It has long been tradition in late December for the Associated Press to pick a Story of the Year, the single biggest thing the international news agency covered in the preceding 12 months.
In 2010, The Moultrie Observer jumped on the bandwagon, identifying a Local Story of the Year and expanding on it in the first issue of the new year, and using it to tease readers to the Chronology section that we’ve run for many, many years.
At first we let readers vote from a list we compiled, but when the Colquitt County High School Packers won the state football championship in 2014 — several days after we had to close out voting to get everything tabulated — we knew we had to do things differently. The newspaper staff has chosen the Local Story of the Year ever since.
But 2020 has been playing by its own rules all year, and it won’t stop now.
In December, the AP sent its member newspapers a notice that read in part, “The AP will not move a story of the year this year because of the unusual nature of the past year: 2020 itself is the story of the year.”
Undeniably true. The coronavirus pandemic has focused attention around the globe like nothing since World War II.
Some other events have happened — most notably a presidential impeachment early in the year and the presidential election in November — but from a national and even international perspective, nothing has been untouched by the pandemic.
Locally, even significant events pale beside the far-reaching effects of the coronavirus here:
• As of Jan. 4, 44 Colquitt Countians have died from COVID-19, according to the state Department of Public Health, which has been tracking coronavirus cases and deaths since the spring. That is a tiny fraction of Georgia’s 9,900 fatal cases.
• Public schools were closed two months before graduation. Students participated in online classes. A virtual graduation was held online and the in-person ceremony was postponed until midsummer. When the new school year began, it did so with special precautions in the schools and with several students taking classes online.
• Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition was canceled for the year. Other events were canceled too, including the city’s new Second Saturday concert series, Northwest Moultrie Community Day, and the Homecoming and Christmas parades. The annual Lights! Lights! event, when the city turns on the Canopy of Lights for Christmas, was changed from a one-night festival on Thanksgiving to a week-long shopping event to spread out the crowds.
• Several agencies and businesses closed during the early days of the pandemic. While most found ways to serve their clients and many have reopened since then, the effect on the local economy was significant, and it hasn’t fully rebounded. Requests for aid from the Colquitt County Food Bank are at record levels, but fortunately support has risen too. The Moultrie Lions Club coordinated with Memorial Baptist Church, Collins Brothers Produce and others under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program to give away boxes of vegetables on multiple occasions; some of those boxes were directed to the Food Bank while most went directly to local families.
• Colquitt Regional Medical Center began vaccinating its staff Dec. 17 with its first shipment of the coronavirus vaccine. The vaccine requires two doses about three weeks apart, so those initial recipients are getting their second dose early in 2021. The hospital had to stop optional procedures early in the pandemic — which was a blow to its finances — but resumed them later. Hospital administrators instituted strict guidelines for visitors, and they dedicated a floor and a separate ICU only to COVID patients to minimize the chance of spreading the virus.
But while everything seemed to have been colored by the coronavirus pandemic this year, other events did happen, and some of them very noteworthy. Here, in no particular order, are eight major local stories that are not the coronavirus.
On May 28, the City of Moultrie completed a parking lot on South Main Street, the most recent success in an ongoing downtown revitalization project. Downtown Moultrie Tomorrow began the project in 2015 and it includes a pocket park that opened in 2017 and a revamped parking lot named Mule Barn Park that opened in 2018. The demolition of the former Sportsman Restaurant, which was still going on at the end of the year, will make way for another pocket park and renovation of the parking lot on Second Avenue South. In the works is a fiber-optic ring that will support security cameras downtown; as a fringe benefit, it will also allow wi-fi coverage there. A welcome center is also planned.
The city completed renovations at Northwest and McCormick parks with ribbon cuttings on Sept. 11 and Dec. 30, respectively.
The Moultrie-Colquitt County Parks and Recreation Authority gained approval in February to sell $3 million in bonds to finance a major renovation project. The biggest part of the project was an almost complete replacement of Southwest Memorial Pool and the Moose Moss diving well. The project was still under way at the end of the year.
The Moultrie-Colquitt County Airport Authority has been working throughout 2020 on a runway safety project at the south end of the runway, although the project was delayed by weather during the summer.
While certainly the biggest political news throughout the country, including in Colquitt County, was the contested result of the American presidential election, local elections were notable too.
In January, Joe Campbell of Camilla won a special election to replace state Rep. Jay Powell, who died in office in 2019. His district includes western Colquitt County. This was seen as a small-scale test of the state’s new electronic voting system.
Moultrie native Tabitha Ponder Beckford dropped out of the race for the state Court of Appeals after Appeals Court Judge Sara Doyle decided to run for re-election instead of seeking a seat on the state Supreme Court as she’d earlier announced.
Seven local seats were contested in the June election. Incumbents were re-elected in all but one of those races: County Commission District 6, Johnny Hardin; Probate Judge, Wes Lewis; Board of Education District 3, Mary Beth Hart-Watson; Clerk of Superior Court, Lynn Purvis; Coroner, Verlyn Brock; and U.S. Representative, District 8, Austin Scott, all won the primary. Of those, only Scott faced opposition in the November General Election, which he also won. County Commissioner Al Whittington, District 4, did not run for re-election; Mike Boyd won the primary for Whittington’s seat and faced no opposition in November.
The county saw extraordinary voter turnout in the Nov. 3 General Election — more than 64% of the registered voters cast ballots — including a much larger than normal number of mail-in absentee ballots.
In the only contested Colquitt County race Nov. 3, Sheriff Rod Howell overcame a write-in campaign to win re-election.
An EF-1 tornado ran through the county April 23. The National Weather Service later said it formed south of Moultrie around 12:30 p.m. and moved eastward to hit Adel a little after 1 p.m., then ended north of Lakeland in Lanier County. Damage was significant all along the path, but no injuries were reported.
Gov. Brian Kemp toured the storm damage in Cook County April 24, and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler met with Colquitt County farmers affected by the tornado during a tour of the area April 29.
Even this natural disaster had a coronavirus connection: A small outbreak of COVID-19 at Legacy Village at Park Regency was traced to an independent contractor who sheltered with residents there during the tornado.
Fire chief resigns
George Floyd’s death during a May 25 incident with Milwaukee, Wis., police sparked protests across the country, some of which are still going on. Even in Moultrie there was a small, peaceful demonstration where both Moultrie Police Chief Sean Ladson and Colquitt County Sheriff Rod Howell showed support for the protesters.
Amid the protests, some people on social media published messages calling attention to Floyd’s criminal history, not stating but implying that he deserved what happened to him. Among the people who re-posted or commented on such memes was Moultrie Fire Chief Jeff Thibodeau, who did so June 6.
Thibodeau quickly took the post down and apologized, but not before it was seen. He was placed on administrative leave June 9 and resigned June 12.
The incident also brought to light social media posts by City Councilman Cornelius Ponder that appeared to accuse police officers in general of racism and to encourage armed resistance.
Thibodeau was replaced on an interim basis by Battalion Chief Chad Kilgore, who still holds the post as of the end of the year. City Manager Pete Dillard has emphasized the city’s desire to hire a minority person for the position in response to public outcry following Thibodeau’s resignation.
School superintendent to retire
Colquitt County School Superintendent Doug Howell announced June 22 that he plans to retire June 30, 2021.
Howell, himself a graduate of the Colquitt County system, rose through the ranks to become interim superintendent in July 2016 and took the job permanently about six weeks later.
The Colquitt County Board of Education received 33 applications for the superintendent’s position by early November and began going through them. The school system has posted an online survey for the community to weigh in on what it wants from its next superintendent, and the Moultrie-Colquitt County Development Authority has sponsored three listening sessions for the same purpose.
Federal and state concerns about internet access in rural and low-income areas go back for years. It became one of the areas of concern for a state House of Representatives panel on rural Georgia, which was initially co-chaired by Rep. Jay Powell of Camilla, who represented part of Colquitt County until his death in 2019, and Rep. Terry England of Auburn. It is now co-chaired by Moultrie’s Rep. Sam Watson and Rep. Rick Jasperse of Jasper.
One piece of the broadband solution came about in 2020. The Georgia Legislature approved a bill that would allow the state’s Electric Membership Cooperatives to partner with internet providers to expand access to underserved areas. Among the first EMCs to take advantage of the new law was Colquitt EMC, which partnered with Windstream in July.
Under the terms of the agreement, Windstream and Colquitt EMC will share responsibility for expanding the Kinetic fiber optic broadband network that will reach some of Georgia’s most rural areas over the next several years, according to a press release from the partners.
The Colquitt County Tax Assessors Office is charged with assessing the value of property, even property that hasn’t changed hands in years, so that value can be used to determine the owner’s property tax. Because the office has experience with residential and agricultural land, it’s been able to keep those rolls up pretty well, Chief Appraiser Jim Mac Booth told Colquitt County Commission in August, but that hasn’t been the case with commercial properties. Those properties hadn’t had a wholesale revaluation in about 30 years, he said, and the state had been pushing for one to be done. When Booth took over the role as chief assessor in 2019, he contracted with a company that specializes in commercial property to catch everything up.
That company’s report was applied to property taxes assessed in 2020. Commercial property values roughly doubled, which means property taxes for those owners roughly doubled. While some properties went up less than that, others went up considerably more. Owners were flabbergasted.
Local municipalities and authorities adjusted their tax rates to bring in the same amount of money with the new values as they received under the old values. That meant all taxpayers would face lower rates, even though those rates would be applied to the updated values of the properties.
The Colquitt County Commission, though, feared many landowners would succeed in appealing the new values. It didn’t want to set a budget expecting money based on a larger digest than what would come out of appeals hearings, so commissioners proposed a tax decrease that would partly but not fully account for the higher values. The board received so much feedback from landowners disturbed by their new valuations that commissioners cut the tax rates even further.
A Dec. 22 press release from the Georgia Department of Transportation announced that the GDOT had contracted with Reames and Son Construction, Inc., of Valdosta to widen and reconstruct 8.55 miles of Highway 133 from U.S. Highway 319 to north of Mike Horne Road. It’s the first project of a plan to four-lane Highway 133 between Moultrie and Albany.
A similar multi-project effort four-laned the highway from Valdosta to Moultrie from 2014 to 2019.
The GDOT did not have a start date, but the contract calls for completion of this first section by July 30, 2023.
The other projects are scheduled to be bid over the next four years. The last project, from Mike Horne Road through Doerun to south of Carlton Road in Worth County, is scheduled to be bid in Fiscal Year 2025, which would run from July 1, 2024, through June 30, 2025.