1. Job losses at the fore in 2012
If the year 2012 will be remembered for anything here in Perry County, it will likely be the jobs lost over the past 12 months, both in the coal industry and outside of it.
The year opened with the announcement that the Hazard K-Mart would close, while a handful of other businesses would see their doors close over the course of the new year. But the biggest hit to the local economy came when hundreds of jobs were lost in the coal industry.
In January, Perry County Coal cut 13 percent of its local workforce – about 85 employees – and just this past month issued another round of layoffs, this time cutting 156 employees at the company’s Hazard location.
Though none of their operations were in Perry County, it was only days later in January when Alpha Natural Resources announced in February that four mines would be idled or closed in he region, resulting in a reduction of four million tons of coal flowing to the market annually. Approximately 168 employees in Eastern Kentucky were affected.
As the year progressed, more companies announced more layoffs. In March, Arch Coal eliminated 44 positions in Perry County, and in June the company issued layoffs to another 750 employees in the region, many from here in Perry County.
And while these instances do not include every instance of job reduction in the coal fields, in nearly every example listed above company spokespeople noted that there simply wasn’t as large of a demand for coal in 2012, due in part to a mild winter and the drop in prices for natural gas.
As a result of the layoffs and the reduced production of coal, officials warned that coal severance funds, which have for years paid for things like waterline expansion and other infrastructure development, will be cut dramatically. Additionally, unemployment in Perry County topped off at 13 percent, the highest rate of joblessness in the county since 1995.
2. Superintendent’s abrupt retirement from county schools
There were a lot of changes in education for Perry County in 2012, from the new state accountability standards to ongoing construction at both of the local school districts. But it was a shakeup at the Perry County district’s central office that caught the most attention from the community, most specifically when longtime Superintendent John Paul Amis announced his retirement.
Amis, who earlier in 2012 had been named the Kentucky School Board Association’s’ top superintendent, had reportedly been under a growing amount of pressure from the local school board following a string of incidents, including a cheating scandal at Perry Central High School and then the school’s subsequent listing as a persistently low-achieving school by the Kentucky Department of Education.
Following weeks of speculation, and an announcement that the board would take up Amis’s future employment (he was contracted to serve as superintendent until 2016) during a special called meeting, Amis abruptly announced his retirement in early October, effective Nov. 1.
Amis later acknowledged in an interview with the Herald that an apparent difference of opinion has arisen with the board, which played a role in his decision to retire well before his contract was slated to expire.
Amis’s retirement led to the appointment of Jonathan Jett as the district’s interim superintendent. To date, the board has not formed a search committee for Amis’s eventual replacement, though the board has expressed that someone will be in place before the beginning of the 2013-14 school year.
3. Indictment returned in missing tax money case
For many, it was a long time coming when in October an indictment was returned against a former sheriff’s office employee accused of stealing more than $500,000 in tax money over several years.
Lana Dean remains innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, though her indictment by the Perry County Grand Jury was an indication that the investigation into the missing money had not been swept under the rug.
The money was found to be missing back in a 2008 audit from the state auditor’s office, which was forwarded to the FBI, Kentucky Attorney General, and other agencies for possible criminal charges. The federal investigation was reportedly dropped when the statute of limitations on a federal felony had expired, which led the attorney general’s office to pick up the case. There is no limitation on felony crimes in Kentucky.
The criminal case is currently making its way through the judicial system. Dean has pleaded not guilty to a charge of abuse of the public trust, and is set to go to trial on Monday, Aug. 12, 2013.
4. Homeless shelter reopens after community effort
Each year in Perry County something happens that brings the community together. In 2011 it was a structure fire at an apartment building in Hazard just before the Christmas holiday. This year, it was the possibility that the city’s homeless would have to face this winter largely without the aid of the local Corner Haven homeless shelter.
It was in May when Community Ministries, a non-profit which operates the shelter, announced that services at Corner Haven would be scaled back. In essence, the shelter would only provide emergency services, taking in people overnight who would then have to leave the shelter during the day.
The reduction of services was caused by a lack of funding, but after two open meetings in September with community leaders on how best to address this lack of funds, a generous outpouring of community support in the form of monetary donations followed.
By November, the shelter reopened to provide a full array of services, including those during the day, giving Hazard’s homeless a place for shelter during the winter months.
5. Election brings Obama back to office
On the local scene there were few races in which voters could cast their ballots in 2012. Even still, this year’s election was an important one.
At the top of the ballot was a contest that would decide the fate of not only Perry County, but the nation as a whole. President Barack Obama was re-elected for another four years in office, soundly defeating Republican challenger Mitt Romney during November’s general election.
Obama’s re-election, though like his 2008 run was again historic in nature, came with some uncertainty here in Perry County, where the President is seen as anti-coal with recent moves made by the Environmental Protection Agency that many predict will help curtail the practice of surface coal mining in Appalachia.
Locally, there were only a handful of races with two candidates vying for votes in the general election. Incumbent Commonwealth’s Attorney Teresa Reed lost her bid for re-election to Republican John Hansen, while political newcomer Charles Patterson captured his first term in office as circuit clerk.
In the city of Hazard, the city commission will have a different make-up beginning in 2013 as Commissioner Lou Ella Farler opted not to run for re-election. Ricky Steele will be filling that seat on the commission.
And for the residents of the city of Vicco, changes could be on the horizon as Mayor Johnny Cummings won a full two-year term in office.
6. Light shines on special districts
Though it was a statewide effort, in November the state auditor’s office released the results of Auditor Adam Edelen’s initiative to map every special district in the state. In Perry County that includes several districts governed by their own board of directors, including the library, LKLP, and the soil conservation district. There had never been an effort like this one before, to shine a light on what Edelen called a layer of government that had before been operating in the dark. Edelen’s initiative resulted in a more transparent government and an online tool that Kentucky residents can use to see how many special districts are in their county, their budgets, and who serves on the boards of directors.
7. Earthquake rattles the region
Eastern Kentucky hadn’t had a noticeable one for a while now, but when a 4.3 magnitude earthquake centered near Whitesburg rattled the region on Nov. 10, lots of people took notice. The U.S. Geological Survey confirmed the quake just a few minutes after it struck. The tremor caused some very minor damage at the East Perry Elementary School under construction on Ky. 80, and several Herald readers reported that the quake shook dishes from their shelves or knocked pictures from their walls.
8. Animal shelter outbreak
Community members in Perry County were shocked in July when an outbreak of canine distemper forced officials at the Kentucky River Regional Animal Shelter to euthanize nearly all of the shelter’s dogs, almost 200 animals in total. The shelter closed its doors and workers began an all-out effort to disinfect the building and prevent any future outbreaks. Officials also instituted new protocols at the shelter, and after several days it re-opened and began accepting new animals and placing them up for adoption.
9. ACT investigation comes to a close
It was in 2010 when news broke that a national testing organization had cancelled several tests from Perry Central High School due to apparent cheating. It was in 2012 when the results of the Education Professional Standards Board’s investigation into those allegations were released. The standards board in January issued the first of four disciplinary measures in the case, which involved temporarily suspended education certificates. In a fifth case the board declined to issue any disciplinary charges against the school’s former principal.
10. Community Foundation expands mission
Just a few years ago the Community Foundation of Hazard and Perry County got off the ground and began building. What the foundation was building turned out to be the capacity to help turn around the region’s impoverishment and build a better economy. It is still very early in the foundation’s mission, but in February Director Gerry Roll announced their next step as the Community Foundation of Hazard and Perry County became the Community Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, and its mission expanded to incorporate the efforts of other counties in Eastern Kentucky. Though this story is one that flew under the radar for much of the year, it could very well have ripple effects in Perry County for years to come.