a position with the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office. 

Petersburg resident Kevin Lands was named the town’s new police chief at the end of November and began his duties Dec. 3 earning an annual salary of $42,000.

Lands scored as the top candidate out of 12 applicants based on evaluations conducted by the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police interview panel.

Other new faces assuming positions throughout the county this year included Rails to Trails Director Heather Susee, Halifax Events Coordinator Susi Robbins, Halifax County Forestry Technician G. T. Hendrick and Agriculture Extension Agent Chris Brown. 

 

Halifax Regional Health System merges with Sentara

One of the biggest stories of 2012 involved Halifax Regional Health System’s merger with Sentara Healthcare announced in mid-October.

Sentara, which operates more than 100 sites of care serving residents across Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, is comprised of 10 acute care hospitals, including seven in Hampton Roads, one in Northern Virginia and two in the Blue Ridge region, advanced imaging centers, 10 nursing and assisted-living centers, outpatient campuses, a statewide home health and hospice agency, a 3,680-provided medical staff and three medical groups with 618 providers.

Sentara is based in Norfolk, and the majority of their facilities are in Hampton Roads and the Norfolk region although they are now expanding with three recent partnerships in Charlottesville with Martha Jefferson Hospital, Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg and Potomac Hospital in Northern Virginia.

Halifax Regional Health System encompasses a 192-bed hospital, three long-term care facilities comprising 348 beds, including The Woodview, Seasons at The Woodview and MeadowView Terrace, Halifax Home Health and Halifax Regional Hospice and the Physician Hospital Enterprise.

As the new year gets under way, Halifax Regional Health System is continuing to work with Sentara to undergo a due diligence phase as well as a regulatory review before completing the merger.

 

Barack Obama re-elected; Senate stays blue, House red

Democratic President Barack Obama was reelected to a second term in the White House in November over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, winning both the electoral and popular vote in the process.

Obama won 303 electoral votes compared to 206 for Romney, and he won the popular vote as well, garnering an unofficial total of 60,405,100 votes nationwide, compared to 57,607,015 for Romney.

The incumbent president captured 26 states, including key battleground states of Virginia, Ohio and Colorado.

Obama carried Virginia by slightly more than 100,000 votes, garnering 1,881,302 votes compared to 1,770,498 for Romney, or 51 percent to 48 percent.

In Halifax County, Romney won by a 51.1 - 46.5 percent margin.

 

Uranium Working Group unveils report to governor

The Uranium Working Group, a multi-agency group tasked with studying the possibility of mining uranium in Virginia, earlier this month released its 125-page report to Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Comprised of staff from the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, the Virginia Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Quality, the group was tasked with providing the General Assembly information to aid in the legislative decision making process.

The group met weekly from January to November and held six meetings to provide information and answer questions from the public this year.

During the yearlong process, group members assessed the risks and benefits of uranium mining and evaluated what would be required in a “conceptual regulatory framework” if mining development were to proceed.

Although the working group’s report does not offer recommendations on whether or not to lift the ban on uranium mining, the General Assembly is expected to use the report of what potential regulatory framework would look life if it decides to lift the current moratorium on uranium mining in the state.

The statewide ban on mining uranium has been in place since the early 1980s.

Virginia Uranium Inc. is eager for legislators to lift the 30-year ban so it can begin mining a 119-million pound deposit of ore located on Coles Hill in Pittsylvania County.

In its report, the Uranium Working Group explored environmental and health issues related to uranium mining.

If the General Assembly during the upcoming legislative session decides to lift the moratorium, it will be necessary to amend and adopt statutes and authorize the subsequent development of actual regulations pursuant to the Virginia Administrative Process Act.  

Only after regulations are developed, proposed, adopted and approved after a lengthy public process could an application for a permit to mine uranium in Virginia be developed and submitted for consideration.

 

Massive fire destroys historic Creekside

A massive fire gutted Creekside, the historic River Road home of Jane Edmunds on Jan. 6.

 Due to the historical nature of the house, a team of state police investigators were called in to investigate the fire that was determined to be accidental.

However, an exact cause was not determined.

Christina Payton, a neighboring River Road resident, was driving past the Edmunds home around 4:30 p.m. that fateful Friday when she noticed smoke coming from the back porch of the house that was completely covered in flames.

Turbeville Volunteer Fire Department and Oak Level Volunteer Fire Departments were the first to respond. In all as many as 24 trucks and from 70-75 firefighters were called to the scene including volunteer firefighters from Laurel Grove, Halifax, Clover, Virgilina, Scottsburg, Cluster Springs, Liberty, North Halifax and South Boston fire departments.

The county ladder truck also was brought in to fight the fire in the two-story brick home, and the Halifax County Rescue Squad, Halifax County Sheriff’s Department, Virginia State Police and a wrecker from Franklin’s Garage also responded.

No one was home at the time of the fire, but fighting the blaze proved logistically difficult.

Pumper trucks had to draw water from as far away as Berry Hill Road, and crews had to construct a temporary water reservoir at the entrance to the home to relay water to the ladder truck as it fought the blaze.

Edmunds’ home, which is located about 10 miles west of South Boston on historic River Road, was difficult to reach because of its location, with fire crews fighting not only the massive fire but water shortages.

Edmunds, mother of 60th Virginia House of Delegates member James Edmunds, said the home contained a number of antiques and family heirlooms, in addition to an expansive library, including the law library of James Stone Easley, former Halifax County Commonwealths’ Attorney and former president of the State Bar Association.

 

Efficiency review, curriculum audit unveiled

The highly-anticipated efficiency review and long-awaited curriculum audit for Halifax County Public Schools System were released in the spring.

Closing two elementary schools, adding personnel to the school’s central office in Halifax and removing high school lockers for scrap metal were among some of the 122 recommendations found in the 487-page comprehensive efficiency review performed by Prismatic Services.

The 13-step process awarded 38 commendations and made 122 recommendations to Halifax County Public Schools.

Of the 122 recommendations, Prismatic suggested closing two elementary schools to save $2,750,000 annually. The review stopped short of selecting the two schools to be closed, but it deemed the closings necessary to eliminate administration, custodial, paraprofessional and some teaching positions.

In addition to closing elementary schools, restructuring central office also was recommended in an effort to eliminate higher paid officials in lieu of hiring additional lower paid office staff.

Rebalancing classroom loads by putting more students in classes at both elementary and middle and high schools was suggested to save over $500,000.

Prismatic also recommended the transportation office hire a full-time bus router to establish more efficient bus routing, replace 10 buses a year at $750,000  and remove all activity buses from the fleet. 

Currently the system has 51 cars, and only 17 are running routes. Prismatic recommended reducing the car fleet by 20. 

At the high school, Prismatic suggested administrators remove all lockers for safety and improvement of student behavior. Selling the 1,000 lockers as scrap metal could bring in approximately $4,800.

The elimination of division-wide LAN manager positions also was recommended due to the fact that computers in labs have grown outdated, and Prismatic also suggested updating the food service policy manual.

Prismatic compared Halifax County to Danville, Dinwiddie, Henry and Mecklenburg counties throughout the efficiency review and also Franklin, Pittsylvania, Pulaski and Rockingham counties for transportation purposes. 

Three groups offered input during the process: participating were 683 students in the 11th and 12th grade, 291 parents and 680 of 1,111 staff members participating. 

The curriculum audit was released in May and included 71 findings leading to 53 recommendations with a majority that can be implemented with existing resources.

Halifax County Public Schools has “strong programs” in place for its students regardless of what career path they choose following graduation, but division curriculum needs to be reviewed and revised in all content areas to emphasize reading and writing across the curriculum. 

Those were the major findings in the curriculum audit completed by Southeast Center for Effective Schools.

Throughout the audit, Halifax County Public Schools were commended for using hands-on educational experiences, understanding the link between high school education and college and career success, working collaboratively and continuing a partnership with local community colleges. 

 

YMCA attempts merger; then kills plan

A year filled with controversy over a proposed merger of the Halifax County/South Boston YMCA with its counterparts in Mecklenburg County came to an end this fall when it was announced the Ys would sever ties by the end of the year effectively killing any plan to merge.

Back in July, members of the South Boston-Halifax YMCA had an opportunity to cast their votes on the merger of the Hamilton Boulevard YMCA with the two in Mecklenburg County during a town hall meeting held at the South Boston Y.

But in September, efforts to consolidate the three YMCAs, including the ones located in South Boston-Halifax, Chase City and Clarksville, were halted.

For nearly a year, the board members of the YMCAs in South Boston, Chase City and Clarksville looked at ways to strengthen the programs they already have.

In moving forward, YMCA CEO Marcus Hargrave said the Mecklenburg County YMCA has to decide whether it wants to remain a YMCA or be a community center, hire a CEO themselves, or request the services of the YMCA of the USA for a CEO search process. 

As of Dec. 31, the YMCA of South Boston/Halifax County will no longer provide consultation services to the Mecklenburg YMCAs since no merger agreement was reached.

 

National Coatings Center holds grand opening

The Halifax County Industrial Development Authority in October unveiled the region’s newest asset for economic development - the National Center for
Coatings Application, Research and Education (C-CARE).

Housed in 12,000 square feet of environmentally controlled space at Riverstone Technology Park in South Boston, the center is home to Superfici flatline and hangline equipment, Kawasaki Robotics, Robatech surface preparation
technology and liquid and powder spray booths.

More than two years in the making, C-CARE is a collaboration between the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority, the Riverstone Energy Center and the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center and was made possible by funding from the Virginia Tobacco Commission, the Halifax County Board of Supervisors and in-kind contributions of equipment
from a network of industrial partners. 

Staffed by AWFI, a leading expert in coatings technology training and process engineering, the coatings center is touted as a unique public/private
partnership designed to stimulate economic development and job creation throughout the region.

The ribbon cutting for the National Coatings Center kicked-off a week long event that included “The U.S. Renaissance in
Advanced Manufacturing” Symposium, Women in Business luncheon, and the IndustryWeek
magazine “Excellence in Action” plant tours of ABB and Huber. 

Speakers for the event included Leland Melvin, NASA associate administrator for education and two time space-shuttle
astronaut, Will Powers, executive vice president - chief financial officer, Rolls-Royce North America lnc., Patricia Panchak, editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek magazine, and Petter Fiskerud, vice president and general manager of ABB South Boston. 

Over 20 different courses and workshops were offered throughout the week in CAD/CAM software technologies, additive manufacturing, robotics, coatings technology and quality control, among other topics.