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SPLOST, new businesses, new 3rd ID commander highlight 2015
Top stories of the year
Clockwise from top right: Liberty County officials say farewell to teams from Fireball Run on Oct. 2 after they completed two days of filming for the online reality shows upcoming season. People line up outside the new Zaxbys restaurant on East Oglethorpe Highway in Hinesville on Jan. 26 hoping to earn free meals. Then-Fort Stewart garrison commander Col. Kevin Gregory embraces a Vietnam veteran June 19 before the veterans were welcomed home on Cottrell Field. A new, larger Liberty County branch of Live Oak Public Libraries is under construction on Memorial Drive in Hinesville. Then-Maj. Gen. Mike Murray, right, shakes the hand of Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commanding general of XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, N.C., after receiving an award during a retreat ceremony Aug. 7 in Marne Garden on Fort Stewart. Former Hinesville mayor Allen Brown celebrates winning the 2015 mayoral runoff election Dec. 1. - photo by File photo

As part of its review of 2015, the Coastal Courier looks at countywide issues that made headlines.

Liberty County residents voted down the Special Purpose Local Options Sales tax in November 2014. Voters were split down the middle with 49.49 percent voting yes and 50.51 percent voting no. The county stopped collecting the tax April 1, 2015. Since the rejection, county officials have been discussing and laying the groundwork to put a new SPLOST before voters again during the general election in November 2016. At a SPLOST meeting on March 23, attendees saw a description of proposed projects, heard about the benefits of SPLOST and identified key individuals to help with renewal efforts. Local officials and leaders discussed starting a grassroots campaign for SPLOST and one-to-one outreach at the annual countywide planning workshop on St. Simons Island in April. The Board of Commissioners held open meetings with the public to discuss the renewal of SPLOST and to gather input from members of the public and local government officials. In July, roads — dirt and paved — were the focus of another SPLOST meeting. County commissioners discussed paving dirt roads and repairing paved roads that fell into disrepair and how funds should be allocated to pay for road improvements. At the county-wide planning workshop midyear review, County Administrator Joey Brown estimated then that if SPLOST VI were approved, it would raise
$55 million over six years. He said SPLOST funds could go toward roads and that there was some public interest in retiring bonded debt such as the Justice Center, Hinesville City Hall and the Mid-Coast Regional Airport. Brown said that the commissioners also are looking at ways to simplify the language on the ballot for SPLOST.

County budget issues
With SPLOST VI not passing, a falling digest and the county millage rate staying the same, the county was over budget by $1,040,823. County Chief Financial Officer Kim McGlothlin adjusted the original
$27.8 million budget, which had been adopted in June, to $28.2 million. To address budget issues, the Board of Commissioners cut promotions, raises and a transport deputy position. Commissioners voted to only use reserve funds for purchases that are deemed necessary. They agreed to use reserve funds to purchase new patrol cars for the Sheriff’s Office and longevity pay for county employees.

New library branch
Construction on the new Live Oak Public Libraries’ Hinesville branch is underway. Ground was broken on the 20,000-square-foot, $4.7 million facility in March 2015. The site of the library, next to the current library on Memorial Drive, was once a Napa Auto Parts Store. The store was used by the city as a voter registration building while the Liberty County Courthouse underwent renovations. After falling into disuse, the property was chosen as the site for the new library. The new facility will have two floors, feature more computer areas, a reading and storytelling area for children and study rooms. At a recent Board of Commissioners meeting, County Administrator Joey Brown said phase I construction of the facility is expected to be complete by March, with phase II set to follow. Phase II is the conversion of the old library into a parking lot. An opening date for the new library has not yet been announced.

Community policing forum
Racial profiling was hot topic at a Community Policing Awareness forum hosted by the Liberty County Branch of the NAACP. Liberty County Sheriff Steve Sikes said during the meeting that he wasn’t aware of any profiling. Then-Walthourville Police Chief Tracy McFadden disagreed and said he experienced racism firsthand in Liberty. The forum panel consisted of law-enforcement representatives and local high school students. Graylan Quarterman, the president of the local NAACP, said the event was designed to build a relationship between the community members and law-enforcement agencies. The forum was in response to the protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri, over the fatal shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black, by Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, in 2014. Quarterman wanted the forum to prevent a similar incident from happening in Liberty County by allowing the community and law enforcement to engage in healthy conversation in which residents can ask questions and voice concerns. After the forum, Quarterman said he planned to approach Sikes and Liberty County mayors of about forming a community-partnership group that will share information about community issues.

‘Fireball Run’
“Fireball Run,” an online adventure travel reality series, was filmed in Hinesville and around Liberty County. The show filmed part of its upcoming ninth season, called “Space Race.” The reality show featured 40 teams, including celebrities and four international astronauts, who raced down the East Coast to raise awareness for missing children. Driving teams were given clues about different cultural and historical sites in the county and completed a task on arrival. Residents greeted the racers at the finish line in downtown Hinesville and saw them off early the next day at the starting line on Main Street.

BoE presents balanced budget
The Liberty County Board of Education presented a balanced budget for fiscal-year 2016. In April, district Chief Financial Officer Roger Reese projected that the district would receive $97.7 million in revenue and spend $96.7, leaving a $1 million fund balance. That came as good news to the district, which earlier this year faced a variety of budget issues that involved: a hiring freezing, job cuts and transferring four teachers from the Liberty County Pre-K Center to fill vacancies at elementary schools. Those educators earned salaries that were significantly higher than what the state funds for prekindergarten teachers. Recently, the board set the fiscal 2016 millage rate at 15.88 mills — the same rate as in 2014, but 0.23 mill higher than that of fiscal 2015.
No school furlough days
Liberty County School System Superintendent Dr. Valya Lee announced that there would be no furlough days for the 2015-16 school year. The Georgia Department of Education’s budget provided
$152 million to schools for enrollment growth, training and experience. GaDOE spokesman Matt Cardoza said Gov. Nathan Deal and legislatures asked that school districts use the funds to eliminate furlough days.

Charter system
The Liberty County School System officially became a charter system July 1. The charter system is designed to give schools flexibility in identifying the needs of their specific school population and more control in decision-making. For example, principals can set the daily schedules to allow for extra reading and math instruction. The district will implement new innovations over time that are a part of the charter-system contract. Those include: a course for high-school credit provided at middle schools; an increase in fine-arts opportunities; a reading transition course in high school; and creation of digital content in core-content areas. Governance teams were established at the schools and have been meeting regularly.
Pipeline controversy
Kinder Morgan, a Texas-based energy company, proposed building 360 miles of petroleum pipeline, to be called the Palmetto Pipeline, from Belton, South Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida. Eighteen miles of the pipeline would run through Liberty County and 2 miles through Long County. Kinder Morgan tried to persuade communities that building the pipeline would contribute to lower gas prices, safer roads and provide employment opportunities. The Palmetto Pipeline faced much opposition from residents, property owners, and a coalition of organizations that included the Ogeechee and Savannah riverkeepers and Center for a Sustainable Coast. The Georgia Department of Transportation denied a certificate of public convenience and necessity, which is required for the pipeline to be built. The certificate would have allowed Kinder Morgan to employ eminent domain to pass the pipeline through properties whose owners failed to reach an agreement with the company. Palmetto Products Pipe Line LLC, which is owned by Kinder Morgan, filed an appeal in Fulton County Superior Court in June. The case was heard in November, and a decision is expected in early 2016.  

Special BoE election
Dr. Yvette Keel was elected to the Liberty County Board of Education District 6 in a special election after Sampie Smith abruptly resigned. Smith won the seat in November 2014 and resigned in February 2015, citing personal reasons for his departure. Keel, a retired educator, faced off against Justin McCartney, an accountant for Gulfstream, for the open seat. Although voter turnout was low, in the end, Keel won with 140 votes to 65 votes for McCartney. Keel said she was thrilled with winning and hoped to bring change to the Board of Education.

Zaxby’s opens
Zaxby’s opened its first store in Liberty County across the street from the VA clinic on Oglethorpe Highway. The store gave away one menu item per week for a year to the first 100 customers as a way to celebrate its grand opening. By 9 a.m. Jan. 26, the line extended into the parking lot, and the first customer said he had been there since 11:30 p.m. the night before.

Long-overdue homecoming
An estimated 800 Vietnam Veterans from around the region converged June 19 on Fort Stewart’s Cottrell Field to be officially welcomed home during the 50th anniversary of the war. The veterans walked across the field to the cheers of the Fort Stewart community and family and friends. NBC News also highlighted the ceremony.

New garrison commander
Fort Stewart Garrison Commander Col. Kevin Gregory relinquished command July 1 to Col. Townley Hedrick after three years in the job. During Gregory’s tenure, the garrison won the Army Community of Excellence Award in 2015, recognizing Fort Stewart as the best installation in the Army. At the end of the ceremony, a long line of community members waited to say their farewells to Gregory and his wife, Gabby.

New 3rd ID commander
Then-Maj. Gen. Mike Murray, 3rd Infantry Division’s commanding general, relinquished command Aug. 1 to Maj. Gen. James Rainey at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. The Fort Stewart community said goodbye to the outgoing general before he left for his new job in Washington and was promoted to lieutenant general. Rainey commanded 3rd ID from Afghanistan for more than three months until the last group came home on Veterans Day.  

Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market opens
The first of two Hinesville Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets opened Sept. 9 on West Oglethorpe Highway in Hinesville. It was reported in June that the store would be hiring up to 95 workers. The store features a gas station as well as a pharmacy, and garden center, according to its website. The store brought access to groceries to an area without many similar stores and is open 24 hours, seven days a week.

2nd Brigade goes to JRTC
2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, trained for several months this year before heading to the Joint Readiness Training Center on Fort Polk, Louisiana to validate its skills at the brigade level. A Coastal Courier reporter embedded with the brigade during its last week in “the box” and saw firsthand life in the field and obstacles soldiers must overcome to accomplish a mission. The brigade then took on its new mission as a regionally aligned brigade with Africa Command for the next year. The brigade will send soldiers to different African countries for a variety of missions.

New Hinesville mayor and council members
As the second term of Mayor Jim Thomas came to a close, Hinesville residents voted in the December runoff election for former mayor Allen Brown over Mayor Pro-tem Charles Frasier. Frasier had been on the City Council for 28 years and the defeat also saw the end of his term. Council member David Anderson Sr. retired his seat, leaving it open for Vicky Nelson, who also won during the runoff, and Frasier’s seat went to Diana Reid. The inauguration ceremony for mayor and council will be at noon Monday.

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