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2009: A Year In Review Part 3

| Thursday, Dec. 31, 2009

July

• Moments before he died in a fatal crash July 23, a helicopter pilot was frantically yelling to his boss on the ground. "From what I was told, he was screaming to him," said Sgt. Ken Vogel of state police at Uniontown. The pilot, a Las Vegas resident, died when his helicopter crashed into a field on Summit Mountain in Fayette County. He was involved in doing seismic work for Dominion Transmission Inc. when the helicopter plunged to the ground off Kirby Road, in a section of Wharton Township where Dominion has underground natural gas wells in Forbes State Forest.

• The state budget impasse probably has kept between 50 and 60 veterans from being admitted to the Pennsylvania State Veterans' Home System during the past two weeks, according to a government spokesman. The vets are at the top of a waiting list of about 400 people, Kevin Cramsey of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs said. About 1,600 disabled and chronically ill veterans and their spouses live in the system's six homes. Lawmakers and Gov. Ed Rendell are trying to close a $3.2 billion deficit through higher taxes and/or spending cuts. Nurses in the veterans' homes are among thousands of state workers who are not being paid for days worked since the impasse began July 1.

• More than 75 taxpayers packed the room July 23 for the Fayette County commissioners meeting, serving as visual proof of the controversy surrounding a proposed property reassessment that has been in the works for three years. With a deadline for property owners to file assessment appeals a week away, the commissioners voted to spend about $35,000 to print and send postcards and update information on the county's Web site to help residents determine how much their county taxes may change in 2010. Chairman Vincent Zapotosky and Commissioner Vincent Vicites voted to send the postcards to taxpayers next week. Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink opposed the measure. The last countywide reassessment was in 2003.

• The 75th anniversary of Norvelt opened July 24 with invited guests flocking to the Roosevelt Hall for a potluck dinner mixed with nostalgia memories. The reunion of the Original Westmoreland Homesteaders welcomed about 140 past residents of the small village of Norvelt that is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The annual event is now celebrating its 13th year.

• John Lipchik, principal of St. Bernard School in Indiana the past four years, has been named principal of Geibel Catholic Middle-High School in Connellsville. Lipchik succeeds Vincent Mascia, who is retiring from the Diocese of Greensburg's Catholic schools after 24 years at Geibel, the past eight as principal.

• The largest shareholder of the bankrupt Anchor Glass Container Corp. settled a class-action lawsuit July 24 with 248 former employees for $480,000. The employees sued after they claimed the Connellsville plant did not give the required 60 days notice when the plant closed Nov. 4, 2004 and laid off more than 300 employees. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they could seek up to 40 percent of the settlement for attorneys fees, leaving $288,000 to be split among the 248 workers, or $1,161 each. The workers sued New York-based Cerberus Capital Management, the company's largest investor, in 2006. A prior lawsuit against Anchor was wiped out after the company filed for bankruptcy in August 2005. The lawsuit claimed the company violated the federal Worker Adjustment Training and Notification Act, which requires 60 days advance notice of a plant closure, according to the lawsuit. Cerberus invested $80 million into Anchor during a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in August 2002.

• On the 29th day of a state budget impasse, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell delivered an ultimatum to legislative leaders in an effort to create political leverage for additional state spending. If they don't agree on a budget, Rendell said he would put into motion a plan to sign a partial budget and veto funding for public education and all appropriations for the General Assembly. He would enact a portion of the budget for "core public health and safety functions," said Rendell's chief of staff, Steve Crawford. That would enable the state to pay most employees, Crawford said.

• Commissioners held a joint news conference July 30 to announce they will not proceed with the controversial reassessment of some 80,000 properties, which would have updated the county's base year from 2001 to 2008. Although Chief Assessor Jim Hercik had estimated that 60 percent of taxpayers would experience reductions or no change to their taxes with the new assessments, property owners who knew their values were set to double or triple were unconvinced. More than 7,500 appeals had been filed. Hercik said his office is planning to notify taxpayers via postcards that their assessments will revert to the 2001 values. The reassessment took two years to complete at a cost Hercik estimated at $625,000. Hercik said although the reassessment has been canceled, data gathered for it is still useful to his office for mapping and other purposes. Commissioners canceled the reassessment despite assurances from the firm that reviewed it, Resource Technologies Corp. of State College, that the new valuations are accurate.

August

• "Funk Fest" became one big bust this weekend at the Church of Universal Love and Music. The Fayette County Drug Task Force conducted a drug raid on the self-proclaimed nondenominational church's 147-acre property in Bullskin. It resulted in the arrests of 23 people and the seizure of enough marijuana, hash brownies, hallucinogenic mushrooms, LSD, laughing gas and drug paraphernalia to pack two storage trailers with a capacity of about 3,000 pounds, District Attorney Nancy Vernon said. Dozens of bags, boxes and plastic cases containing contraband were on display at a news conference.

• In an effort to gain political leverage, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell on Aug. 5 vetoed $12.9 billion in a stopgap state budget bill, for services including help for autistic children, mental health services, child care and rape crisis programs. Rendell said he took the action to have "leverage on the Legislature" to enact a budget that makes substantial investments in public education and avoids a deficit next year. The governor signed an $11 billion partial state budget, which he said funds only "critical public health and safety services," such as the state prison system and state police. About 77,000 state employees, who received partial paychecks or missed one paycheck entirely, will be paid.

• Mark Riggin, the coach of the Geibel baseball team for the past six seasons, has resigned.

• Claiming he is mired in a losing battle fraught with politics, Fayette County Veterans Affairs Director Floyd "Wayne" Coddington is quitting, making him the sixth person in five years to depart the post.

• The Fayette County Coroner's Office ruled Aug. 17 that a woman died from burn injuries in a fire Aug. 15 that destroyed the home where she lived with her husband. Dorothy Ann "Dottie" Ward, 78, was sleeping on the living room couch of her home at 192 Rocky Ridge Road in a remote area in Saltlick when the fire began just after 2 a.m., state police said. Her husband, 83-year-old John Ward, escaped but suffered burns to his feet, hands and arms trying to get back into the home to save his wife, police said. H

• The Fayette County Zoning Hearing Board has denied a mining company a special exception for a strip mine near Ohiopyle State Park. Board members Mark Rafail and Jim Burns Aug. 19 voted to deny the request from Amerikohl Mining.

• A Fayette County judge denies a request by the Connellsville Property Owners' Association for a preliminary injunction to halt a Connellsville City Council ordinance regarding rental properties. The association filed a civil lawsuit against the city in June, claiming the new landlord ordinance was unconstitutional. Council passed the Landlord Registration Ordinance in April after finding that half the city's 4,425 houses are rentals owned by landlords who live outside the city, according to a copy of the ordinance. Council wanted to address alleged property-code violations at the rental units, as well as a 38 percent increase in police calls to the units compared with a 16 percent decline in such calls citywide. The ordinance requires landlords who live more than 15 miles outside Connellsville to appoint property managers who live within 15 miles of the city. Landlords must register their units with the city, pay annual fees for licensing and inspections, and regulate tenants' behavior in shared common areas, among other requirements. Tenants are required to register with the city within 10 days of signing a lease. Their homes are subject to inspection "upon reasonable notice" by the city's code enforcement officer, according to the ordinance. In its lawsuit, the association contended the ordinance violated due process and equal protection guarantees under the state and federal constitutions, permitted illegal searches, abused police powers and violated rights to privacy, among other claims. In a split vote July 9, city council maintained the ordinance. Solomon ruled that the association had "failed to meet its burden of proof." Among his reasons for denying the injunction were failure to show that an injunction was needed to prevent "immediate and irreparable harm that cannot be adequately compensated by damages" and failure to demonstrate "that a preliminary injunction would not adversely affect the public interest."

September

• The federal government has agreed to pay about $9.5 million for the remaining land needed to complete the Flight 93 National Memorial by the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar.

• Two Fayette County commissioners said they want nonessential employees and elected officials — including themselves — to take pay cuts so funding can be diverted to human services programs until a state budget is passed. Commissioners Vincent Zapotosky and Vincent Vicites met Sept. 1 with department heads and row officers to discuss contingency plans to maintain transportation, child and mental health programs during the budget stalemate.

• Dive teams continued the search Sept. 1 for a Perryopolis man who presumably drowned the afternoon of Aug. 31 at Youghiogheny Dam Reservoir in Somerset County. Richard Makovich, 47, was in a 16-foot aluminum boat Aug. 31 with his mother, Constance Makovich, 69, when he reportedly fell out of the vessel near the boat launch area, said Emil Svetahor, law enforcement manager for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

• Call it a case of mistaken identity. Fayette County 911 received calls the evening of Sept. 2 of a tiger on the loose in the area of Carr and Rankin Air Shaft roads in North Union. The "tiger" had not escaped from the Wild Animal Orphanage nor from Camelot Veterinary Clinic, both run by Dr. William Sheperd. All their big cats were accounted for. The cat was considerably smaller — a domestic tabby.

• The Connellsville Area School District did not make Adequate Yearly Progress under federal No Child Left Behind legislation. Individual schools did meet Adequate Yearly Progress goals, but the last time the district as a whole did so was 2006. The Pennsylvania Department of Education released AYP reports Sept. 3.

• Uniontown maintained possession of the coveted Coal Bucket, rallying to earn a 7-6 nonconference win over host Connellsville Sept. 4. Ronald Skinner scored on a 3-yard run with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, and Lucas Mosco added the all-important extra point to give the Red Raiders the lead and, ultimately, the victory. Uniontown takes the lead in the Coal Bucket series, 35-34-9.

• President Barack Obama's speech slated to be aired live at noon Sept. 8 to students across the nation has caused school district phones to ring with parents voicing anger, opinions and apprehensions. The speech, which is reported to be focused on the president's urging of students to stay in school, work hard, and take responsibility for their education, has caused an upheaval from area parents, many who do not want their children to view the video in school.

• Fayette County employees who are members of Service Employees International Union Local 668 are expected to vote on a proposal that essentially calls for shutting down county operations one Friday per pay period.

• The Connellsville Area School District is moving forward on plans to renovate the high school.

At the board's regular meeting, Jeff Straub, project manager from Crabtree Rohrbaugh & Associates Architects, Mechanicsburg, presented an initial site plan design and a cost estimate.

• Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell vowed to veto a state budget agreement crafted by legislative leaders because he says it would create another deficit next year.

• Gov. Ed Rendell and legislative leaders reached a budget deal Sept. 18 to end Pennsylvania's distinction as the last state still fighting over its annual spending plan.

• With Councilman Charles Matthews voting no and Councilman Brad Geyer absent, a resolution was passed at Connellsville City Council's meeting Sept. 21 to repeal the landlord ordinance that mandated landlords regulate their residential units and provide inspections. The resolution also called for the advertisement to adopt a different ordinance titled Landlord Registration and Occupancy Ordinance. The repealing of the former ordinance comes after it prompted a lawsuit by several landlords who have property in the city. Councilman David McIntire, director of Health and Safety, said the decision to repeal the ordinance was made after they realized the new members of council who will be seated in January had plans to overturn it anyway.

• Mt. Pleasant coach Bo Ruffner huddled with his team immediately after Greensburg Central Catholic scored to open overtime and gave them a simple message. "I brought the team over, and I told them exactly what we were going to run," Ruffner said. "And I told them, when we score, we're going to go for two." Ruffner was certainly a man of his word as, moments after quarterback Derek Mellors hit Tim Ferree to get Mt. Pleasant (4-0, 4-0) within a point, he sent his offense back onto the field. After a Greensburg Central Catholic time-out, Mellors rolled right and found Jimmy Stefancic between two defenders in the end zone to give the Vikings a thrilling 36-35 victory.

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