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The Top Ten

SoVaNow.com / December 31, 2012
Looking back at the top local news events of 2012, the storylines seemed to fall into two basic categories: those with a payoff, and those begging for further patience.

Lack of significance was not an issue.

From the 2012 elections to uranium mining to transitional times for Halifax Regional Health System to a fall from grace for a former sheriff, the year was jammed full of pivotal moments — some that brought neat resolutions, some not.

Here are our picks for the most important stories of the year:

1 The 2012 election

Halifax County voters leaned one way, the general electorate leaned another, but at the end of the day on Nov. 6 the United States had rehired Barack Obama as president and Virginia chose the Democratic candidate, Tim Kaine, as its next U.S. Senator.

Halifax County bucked the tide by siding with the Republican contenders. In the presidential race, GOP standard bearer Mitt Romney edged Obama, the incumbent Democrat, by a 51.1-46.5 percent margin. George Allen, the GOP nominee for Senate, carried Halifax County by a 53.6-46.2 percent tally over Kaine.

Only one Republican running for federal office won both Halifax County and the election at-large — Fifth District Congressman Robert Hurt, who turned back a spirited challenge from a little-known Fauquier County Democrat, John Douglass. Hurt cruised in Halifax County, winning by a 53.0-45.7 percent split, and he won the race in the sprawling Fifth by a somewhat higher percentage, 55-43 percent.

Befitting Virginia’s status as a swing state, Southside received abundant attention from both presidential campaigns. In October, Vice President Joe Biden stumped in Danville, where he raised some eyebrows with an off-hand remark about voters “in chains” — delivered in front of a largely African-American audience.

Later in the month, the Romney campaign made its pitch to local voters with an appearance by a top surrogate, Romney’s son Tagg. Tagg Romney vowed during a bus stop at the World of Sports that his father would carry Virginia and go on to win the presidency — two predictions that proved incorrect. Virginia went for Obama by four percentage points, only a bit less than the President’s six-point margin of victory in 2008.

2 The fight over uranium mining

Early in the year, the General Assembly postponed a vote on whether to lift Virginia’s 30-year ban on uranium mining. By the end of 2012, opponents and advocates of the Coles Hill project in Pittsylvania County were gearing up for another vote in early 2013 — this time, possibly settling the question of whether the Old Dominion will open the door to industry that is either unacceptably risky or essential to national energy independence, depending on who’s doing the talking.

There were plenty of voices weighing in on the issue in 2012. Late in the year, the Uranium Working Group, a multi-agency task force appointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, issued a report that spelled out a possible regulatory framework for mining and milling in Pittsylvania County. A Republican State Senator, John Watkins of Powhatan, said he will introduce legislation in 2013 to codify the report’s recommendations into law, effectively ending the existing moratorium, critics assert.

On balance, however, public pronouncements from stakeholder groups came down against the Virginia Uranium Inc. project. Joining the opposition were such groups as the Halifax County and Virginia Farm Bureau organizations, the Virginia Association of Counties (VACO) and the Virginia Municipal League (VML), as well as a range of local governmental bodies.

Also this month, Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling traveled to Danville to make the case against mining, thus becoming the first statewide official to take an unequivocal stance on the issue.

Six Southside legislators — delegates and senators, Republicans all — wrote a letter to colleagues in the Assembly asking to keep the ban in place. Silent so far: Gov. McDonnell, who vowed to closely study the issue but refused to commit himself to taking a position one way or another.

Amid the jockeying, the General Assembly heads into 2013 with uranium mining right at the top of its agenda.

3 Former Sheriff Stanley Noblin indicted

After a full year of awaiting the results of a State Police investigation, former Sheriff Stanley Noblin was indicted in November on 21 counts of embezzlement and forgery of public documents. The indictments were the latest downward turn for the disgraced lawman, who lost office in 2011 to current Sheriff Fred Clark.

Noblin is suspected to having taken county drug enforcements funds and state asset forfeiture proceeds for his own use. Search warrants filed in the case indicate that $113,180.50 may be unaccounted for. The missing funds date back to the late summer of 2011. With local judges having recused themselves from the case, progress in the prosecution effort has been halting, at best.

4 HRHS links up with new partner

In mid-October, Halifax Regional Health System announced that it had chosen Sentara Healthcare, based in Norfolk, as its partner in providing healthcare services to its patients.

The hospital’s search for a partner began some 18 months earlier, with HRHS considering offers from numerous potential suitors. The deal will take the form of a merger, with financial terms not yet disclosed. A closing on the proposed merger is expected to come in the spring, pending approval by the Federal Trade Commission.

HRHS will become the 11th hospital in the Sentara system, which includes seven hospitals in the Hampton Roads area, one in Northern Virginia and two in the Blue Ridge region.

Hospitals across Virginia and the rest of the country are coming together in a wave of consolidations as providers look to share and reduce costs, increase the variety of clinical services offered and meet new federal care accountability guidelines, HRHS CEO Chris Lumsden has noted in explaining the Sentara partnership.

5 The LORP controversy

The Halifax County School Board and new Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Merle Herndon, shocked school retirees in late July when they announced that the Local Option Retirement Plan (LORP) would be canceled effective immediately.

The plan, which had been in effect since 2006, encouraged longtime employees to retire early by offering them a steady source of income for up to seven years, or less — with the timeframe ultimately left to the School Board’s discretion. School personnel with 20 years of service qualified for 20 percent of their salary, provided they performed workforce services at commensurate levels, such as substitute teaching. Teachers also received health insurance through the school system and collected payment for their unused vacation and sick leave days.

The move was designed to pave the way for the hiring of a younger, lower paid workforce, thereby saving the school system money in its budget.

But Herndon pointed out that the plan would cost the schools a whopping $1,433,000 in the fiscal year, something she said the school division simply could not afford.

According to statistics furnished by the school system, the 145 employees participating in the program would have drawn $9.1 million in payments over the next seven years. Retiring School Superintendent Paul Stapleton would have been eligible to receive $221,000 over that period of time, in addition to his vacation and sick leave pay that he collected upon his retirement.

The School Board decided to use its discretion to terminate the program — immediately. But school retirees, especially those of recent vintage, called cancellation the ultimate betrayal. Those who retired just this March argued they would have acted differently had they know the promised benefits of LORP would be taken away. Many said they would never have retired if they knew the plan would be eliminated.

As 2012 draws to a close, the matter could be headed to the courtroom — a group of school retirees has hired a Richmond attorney, and the School Board has its own lawyer poised to defend the decision, should the dispute come to that.

6 New leadership in Halifax County

Several key positions in the county were filled with new faces during the past year. Industrial Development Authority Executive Director Mike Sexton decided to retire in February and was replaced by a local resident, Matt Leonard, who was unanimously approved from among 33 applicants for the position by the Authority’s board of directors.

Halifax County Administrator George Nester announced back in the spring that he, too, wanted to retire. In contrast to the IDA job, county supervisors had a tough time finding a replacement for Nester. Finally in June, they named James Halasz as the county’s new chief executive. Halasz arrived from Staunton where he had served as assistant city manager.

With the retirement of Superintendent of Schools Paul Stapleton, the School Board on a unanimous vote hired Dr. Merle Herndon of Brookneal to lead the local schools. Herndon, who started her career as a teacher, was previously Director of Professional Development and School Business Partnerships for the Lynchburg City School system.

7 New judges appointed

August brought the appointment of two new judges: then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Kim S. White was named by Gov. Bob McDonnell to the interim Circuit Court judgeship for the 10th Judicial Circuit, and Halifax lawyer Robert Morrison was named Juvenile and Domestic Relations judge, succeeding the retiring Michael Rand. In the case of White, her appointment must be approved by the General Assembly within 30 days of lawmakers returning in January for this year’s legislative session.

The 10th Judicial Circuit includes Halifax and the south-central counties of Appomattox, Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg and Prince Edward.

White takes the seat formerly held by Judge Richard S. Blanton of Farmville, who retired in 2011. Since the seat had been vacant for such a long time, court cases had been pending, leading to a backload of work for the judges.

8 School efficiency, curriculum studies released

An efficiency study for Halifax County Schools, conducted by Prismatic and ordered up by the School Board after a long and sometimes acrimonous debate, was released in early April. It called for several drastic steps, including the closure of two elementary schools, the reorganization of Central Office, cutting teaching positions and using the money to raise staff pay, along with lesser measures: buying buses, beefing up technology and filling other needs.

According to the 487-page study, the cash-strapped county school division could save some $2.75 million by implementing the 122 recommendations to come out of the study. The biggest savings would come from closing two small elementary schools — Prismatic did not identify which — as student enrollment continues to decline.

The study also suggests that another half million dollars could be saved annually by “rebalancing classroom loads” at both elementary and secondary schools — an argument, essentially, for spreading more work to fewer teachers.

A separate curriculum study, released a month later in May, offered strong praise for the division’s efforts to prepare students for life after high school, but it also cast doubt that some of its more lofty ambitions are being met. The study, carried out by the Southeast Center for Effective Schools, recommended 53 changes that the researchers said could be carried out at little or no expense to the division.

While giving generally positive marks to career and technical education, the strength of the high school’s college preparatory program drew mixed reviews.

Citing the high poverty levels locally and a population that overall has little exposure to college, the study praises HCHS’s efforts to enable high school students to earn college credits and broaden their vision through offerings such as Dual Enrollment (DE) and Advanced Placement AP classes.

But it also questioned whether the DE classes live up to their billing as requiring truly college level work. It also pointed to problems with AP classes, noting that the local passage rates on AP exams is mired at the bottom of school divisions that participate in the Virginia Advanced Study Strategies (VASS) initiative.

9 The slowly improving economy and high unemployment.

The jobless rate in Halifax County stood at an even 10 percent in January, well below the 11.4 percent level experienced a year before in January of 2011.

Bouncing around throughout most of 2012, the unemployment rate jumped to 10.3 percent in July, placing Halifax third highest among Virginia counties in terms of jobless rates.

By September, however, the numbers had improved as Halifax County’s jobless rate dropped to 9.1 percent. In October, things got even better with the rate dropping to 8.7 percent, down from last October’s rate of 9.3 percent.

10 New workforce training, research initiatives come to Halifax County

Halifax County in October hailed the debut of the National Center for Coating Application (C-CARE) at the Riverstone Energy Center. That same day, the county celebrated the formal opening of the National Tire Center Research Center at VIR, which officials hope will make Southern Virginia a one-stop destination for global tire testing and development.

Then in mid December, South Boston was chosen as the site for the Manufacturing Skills Institute. Housed at the Southern Virginia Higher Education’s Innovation Center, MSI will provide education and training which, in turn, should spur the creation of manufacturing jobs throughout Southside Virginia, say officials.

SVHEC president Dr. Betty Adams effused that Halifax County is becoming a destination for workforce training, not just for the region or the state, but for the whole nation — a prospect she called “very exciting.”

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