01/01/09 — Top news stories of 2008

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Top news stories of 2008

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on January 1, 2009 1:46 PM

For many, a new year brings with it the offer of a clean slate -- a chance to move beyond the failures and misfortunes of the previous 365 days.

But the aftertaste of 2008 will likely linger for some time.

Wayne County residents won't soon forget just how much it cost to fill the family vehicle when gasoline prices spiked over $4 a gallon.

A Kenly man will relive the night a tornado killed his wife, a Goldsboro man, the day his son was shot.

And some will still wonder, well into 2009, how car dealerships and businesses that once prospered in their town lost everything.

Others might look beyond the negative.

They will remember the night America elected its first black president.

They will look back at the career of a longtime Wayne senator and friend who retired and smile.

They will go back to the night a theater rose from its ashes, the day airmen came home from war.

Here are some of the events we won't soon forget -- the best and worst of 2008 in Wayne.

1. U.S. AND WAYNE COUNTY HEAD INTO RECESSION: After months of economic downturn, the National Bureau of Economic Research officially declared that the United States has been in a year-long recession on Dec. 1. The effects of the slide were felt in Wayne County, too, where Hilex Poly in Mount Olive was the largest company to go out of business and unemployment in Wayne County reached a 17-year high of 6.9 percent in July. Then, in December, local car dealerships also struggled as automakers sought help from Congress, with Goldsboro Chrysler Dodge Jeep being the first to close its doors. Additionally, fuel prices took a toll on everyone from farmers to fighter pilots to soccer moms as gas climbed over $4 a gallon locally before dropping, by late December, back under $2.

2. NEW FACES ELECTED TO PUBLIC OFFICE: November's elections not only saw history being made with the selections of President-elect Barack Obama and Governor-elect Beverly Perdue, it also saw turnover among local seats. Among the new faces in the state legislature are Senator-elect Don Davis, D-Greene, replacing retiring Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne; Senator-elect David Rouzer, R-Johnston, replacing Sen. Fred Smith, R-Johnston; and Representative-elect Efton Sager, R-Wayne, replacing Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne. Included in the new faces on the county Board of Commissioners are Democrat Sandra McCullen, replacing retired Atlas Price in the at-large seat; and Republican Steve Keen, replacing Sager.

3. MOC BASEBALL WINS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP: Mount Olive and the rest of Wayne County rallied behind the Mount Olive College Trojans as the players pitched and hit their way to the NCAA Division II national baseball championship -- the first championship in the program's history. The Trojans defeated Ouachita (Ark.) Baptist to win the title.

4. CHERRY HOSPITAL LOSES FEDERAL FUNDING: Cherry Hospital, a state psychiatric facility, lost its federal funding -- about $800,000 a month -- after being decertified by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Sept. 1. The move occurred after the hospital failed to come into compliance with patient health and safety standards after being placed in immediate jeopardy following an investigation into the death of Steven Sabock, who was left unattended in a chair in a dayroom for 22 hours. The incident also led to the hiring of outside consultants, Compass Group Inc. of Cincinnati, to evaluate the facility. Then, Dec. 12, hospital director Dr. Jack St. Clair announced he was stepping down and on Dec. 17, Carl Fitch, a consultant with Compass, was named interim director. He officially takes over the position today.

5. JOHN KERR ENDS TIME IN OFFICE: After 22 years in the state General Assembly, John Kerr's last regular session ended July 18. During the year he was honored by a number of organizations and civic groups including the Tuscarora Boy Scout Council and most recently, Rebuilding Broken Places Community Development Corp. He also was honored by the state Finance Committee and the rest of the Legislature.

6. PARAMOUNT THEATRE, CITY HALL OPEN: Less than three years after being destroyed by fire, the Paramount Theatre re-opened along Center Street to thunderous applause from the hundreds who turned out for its opening gala. Reconstruction of the facility was spearheaded by local businessman David Weil. But the Paramount was not the only project that got attention in 2008. A multi-million dollar renovation of Goldsboro's original City Hall also was completed, and officials have just finished the first phase of the Union Station project, which aims to bring rail service back through a town once known for it.

7. GOLDSBORO ANNEXATION FINALIZED: After fighting annexation by the city of Goldsboro for four years, residents living along Salem Church and Buck Swamp roads lost their battle when the North Carolina Supreme Court declined to review the decision made by the state Court of Appeals. The state Court of Appeals found in favor of the city in a brief filed in January, saying that the previous judge, Judge Ripley Rand, made the correct decision in June 2007 when he said the city had met all the legal requirements necessary under state law to bring the area into the city limits.

8. WAYNE COUNTY COMMISSION'S SALES TAX PROPOSAL DEFEATED: Wayne County voters in May left no doubt about their distaste for a proposed one-quarter cent sales tax increase, voting down the measure by a lopsided margin of 18,669 to 4,012 -- or 82 percent no to 18 percent yes. Revenues from the tax were expected to bring in about $2 million annually and were to go intially toward building a new county communication system.

9. GOLDSORO FIRE CHIEF LEAVESPOST: Goldsboro Fire Chief Alvin Ward left his post amid allegations that stemmed from a consultant's report on the operation of the department. In its conclusions, Wilder Consulting found, "substantial problems with how employees are managed ... a significant lack of openness and trust ... (general confusion by employees) about many decisions and practices of the department ... (concerns by employees) about what they believe to be disparate treatment ... (and concerns by employees) about safety issues associated with having to use equipment that needs repairs or replacing, and the absence of sufficient numbers of radios at fire scenes." The report further concluded that the department's whole operation was at risk, saying: "By any objective measures, there are major employee morale problems. ... Based on numerous comments from employees, these morale problems have resulted in loss of productivity, employee ill-will with each other, and employee turnover."

10. COL. STEVE KWAST PASSES COMMAND OF 4TH FIGHTER WING TO COL. MARK KELLY: There was never any doubt that Col. Steve Kwast would relinquish command of the 4th Fighter Wing in 2008. But when a general died at a base in Alaska, plans did change. Kwast stayed on as commander for several additional weeks after his replacement, Col. Thomas Bergeson, was reassigned to Elmendorf Air Force Base, to replace the late Brig. Gen. Thomas Tinsley, who died July 27 from a gunshot wound. But in the end, Air Force officials named a replacement they all agreed was among the best of the best -- Col. Mark Kelly, who came to Goldsboro straight from a tour at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, where he commanded an F-15E Strike Eagle. And it was a homecoming of sorts, as Kelly formerly served with 4th fighter squadrons.