The Lincoln Times-News team sat down this week to look over the past yearâ€™s headlines and rank the top Lincoln County news stories of 2011. We tried to identify stories that represented bigger trends and count just how many print and online headlines were dedicated to each.Â While more than 30 stories we followed throughout the year were under consideration, 10 top stories clearly stood above the rest.
1. Stopping the flow of illegal drugs
Someone mailed a comment in to the newspaper earlier this year saying it should be called the Lincoln Crimes-News. Unfortunately, we write it like we see it and we donâ€™t make this stuff up. In tallying up the biggest Lincoln County stories of the year, the three top items all involved criminal activity. This may have something to do with developments from the biggest stories of 2009 and 2010 â€” the controversial administration of former Sheriff Tim Daugherty, disgraced by criminal conviction and indictment, and rejected by Democratic primary voters. The new administration of Sheriff David Carpenter took charge in December 2010 and cleaned house at the Sheriffâ€™s Office. Many of the crime stories of 2011 come from the new sheriffâ€™s crackdown on activity that obviously had been going on under the radar all along. Supporters of Sheriff Daugherty eagerly repeated claims that heâ€™d rid portions of the county of drugs. Weâ€™re not sure what the believers in this big lie were smoking, but both Lincolnton police and the new sheriff demonstrated repeatedly that they had no trouble locating drug activity and cracking down on it. Throughout 2011 drug dealers were arrested in their homes, workplaces, cars and anywhere else they were found. The sheriffâ€™s new DICE team intercepted trafficking along the U.S. 321 corridor and repeatedly stopped suspicious vehicles to turn up drugs. There was plenty of the all-too-common marijuana, but there were also cocaine, methamphetamine and an alarming amount of heroin.
A major sweep by the sheriff in August and another by city police in December netted more than 150 suspects combined, focusing on street-level dealers.Â The two agencies worked closely with one another as well as with surrounding counties and towns and state and federal authorities to clamp down on the drug trade.
2. Break-ins plague county; help fill jail
Drug users desperate for the next fix often steal anything they can fence for money to buy drugs, so itâ€™s no surprise that a county facing a serious drug problem was also plagued by break-ins. Looking over the yearâ€™s headlines, however, this was a major story that evolved over time. Early in the year, most reports were on incidents in which homes, offices and vehicles had been broken into. While those never went away entirely, by the middle of the year, we saw them much less frequently. Instead, we saw ample news of suspects, individually or in groups, being caught. Itâ€™s clear that law enforcement took the problem seriously and did something about it. Combined with the drug arrests, suspects in break-ins helped to fill the cells at the county jail.
3. Sex-related crimes shock community
A surge in investigations of sex-related crimes came late in the year as the Penn State and Syracuse coaching scandals brought attention to the issue nationwide. But Lincoln County was already witnessing a significant uptick in arrests and prosecutions of people linked to these often disturbing crimes. Rapists, molesters and child pornographers are often sick individuals who canâ€™t be cured of their behavior. Victims are left physically and psychologically scarred. We learned in 2011 that they could be your next-door neighbor, the owner of the store you shop at, a leader in your church, your scout master or just about anyone else.Â Many of the alleged crimes in this category were committed in previous years, but law enforcement and assisting agencies appeared ready to pursue them more vigorously than ever in 2011.
4. Wolves fall just short of state championship
The Lincolnton Wolves football team ended its 2010 season with a tough home loss to Carver in the state semifinals after a late turnover put the game out of reach. The team announced this summer that nothing short of a shot at the state title would be acceptable in 2011. They got their shot. While the Wolves didnâ€™t quite succeed in the quest for a championship, they came incredibly close against a Tarboro squad that boasted an incredibly brutal offense. The fans were united behind Lincolnton and even a few Rebel, Mustang and Knight supporters found themselves cheering for a Wolves team that represented all parts of Lincoln County.
5. City elections hotly contested; incumbents win
The faces in city government havenâ€™t changed, but thatâ€™s not for a lack of activity, much of it unprecedented. The city approved new election wards balanced by population, based on a plan drawn up by the Times-News.Â Candidates from both major parties filed to contest every seat. Two candidates challenging in Ward II battled it out in the cityâ€™s first-ever Republican primary. General election candidates engaged in a lively debate before a crowd at the Cultural Center in October, which was also occasion for the Times-Newsâ€™ first-ever foray into live-blogging.Â Differences on the issues were clear. Democrats pointed to their long control of city government and providing what they described as stable leadership with excellent services and economic growth, while calling for increased investment in an overhaul of the cityâ€™s police headquarters. Republicans said Democrats had been in charge for too long, had approved unnecessary spending that resulted in inflated taxes and sluggish economic growth and were promoting an expensive and ill-timed police headquarters expansion in order to squander funds from the sale of the old ABC store. Voters answered with a muddle. The Republican mayor won re-election easily. One Democratic council member was re-elected by a wide margin and the other eked out a narrow win. The Democrats employed a successful strategy of mobilizing absentee mail-in and one-stop voters, so that they neutralized heavy Republican advantages in election-day turnout. The Republicans cried foul. Voting by mail-in and one-stop absentee ballots landed one voter (and potentially anyone who assisted him) in trouble with election authorities; the case has been turned over to the District Attorneyâ€™s office for possible prosecution. Republicans also protested the way in which absentee ballots were requested, although they admitted not enough votes were directly challenged to alter the outcome. For now, the appeals have been withdrawn, at least until the outcome of the related double-voting case becomes clear.
6. Community pulls together to assist the hungry, jobless and homeless
A year ago, we ranked despair over the tough local economy as the top story of 2010. In 2011, we fought back as best we could. Agencies like Christian Ministry and Hesed House of Hope publicly called for support from donors and volunteers. Individually and collectively, the people of Lincoln County gave, not out of their prosperity, but despite their own wants.Â As the year closed, we learned of a â€œChristmas Angelâ€ who anonymously paid off power bills for needy families.
7. Industries bring promise of jobs to Lincoln County
After years of mill closures and job losses that only worsened when the national economy plunged into a recession in 2008, efforts to bring new employers to the county showed considerable success in 2011. Aptar plans a plastic factory in Lincolnton. Main Filter is also headed here. Textile lines produced at Mohican Mills received national attention. Perhaps the biggest story is the return of the Cochrane family with a new furniture enterprise that has also received exposure on national media. From being a center of despair, Lincoln County is becoming not just a good story, but a beacon of hope to others, offering the message that American enterprise and American labor arenâ€™t to be counted out. The retail and service sectors also received a shot in the arm with the opening of a new Wal-Mart, Dunkin Donuts and Hampton Inn, among others.
8. Weather events disrupt lives
The year started with a heavy snowstorm in early January, which virtually shut down many roads, businesses and schools for several days. While the rest of the winter of 2011 was mostly mild, other weather events proved less generous. Repeated storms with high winds and even tornadoes battered the area, demolishing homes, puncturing the Post Office and generating some close calls. Perhaps the oddest climate story of the year was the earthquake in August, centered in Virginia, which did no local damage but certainly took everyone by surprise.
9. New representation in Raleigh
The retirement of N.C. Rep. Johnathan Rhyne, R-Lincoln, and death of N.C. Sen. Jim Forrester, R-Gaston, allowed Republican Party leaders to select the countyâ€™s new delegation to the North Carolina General Assembly. Former county party chairman Jason Saine is the new state representative, while Chris Carney of Mooresville overcame Lincoln County opposition to become the districtâ€™s new state senator.
10. Schools cut costs, jobs as state cuts funding
Throughout the first half of the year, expected state cuts to funding for the countyâ€™s schools resulted in hand-wringing over ways to cut costs. Hundreds of school employees were eventually laid off, though some of them were ultimately rehired.
Other stories that were close, but didnâ€™t quite make the cut:
The Board of Educationâ€™s districts hadnâ€™t been based on population since the district was consolidated in the 1970s. Rapid growth in the east had resulted in an imbalance in representation. New state legislation forced the board to create new equal-population districts. Wrangling over the districts lasted for several months before a plan that had received considerable support from citizens (and the news media) was approved in December. The first elections under the new plans are set for 2012, though the board has not yet settled on which seats will be in contention.
A revaluation of property in Lincoln County just before the real estate bubble burst in 2008 led to loud complaints, especially from the east where rapid development had also increased values. County commissioners authorized an earlier-than-normal revaluation in 2010, with results announced in February 2011. The outcry over the new values may have been louder than ever. Although values in the east decreased some (not nearly as much as property owners had hoped), those in many other areas, especially the west, skyrocketed. The result was higher taxes for all in the face of a commission unwilling to embrace massive spending cuts. Angry citizens flocked to town-hall meetings and commissionersâ€™ sessions to vent their furor, calling for the dismissal of some county tax officials and various others. But the commissioners didnâ€™t back down. Three of the five commission seats are up for election in 2012.
Copper is a hot commodity and thieves were obnoxiously inventive in their efforts to lift it from wiring in many places, including public buildings and businesses under construction. Thereâ€™s a strong suspicion that many of the culprits are like those involved in break-ins, drug addicts desperate for quick cash.
Rumors that Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was coming to Lincolnton were circulating in full force by mid-November, as were rumors that the family of James and Vonda Friday would be the recipient of the new home. Despite bald-faced denials from spokespeople with the construction companies that were known to be working on a project for the show in the Charlotte area, their destination was indeed Lincolnton and the home of the Fridays. When the TV cameras did arrive in December, the community came out in full force to donate to a family that has given greatly to others.
Juvenile pranksters with mad computer skills but little common sense terrorized the community in the week after Thanksgiving with email threats to bomb Lincoln Charter School. State and federal officials had to be contacted to help in the investigations.