The top stories of 2013 in Washington County recall that 2013 was anything but dull.
CHIPLEY — 2013 is now relegated to the history books, but it is a year that won’t be soon forgotten my many Washington County residents. From record floods to record crowds at the Watermelon Festival, the year was anything but dull.
No. 1 Top Story of 2013
July, August bring floods to area
County and state officials were surveying Washington County on July 9 afternoon, trying to determine the extent of the damage caused by the July 4 weekend’s torrential rain.
The Florida Panhandle received more than 20 inches of rain between July 3 and July 7, and at one point, every road in Washington County was closed due to the flooding.
Vernon was particularly hard hit, and the City Council met Monday in special session to discuss what can be done to recover.
Homes and barns were flooded, and the city’s wastewater plant was also flooded. The town hall did not go unscathed, with leaks reported in several rooms including the council chambers and City Clerk Dian Hendrix’s office.
“There was water in here and in these rooms,” Hendrix told the council. “I can’t work at my desk right now because of all the water.”
The old high school gymnasium floor also got wet, and may be trying to warp, while another room and hallway at the old school had standing water in them.
Mayor Michelle Cook attended the county meetings, and officials are trying to tally up the damage costs to see if the county and Vernon will qualify for any federal aid.
Cook said 75 roads in the county were compromised by the rain, and 44 roads were deemed impassable.
In August, more rain just made the situation worse. Chipley received between 5 and 15 inches of rain over the weekend of Aug. 16, according to local weather reports, and Vernon once again was inundated, as was the Blue Pond Community Center in Chipley.
Blue Lake overflowed its banks and covered Highway 77 as well, closing the highway to traffic on Aug. 18.
Washington County residents were urged to stay off all roadways throughout the week and limit travel to essential only. “We have been declared a local emergency,” said Vernon Mayor Michelle Cook on Aug. 19. Washington County schools were closed due to the flooding and Public Works personnel were unable to keep up with the demand in responding to each flooded area and place barricades.
It would be months before the roads were all reopened, and the Vernon and Washington County both are seeking FEMA funds to help cover the expensive repairs. Numerous volunteers from church groups worked in Vernon to help people repair damage to homes that was not covered by insurance or federal funds.
No. 2 Story of 2013
County manager resigns following generator accusations
County Commissioner Lynn Gothard said county purchasing policies and state statutes might have been violated when the board voted to buy a generator in February.
The Board of County Commissioners met on March 28 when Gothard read a prepared statement in which she alleged that County Manager Steve Joyner violated
state laws when he arranged for the county to buy a generator from a fellow county employee — a generator that happened to be stored at Joyner’s residence.
“After the meeting, I received information that the purchase had possibly violated both Florida statutes and county purchasing requirements,” Gothard said.
She began researching the information and agreed that possible violations had occurred and that more information and disclosure was needed.
The following month, Joyner resigned his position with the county during the BOCC meeting.
“This is something that has been weighing on me for the past couple of months,” Joyner said, “and I would like to resign my position as county administrator effective tomorrow.”
“This breaks my heart,” Commissioner Todd Abbott said.
“It’s not anything any one commissioner has done,” Joyner said. “This is something I’ve considered for a while.”
The commissioners appointed Public Services Director David Corbin as a “point of contact” between the board and the county employees on April 30, and eventually named Corbin county coordinator.
No. 3 Story of 2013
Vernon receives $100,000 beautification grant
The Vernon City Council learned the Garden Club will be receiving a $100,000 highway beautification grant and welcomed two new council members
on March 25.
Pam Cates shared a letter she had received from the Florida Highway Beautification
Council notifying her that the Vernon Garden Club had received a $100,000 grant for a
beautification project along Highway 79. “You may remember, I came before the
council a few months ago asking for permission to apply for this project,” Cates said. “I was thrilled to find out that our project was accepted.”
No. 4 Story of 2013
Chamber names ambassador, business of the year
Good food, excellent music and fine fellowship were abundant when Washington County residents and business leaders gathered at the county agricultural center on April 4 for the annual Chamber of Commerce Banquet.
The event features the presentation of the Jean Hollingsworth Ambassador of the
Year Award and the naming of the Washington County Business of the Year. The 2013
winners were Ambassador Cindy Johnson-Brown and Taylor Chiropractic, owned by Dr. Mark Taylor.
No. 5 Story of 2013
Chipley Garden Club named ‘Club of the Year’
May 16, 2013 is a day Chipley Garden Club will remember for quite a while, as the club was named 2013 Garden Club of the Year at Florida Federation of Garden Club’s District II Spring Meeting in Port St. Joe.
Past District II Director Jane Brewer announced that Chipley Garden Club was named Club of the Year at the 2013 FFGC Spring Convention at Ft. Myers.
“This is the No. 1 award given by FFGC. I congratulate Chipley Garden Club on winning this prestigious annual statewide award,” Brewer said. “The award recognizes the Florida garden club that best excels in ALL of the following categories: Membership increase; service to membership; club programs and projects; members attending club, district, state meetings; and/or sponsored programs. Chipley Garden Club truly shares the joys of gardening with their community and each other! This is an awesome accomplishment, not only for Chipley, but for District II.”
No. 6 Story of 2013
Historic water tower demolished
Workers with Isler Demolition Inc. were in Chipley the evening of May 21 to tear down the historic Chipley water tower, which was determined in March to be a safety hazard. The tower sat at the corner of Highway 77 and Highway 90, and the intersection was closed to traffic while the demolition was being performed. The water tower was gone by the next morning. The cost of the project was $24,200, and the city plans to build a park on the lot once the water tower is removed.
The city is planning on developing a park at the location where the water tower once stood.
No. 7 Story of 2013
Mayor wants fake flowers removed from lawn
Chipley City Council members discussed the need for a private property standards ordinance at the council’s June workshop on June 6.
Mayor Linda Cain had a list of 52 properties from around the city that she said need cleaning up, and the primary property she was concerned with was a house on Main Street, where the lawn is decorated with artificial flowers.
“Those silk flowers look ridiculous, you mean to say we can’t do anything about it?” the mayor asked City Code Enforcement Officer David Pettis Jr.
“We don’t have a code against it,” Pettis said. The flowers remained in the lawn throughout the year.
No. 8 Story of 2013
County HR director fired, settles lawsuit
Washington County’s Human Resources Director Heather Finch was fired for being “grossly negligent” and unethical in her job duties, according to a Feb. 26 letter signed by County Manager Steve Joyner.
The letter was hand delivered to Finch. The Washington County News obtained a copy of the letter after submitting a request for public documents under the state Sunshine Law.
On Dec. 23, the Washington County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to accept a settlement paying Finch $150,000 to settle a charge of discrimination with the Florida Commission on Human Relations and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
No. 9 Story of 2013
Watermelon Festival attracts record crowds
The 57th annual Panhandle Watermelon Festival drew record crowds and featured top name entertainment this year, including country legend Joe Diffie. In spite of the rainy weather, hundreds gathered in Pals Park in Chipley to hear Diffie and country musician Andy Griggs perform for the first night of the two-day event. On Saturday at the Washington County Agricultural Center, bluegrass performers Dailey & Vincent held a concert for a packed house. As usual, all the musical events were free and open to the public.
No. 10 Story of 2013
Chamber hosts economic symposiums
In August, the Washington County Chamber of Commerce began hosting a series of economic symposiums, with follow-up meetings being held in October and November.
“Today is the beginning of our future,” said Ted Everett, executive director of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce. “We have to have a plan, and we have to come together as a county.”
“Economic development is too important to leave in the hands of just the Chamber or just the county commissioners,” said Jim Brook, executive director of Opportunity Florida and moderator of the symposium’s panel.
The first symposium featured experts in the area of economic development, including Kenny Griffin of the Chipola Regional Workforce Development Board, Dr. David Goetsch, founder and life board member of the Okaloosa Economic Development Commission, Neal Wade of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance, Larry Sassano, of Florida’s Great Northwest, Terry Ellis, manager of West Point Home Inc. in Chipley, and Heather Squires of Enterprise Florida.
The symposiums also began a SWOT analysis of Washington County which is ongoing in an effort for the county to develop a plan for economic development..
“I would rather have 10 businesses with five employees than one business with 50 employees,” Wade said. “One of the first things you need to do is stop going to Dothan or Panama City to shop. Spend that money here in town with a local business.”
Wade said growing the businesses already in place is a key element of economic development that is often overlooked.
“Economic development is the process of creating wealth and increasing the tax base,” Wade said. “If you can grow jobs, then you increase your tax base and everyone benefits.”