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FRONT PAGE - DECEMBER 29, 1999 - HOMER, GA

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See Banks County's 1999 Year in Review

WINS BALDWIN SCHOOL ISSUE

Baldwin's mayor, Mark Reed, fought to keep children who live in Baldwin from being bused to school in Homer. His efforts resulted in the governor pledging funds to allow the children to attend Baldwin Elementary School instead.
Photo by Sherry Lewis
LOCAL GOVERNMENT

Baldwin Mayor Mark Reed doesn't back down in his battles
BY SHERRY LEWIS AND ANGELA GARY
Baldwin is a town divided. Some of its residents call Banks County home, while others live in Habersham County. The situation leads to many problems for town government leaders who have to serve all of the residents.
Having residents divided between the two counties led to numerous dilemmas in 1999, including where elementary children will go to school and whether to tax Banks County citizens the same as those who live in Habersham County.
It takes strong leadership to solve these difficult problems, someone who is determined and strong-willed and maybe even a little stubborn in their quest to do what is right for the town.
Baldwin Mayor Mark Reed has been that person in 1999. His efforts have gone all the way to the state capitol, which is where the elementary school issue was finally resolved. The governor pledged state funds to pay for some Baldwin children to attend school in their hometown instead of being bused 20 miles to Banks County Elementary School. Reed also stood firm in numerous battles with the city council over the tax issue. That battle also went to the state, with the attorney general being asked for an opinion.
Reed's dedication and determination to do what he believes is best for the small town of Baldwin has led to him being named the Newsmaker of the Year for 1999.
The school issue came about when an attendance contract between the Banks County and Habersham County boards of education ended. The contract had allowed students to cross county lines to attend class without paying tuition. When the contract expired this year, it meant that 200 students who live in Banks County, but attend school on the Habersham County side in Baldwin, would have had to pay a $1,300 annual tuition cost.
That didn't seem fair to Reed and he fought all year for a solution. He was so concerned about Baldwin children being bused to Banks County schools that he even proposed moving the county line and creating another attendance agreement.
He met with local citizens, who agreed that Baldwin students should not be bused to Homer. He took his plight to the Banks and Habersham boards of education and their superintendents.
"They gave me the impression that there was no way it could be done," he said. "There was no way they would allow out-of-county children to come to their schools. I wasn't going to rest until we got it worked out."
That is the point when many people who have backed down. Not Reed. He wrote Governor Roy Barnes and Rep. Jeanette Jamieson.
"She (Jamieson) was aware of the situation and agreed we had a good argument," he said. "She picked it up and got the tuition paid this year."
As for next year, Reed said he has renewed hope that the new Haberhsam County board members will come to some kind of understanding.
"They have expressed concern and want to do what it best for the children," he said.
EQUAL TAXATION
Baldwin officials also debated throughout 1999 whether Banks County residents should be taxed as are Habersham County citizens. This led to several heated debates and an appeal to the attorney general. In June, the council agreed in a 3-2 vote to not tax the Banks County residents. Reed didn't believe this was the right move and he contiunued to fight for equal taxation. Then, in mid-November the council reversed its earlier decision and agreed to tax the Banks residents.
While the full council was not behind Reed on this issue, he didn't stop until it was resolved in the manner he felt was fair to all of the residents of Baldwin.
"We are one town and I wanted to make sure we all have the same level of services and pay the same tax rate," said Reed.
PRIVATIZATION OF SERVICES
Another controversial matter Reed battled in 1999 was the move to a private water and sewer system. The council began meeting with AquaSource, Texas, early in the year to take over these services. The move was met with opposition from the City of Demorest, which has had a contract with Baldwin since 1987 for water service. Reed and the council continued on with their plan despite a lawsuit being filed by Demorest to stop the action.
Reed said he did not realize the financial impact of the agreement until the city tried to seek funding for the sewer plant.
"We were basically losing money because of the depreciation of the plant and we were not in control of the revenue," he said. "We had to get that back under our control."
Baldwin has contracted with AquaSource to run the day-to-day maintenance and operations of the water distribution lines and the sewer plant. There is litigation pending as to the future of the water plant.
"We look forward to our agreement with Aqua Source," Reed said. "I believe with their qualified operators they will provide better services for the citizens of Baldwin."


News Story of the Year
BY SHERRY LEWIS
People from around the state mourned with Banks Countians following the New Year's Eve arson that took the life of volunteer fire firefighter Loy Williams and destroyed New Salem United Methodist Church.
The events surrounding the fire, including the loss of a volunteer firefighter, the pledge to rebuild the church and the arrest of a suspect, makes this the News Story of the Year.
Williams, 27, Commerce, died at the Hwy. 59 church when the roof of the structure fell on him as he fought the flames. Four other volunteer firefighters, Chuck Bray, Tim Smallwood, Chuck Bakunas and assistant chief Perry Dalton, received minor injuries.
While community members struggled with their losses, local, state and federal officials were joining forces to find the person or people involved in this crime. One of the first state officials at the site New Year's morning was state insurance commissioner John Oxendine who announced that arson had officially been ruled as the cause of the fire. He offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the crime. A local businessman soon added $5,000 to the reward fund, making the total $15,000.
At that same time, Banks County Sheriff Charles Chapman was working to assemble what may be one of the largest "task force of intelligence gathering agencies that has ever been assembled in Banks County" to see that the people responsible were brought to justice.
It was February when news broke that there was a possible suspect in the church fire. Jay Scott Ballenger, 36, Yorktown, Ind., was charged with the arson of seven church fires in Indiana. He reportedly confessed to 50 church fires across the southeast and was a suspect in the Banks County fire. In April, Ballenger was officially charged in the Banks County fire and two other fires in the Northern Judicial Circuit. If convicted of the Banks County fire, Ballenger could face a minimum of 50 years in prison or the death penalty.
Ballenger was first linked to the Indiana fires after he was severely burned while allegedly trying to set fire to a church in Ohio. He was forced to seek medical attention two days later and an investigator began building a case.
Oxendine said a possible motive for the string of fires appeared to be the suspect's alleged involvement with satanic worship.
While Ballenger is believed to have acted alone in the Banks County fire, his ex-girlfriend, Angela Wood, formerly of Athens, pled guilty in federal court to seven charges for her involvement in other church arsons and agreed to testify against Ballenger. Ballenger is set to go on trial in February.
WILLIAMS REMEMBERED
Williams was honored with a "fireman's funeral" two days after he lost his life fighting the fire that destroyed New Salem United Methodist Church. A fire truck draped in black bearing the body of Williams made its way slowly along Hwy. 23 to Alto Congregational Holiness Church.
Hundreds of firemen waited outside the church and along the road for the procession that included over 100 fire trucks from the metro Atlanta area and north Georgia. Toward the end of the procession, the fire trucks passed under an arch formed by the high ladders of two fire trucks placed on either side of the highway.
At the church, Williams' flag-draped coffin was slowly carried up the steps and into the church as hundreds of firefighters saluted. Once the coffin and the family were escorted inside, fireman marched one by one down the aisles. When all the seats were taken, firefighters lined the walls in the church, while many others had to remain outside in the frigid wind and near-freezing temperatures.
The Rev. Leon Brown spoke of the volunteer's love for fire fighting reading notes from his mother, Gertrude Williams.
"He talked of fire fighting all the time," Brown read. "Loy told his brother (Alvin) that when it was his time to go, he wanted to die fighting a fire."
At the end of the service, firefighters and friends lined a long path from the church to the cemetery. A bagpiper led the procession with "Amazing Grace" as the body was taken to the grave site. At that time, Williams received his "last call" from Banks County 911 operator Pam Ferguson over the radio, using his call number, 402, and fire signal codes for out of service and ending a tour of duty.
During the year, there were other ceremonies in memory of Williams. In May, a memorial in honor of Williams was unveiled in an emotional ceremony at the front entrance of the county courthouse. In November, Williams was honored in the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Md.
Chuck Bray and Tim Smallwood, also injured in the burning building, accompanied the family to the memorial honoring 91 firefighters who were killed in the line of duty during 1998.
NEW SALEM REBUILDS
The first weekend in January was an emotional time for members of New Salem United Methodist Church as they attempted to absorb both the loss of their church to an arsonist and the death of a local firefighter who tried to save it. But members of the 140-year-old church vowed that the loss of a building would not be the loss of their church and they have kept their word.
People from near and far have pitched in with financial support and hard work and today the new sanctuary is under construction. Pastor Luis Ortiz said he believes the sanctuary will be complete next summer.
"I'm just overwhelmed by the support and the church members are so excited," he said. "It's a miracle every day. I come in and say 'Thank you, God.'"
In June, a groundbreaking ceremony was held. At that time, the church had raised and received contributions of $300,000. Later that month, members of a student dance group from a town near Bethlehem spent their time helping to rebuild the church. The group members said they were repaying United States missionaries for their years of service to the Middle East.
That was only the beginning of the volunteers who would stream into Banks County to do their part to see the new sanctuary come to life. Volunteers have been working at the site every Saturday since October. In December, 30 pastors and lay people began erecting the walls of the new sanctuary.
So far, $360,000 of the $400,000 needed to complete the sanctuary has been raised.
When completed, the facility will be 16,000 square feet. The sanctuary will seat 250. There will be 13 Sunday school classrooms, a nursery and a fellowship hall with a kitchen.



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