Year in review: County faces challenges

CNJ file photo By April, events will begin taking place at the new Special Events Center. Officials say they anticipate it will thrive and the region will come to depend on it as an entertainment hub and source of economic enrichment.

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Packed with frustrations, public scrutiny and controversial issues, the last year presented challenges for Curry County.

But county officials said it was a year tempered with success, including construction of an $8 million event center.

Topping the list of issues facing the county was the nationally publicized escape of eight inmates from the Curry County Adult Detention Center in August.

The men, who included a convicted child killer and a suspected murderer, stole a key from detention officers and gained access to a plumbing closet where they scaled pipes and cut a hole in the roof, escaping Aug. 24.

All but one, 24-year-old convicted killer Edward Salas, have been captured.

The escape revealed many problems with the 15-year-old jail and its operation. An outside assessment team called it an, “abysmal physical plant design,” and criticized what it called outdated policies and procedures.

The incident forced county leaders into trying to understand what went wrong at the detention center and how best to correct it.

“This next year with a new (jail) administrator, we’re going to rebuild the public’s trust in the detention center,” said County Manager Lance Pyle. “I don’t think anybody was happy with the situation that happened, but I think everybody stepped up to the plate.

“We took the appropriate actions and I’m confident the situation will not happen in the future.”

In the aftermath, Pyle said one detention center employee was terminated, one was suspended without pay and several received less severe disciplinary action.

Pyle declined to identify the individuals, citing personnel confidentiality.

On Dec. 15, Lois Jones-Bean took over as jail administrator, replacing Leslie Johnson, who retired in August, prior to the escape. Pyle said one of the things that led to Bean being hired was a strong background in security.

Commissioners said installation of a new surveillance system is in the works. And since the escape, maintenance personnel have worked to correct deficiencies. Architectural consultants have been hired to inspect the jail for security concerns and offer suggestions for improvement.

But the escape wasn’t the county’s first brush with crime in 2008.

The discovery of more than $19,000 in 2007 fair funds missing from county coffers led to a February indictment and subsequent conviction of the county treasurer.

Police said then-treasurer Rhonda Bookout altered ledger entries to show deposits into county accounts that were never made.

Bookout resigned her position after pleading no contest to tampering with public documents. She was sentenced to probation.

No arrests were made in connection with the missing money.

The first week of December, Pyle said the county’s insurance carrier issued a reimbursement for the loss.

Hired as manager in December 2007, Pyle said the past 12 months were challenging and full of obstacles.

“My first year was basically a cleanup and (about) trying to move the county forward. It was a very trying and challenging year,” he said.

Pyle said he had learned a lot and “the commission and the community were very supportive with our recommendation.”

In January, three new commissioners — Wendell Bostwick, Caleb Chandler and Daniel Stoddard — will take their seats beside incumbents Robert Sandoval and Frank Blackburn.

One of the issues sparking public outcry to be faced in 2009 is a nuisance ordinance. Commissioners tabled it when they met with contention from residents, who voiced concerns it was too broad and amounted to zoning, something county residents have traditionally rejected.

With the tasking of Cannon Air Force Base as a Special Operations Wing, hope for growth in the community drew attention to aesthetics, prompting public calls for cleanup at the entry points and thoroughfares of the area. In response, county officials drafted a nuisance ordinance to regulate property issues posing threats to health and safety.

Pyle said the commission is expected to revisit the issue in February or March.

In one of its last, significant actions of the year, the County Commission rescinded an earlier decision and voted in November to allow the sale of beer and wine at the Special Events Center.

The vote marked the end of an issue that had sparked a heated debate. Some in the community said the sale of alcohol would encourage government-sponsored, lapsed morality. But others saw alcohol sales as a necessity to enticing big-name entertainment to the area.

Pyle said the highlight of the year was seeing the 96,000 square-foot events center come to fruition after 15 months of construction.

By April, events will begin taking place at the new site. Officials say they anticipate it will thrive and the region will come to depend on it as an entertainment hub and source of economic enrichment.

All the center lacks to be fully functional is a parking lot, and $1.5 million in amenities, officials said.

Along with the center’s near completion, the trials of the year also brought positives, Pyle said, expressing pride in new policies and faces that emerged in the aftermath of unrest.

Pyle said, “2009 cannot come soon enough. 2008 was a challenging year and I’m looking forward to 2009. I want (2009) to be a year where the county’s going to rebuild the public’s trust,” he said.