IRS saga was top local news story for 2012

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

For the second year in a row, the city's ongoing crusade to resolve its multi-million dollar payroll tax to the IRS ranked as the top local news story of the year, as voted on by the CN staff. As city officials worked throughout the year to resolve the issue, the crisis loomed like a shadow over everything else that went on in the community.

The IRS crisis was clearly the top story, receiving all but two first-place votes among CN staffers, and being the only story to appear on every ballot.

Aside from the IRS saga, the year's headlines were dominated by election news, changes at Arkansas Northeastern College and several controversial issues.

Here's a look at the top 10 local stories of 2012:

1. IRS Saga.

City officials were literally told they were delusional if they thought the 15-month, 1-cent IRS tax would pass. It did ... 60 percent to 40 percent in March. The city will use the tax to pay the $3,117,321.10 payroll tax debt, after the IRS abated $700,281.90 in penalties in December. The tax is projected to generate $3.5 million, leaving a potential surplus from the 1-cent tax of $382,678.90. The tax began collecting in March and it gave Mayor James Sanders and the city's tax attorney, Baker Donelson, a negotiating tool with the Internal Revenue Service, which finally accepted a settlement agreement in December. The payroll tax issue arose in March 2011 and officials spent the next 20 months working on getting it resolved.

2. BHS student killed.

18-year old Blytheville High School student Miguel Estrada was gunned down in the 1100 block of Holly Street while walking home from school one afternoon in December. The shooter, a 16-year old male, is being charged with first-degree murder and will be tried as an adult. The shooting was apparently not a random act of violence, as the two had a history of threats between them.

3. Highway 18 project.

Construction on the new Highway 18 overpass, located adjacent to Ash Street, continued throughout 2012. After several months of loud noise and heavy pounding earlier in the year, the overpass is starting to take shape. At last report, the project was on schedule to be completed by late 2013 to early 2014.

4. Hodges elected state rep.

City councilman Monte Hodges beat out local business owner Mary Gay Shipley for the position of District 55's state representative. The victory was fairly close, with Hodges pulling out an approximate 56 percent of the vote. The June election also resulted in some questions regarding legal usage of absentee voting, especially in the south end of Mississippi County, and the county Election Commission sending some ballots to Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington for investigation.

5. Myers out, Shemwell in at ANC.

In late June, Dr. Robin Myers left his position as president at Arkansas Northeastern College after being named the new chancellor of Arkansas State University-Mountain Home. In Myers' absence, the ANC board of trustees named executive vice president June Walters as interim president while the school school conducted a nationwide search for Myers' replacement. After six months of sifting through numerous applications and conducting a number of interviews, the board of trustees named Dr. James Shemwell as the institution's new president, meeting its original goal of having the position filled by Jan. 1, 2013. Shemwell had been ANC's vice president for finance.

6. Teacher sex scandals.

Blytheville High School teachers Seth Parson and Ashley Wolfe were both allegedly involved in illegal relationships with students who were minors. These allegations only added to the personnel controversy the district faced in 2012. Both Parsons and Wolfe resigned from their positions with the Blytheville School District.

7. R.L. Jones-water bills.

City Councilman R.L. Jones made headlines in February when a Courier News investigative report indicated he frequently had the water bills of his constituents adjusted during his previous stint in office. The adjustments were recorded in the financial journal of the Waterworks, and show some customers' debts reduced or completely deleted. Several entries were found in the January 2010 financial journal in which customers' debts, in amounts ranging from $200 to $400, were adjusted completely away, with notation by employees that read "per councilman Jones." Jones claimed "those with hardships" that the water department helped paid their original amounts, they were just set up on payment plans. Jones was a city councilman for 16 years until giving up his Ward 3 seat at the end of 2010. In November, he won the seat again.

8. Mosleys leave city.

Former City of Blytheville Public Works director Rick Mosley resigned on June 28, a couple of months after after his son, Matt Mosley, resigned from the water department. Rick Mosley had worked for the city for nearly 14 years. Former Blytheville water plant manager Matt Mosley resigned in April after 13 years with the city. Both men were controversial figures.

9. County budget woes.

Members of Mississippi County's Quorum Court struggled through the last quarter of the year to create a balanced budget for 2013. With falling population and revenues, the county faced the possibility of ending the year in the red. Contributing to the county's financial losses was the still unpaid jail fee debt of more than $600,000 owed by the city of Blytheville. Once tax hikes were enacted, along with extreme spending cuts, a hiring freeze and a few layoffs, the county was able to end 2012 in the black and pass a balanced budget for 2013.

10. Absentee ballot irregularities.

In May and June, an election and runoff held for several state-level positions stirred up questions and subsequent investigation regarding the use of absentee ballots in Mississippi County. An unusually high number of voters registered absentee led to questions by county election officials, which were then investigated by the CN, resulting in an investigation by the Arkansas State Police. The investigation is ongoing.

Top local stories in previous years are as follows:

2011: IRS saga
2010: New mayor, county judge elected
2009: Ice storm paralyzes region
2008: High gas prices irk local motorists
2007: Voters OK parks and rec tax
2006: Local job growth
2005: Hurricane Katrina impact felt locally
2004: Presidential campaign reaches MissCo
2003: War in Iraq has local impact
2002: Blytheville Schools adopt school uniforms