Marengo County Commission approves $20M budget in Tuesday meeting

Phillip Spence, right, post surgeon for the Marengo County unit of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, accepts a resolution from Commission Chairman John Crawford Jr., passed by the Commission to proclaim Sept. 15 as POW/MIA Recognition Day. (WAW | Jan McDonald)

Marengo County will operate with $20,118,622.52 for the next fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 after the County Commission voted to adopt the budget Tuesday. Estimated expenses for the year are expected to be $17,369,274.28.

That will leave a difference of restricted funds of $2,749,348.24.

The Commission made it possible for Demopolis voters will have a chance to approve a 3 mil tax renewal for Demopolis schools by putting the issue on the December ballot.

Demopolis City Schools Supt. Kyle Kallhoff said the tax is renewed every 10 years and brings in some $225,000 per year to the school system.  He said the funds in the past have been used for nurses, transportation and School Resource officers.

Only ballots in Demopolis will have the tax issue.

Phillip Spence, post surgeon for the Marengo County unit of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, accepted a resolution passed by the Commission to proclaim Sept. 15 as POW/MIA Recognition Day.

The resolution “honors the commitments and the sacrifices made by our nation’s prisons of war and those who are still missing in action.

County Engineer Ken Atkins presented bids on road repair materials. Commissioners approved the lowest bidder for each item with the stipulation that the bids meet specifications.

Also approved at the meeting was a contract with the Dallas County Juvenile Detention Center. The contract, renewed annually, guarantees one bed per day.

Juvenile Probation Officer Darren Glass said if the county uses more than 365 days, it will be charged $60 per bed per day.

Commissioner Jason Windham forwarded a request from the Demopolis Industrial Development Board for a contribution toward the ribbon-cutting for Two Rivers Lumber Company, now set for Oct. 19.

Windham said the Marengo County Economic Development Authority and the IDB also are helping to pay for the event.

The Commission voted to contribute $1,000, but the money was made as a budget amendment to MCEDA, since the county cannot directly give to the company.

Probate Judge Laurie Hall told commissioners that the primary election went well, with only one complaint about moving a polling place.

Commissioner Freddie Armstead thanked all of Marengo County for the effort to help Hurricane Harvey victims. He said the Demopolis Fire Department especially went above and beyond to man the trailers that held the items that were donated.

In other action, the Commission approved:

  • Leaving the Tobacco Tax CD at Sweet Water State Bank.
  • The Grand Jury Report.
  • The first step in declaring Peace Lane a public road.
  • A consultant for work on Sparks Road.

New technology to improve Marengo polling places

Probate Judge Laurie Hall Tuesday demonstrated to the Marengo County Commission the new electronic poll book that will be used next week during the primary election for the U.S. Senate race.

The commission approved the purchase of 12 poll books at its July meeting for use at the polling places that have the most voters. The rest of the needed poll books will be purchased before the mid-term elections in 2018.

Hall explained the new electronic system will eliminate the black book and the need for poll workers to write down each voter’s name. The system also will prevent voters from crossing party lines in the primary and runoff elections, she said.

Training for poll workers on the use of the new system already is underway.

Public comments took up most of the meeting as commissioners heard economic updates, concern over roads and a request for support for the Liberty Learning Foundation.

Paul and Kim Duhe, who moved to the county almost six years ago, expressed their concern over the condition of County Road 33 and asked when it would be repaired.

Kim Duhe said the “Band-Aid” approach to fixing the road hasn’t worked. Traffic cones have been set up at one spot, and traffic now is forced to one lane since the cones take up most of the roadway. The situation is especially critical since the site is on a hill.

“It makes my stomach hurt” at the thought of a head-on collision with a log truck,” she said.

County Engineer Ken Atkins said the cones had been moved since his crew placed them. He said they would be relocated. Work on the road cannot be done until the rains slack off, he added.

This year 750 students in second and fifth grades throughout the county will take part in the Liberty Learning Foundation program. LLF representative, Becky Saunders, told the Commission that the program now is in 45 Alabama counties and has been a part of the Demopolis school system for five years.

The program provides 12 weeks of lessons and support in sponsoring what Saunders called a “rock star approach to teaching civics.”

Total cost for the county students in $25,000, or $36 per child, she continued. The foundation, a non-profit organization, receives generous corporate funding but still needs local help.

“We want support from the community because it means so much to the children,” she said. The Liberty Learning program is a way to “teach, inspire and empower” future citizens of the United States “to be the next great Americans.”

Saunders asked the commission to consider financial support for county schools. Commissioners familiar with the program in Demopolis said it was a worthy program, and the Commission will consider including it in the budget for next year.

Economic Development Authority Chris Bontrager said during his first four months in the position he has been evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the office and how best to promote the city.

He revealed a new logo for the county that shows prospective businesses where Marengo County is located and said a new website is being developed that will provide links to local sites.

Bontrager said he has been talking with major industries in the county to find out their problems and concerns and solve some of their problems.

“It’s been very enlightening,” he said.

While new business recruitment is just getting started, one out-of-state prospect is excited about expanding to the county if internal conditions can be met.

The commission voted unanimously for a tax abatement for an expansion of Two Rivers Lumber Company as the initial construction is completed. Bontrager said the developers realized such expansion was in the fledgling company’s best interests.

The new project will add another 35 jobs, bringing the total to 90. It reflects a capital investment of $5.76 million. The abatement covers all non-educational taxes and all sales and use taxes on new equipment purchases.

In other action, the commission accepted the low bid of $6,485.52 from Phillip Myers to pressure wash the courthouse, annex and jail. Members also appointed Fred Moore to the West Alabama Mental Health board, filling the spot vacated by Al Garrett.

A budget hearing was set for Tuesday, Aug. 29, at 4:30 p.m.

Commission votes to purchase electronic poll books after debate

Marengo County Commissioner Freddie Armstead didn’t mince words at the meeting Tuesday morning when he let loose on the Republican-led Alabama legislature for requiring unfunded mandates to the state counties.

His comments arose when the commission was asked to pass a resolution to consent to the use of electronic poll books for elections in the county. Each poll book will cost some $850. The resolution needed to be passed at the July meeting since the primary election for the U.S. Senate will be in August.

“We don’t have the money. We don’t have the $13,000,” said Armstead.

Commissioner Jason Windham said poll books were used in Demopolis during the election last year on loan from the state to see how well they worked. “In my personal opinion, it makes (voting) twice as fast.”

Armstead said the primary reason for the poll books was to prevent people from crossing party lines to vote in a run-off election.

County attorney W.W. Dinning, Jr., agree that “It is no doubt it is politically motivated. He said the state is requiring counties to use electronic poll books, but the unfunded mandate lays the burden of paying for them on the counties.

“Why don’t we just tell them to go to hell,” joked Armstead. “It’s the Republicans putting something else on us to keep track of what you’re doing and to keep people from cross-over voting.”

After lengthy discussion the commission voted for the resolution and to purchase 12 poll books for the August election to be used at the polling places that have the most voters. The rest will be purchased before the mid-term elections in 2018.

Armstead also took issue that Revenue Commissioner Sharon Barkley was not at the meeting to explain the annual report to the state on insolvents, errors in assessments and taxes. He directed Meredith Hammond, the commission secretary, to have her attend the meeting.

Instead of Barkley, Whitney Niehoff, a clerk with the Revenue Commission, explained the report to commissioners and said that everything was reconciled in the department account.

In other action, the commission approved:

  • The Grand Jury report,
  • Keeping the User Fee CD at the First Bank of Linden
  • Going out for bids to pressure wash the courthouse, annex and jail. Bids will be opened at the next meeting on Aug. 8.

Marengo County Commission moves voting locations, discusses bereavement leave

Personnel issues took center stage at the Marengo County Commission meeting Tuesday. Commissioners updated the personnel policy on bereavement leave and voted on life insurance coverage for both current and retired employees.

In the current personnel policy, employees are expected to take bereavement leave out of their sick or vacation times. Probate Judge Laurie Hall said other counties have separate bereavement leave policies when a member of an employee’s immediate family dies.

After a lengthy discussion, Commissioner Jason Windham moved to allow employees two days of paid bereavement leave. If any more is needed, it will be taken from sick or vacation days.

If an employee doesn’t have sufficient vacation or sick days, the county will loan him the leave until sufficient time is accumulated.

Commissioner Freddie Armstead added a bit of levity to the discussion when he said, “Let me tell you something. Black folks, you die and they lay them out and bury them the next week. White folks you die and they bury you tomorrow.”

The Commission unanimously voted to accept the first of three proposed life insurance policies provided by Minnesota Life Insurance, effective for three years.

The proposal would cost both current and retired employees $18.96 per year, with the county matching the amount. The 31 current county retirees would receive $4,500 in life insurance, and employees, $10,000.

Commissioners rejected the plan that each employee would pay $78.36 per year with the county’s cost greatly reduced or a third option based on age.

In other action, the Commission:

Approved a letter of support for West Alabama Public Transportation.

  • Voted for a Hazard Mitigation Grant Resolution for Thomaston which is planning a community safe room.
  • Approved a resolution changing the Back to School Sales Tax Holiday from August to July in conjunction with state action.
  • Heard Judge Hall’s report on the changing of election dates for the U.S. Senate. The first primary will be Aug. 15, with a runoff Sept. 22, if needed. The general election will be Dec. 12.

After an executive session, commissioners voted to relocate the Taylor voting location to Thomaston, the Putnam site from the Old Store to the Putnam Baptist Church, the Nanafalia site from the Old School to the Nanafalia Baptist Church and the Aimwell site from the Aimwell Baptist Church to Sweet Water Town Hall.

The Commission also voted to allow Frazer Lanier to explore the option of refinancing the county’s current bond issue and look into a new bond issue to support Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital in Demopolis.

Marengo County Economic Development Authority names new director

Chris Bontrager (WAW | Jan McDonald)

Chris Bontrager was introduced as the new executive director of the Marengo County Economic Development Authority (MCEDA) at the Marengo County Commission meeting Tuesday.

In his introduction of the new director, EMA director Kevin McKinney said the search committee he chaired had applicants from several states as well as those with local ties.

Bontrager most recently has been involved with economic development in northwest Alabama where he was deputy director in a regional effort in Marion, Fayette and Lamar counties. He earned both his undergraduate and master’s degree from Auburn University.

“I am proud to lead the development efforts in the county,” said Bontrager. “My background is in rural economic development.”

He said his current goals “are to take advantage of any momentum we already have.”

Bontrager accepted the job a month ago and began work on Monday. He already has been I touch with counterparts in neighboring counties, especially Tuscaloosa, to see how an alliance could work for Marengo County.

McKinney said the other members of the MCEDA search committee were Jim Parr, Aliquippa Allen, Johnnie Jones and Hugh Overmeyer.

The South Marengo County Youth Leadership members, consisting of 10th-12th graders at Sweet Water and Marengo High Schools were on hand for Bontrager’s introduction.

South Marengo County Youth Leadership members were present for the introduction of new MCEDA Executive Director Chris Bontrager. (WAW | Jan McDonald)

Pam Stenz with the county’s Extension Office said the group has met six times during the year to study various aspects of leadership. This is the first year of the program, which is paid for by a grant from RC&D out of Thomasville.

The commission approved a resolution supporting the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act which would split what in the past has been a state-wide group into 10 regions. “It should be good for us,” said Commissioner Freddie Armstead.

Probate Judge Laurie Hall gave official notice as required by Gov. Robert Bentley that a special election to fill the vacancy of former Sen. Jeff Sessions will be held at the same time as the general election in 2018. The governor has appointed Luther Strange to fill Sessions’ position until the election.

In other action, the commission approved:

  • New hire for the road department.
  • Tax abatement for Foster Farms for an expansion to its plant.
  • Liquor license for Popes LLC.
  • The appointment of Johnnie Jones to serve on the Park and Rec Board from District 4.
  • The appointment of Errol Agee Thomas to serve on MCEDA from District 4.

Marengo County Commission approves $350k grant proposal

Sheriff Ben Bates is recognized by MCC Chairman John Crawford. (WAW | Jan McDonald)

Thirty families along County Road 53 between Linden and Thomaston soon will have safe drinking water, thanks to action by the Marengo County Commission Tuesday.

Stacy McKean of Grant Management said the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) project would connect the water lines over a 1,000-foot stretch between the two communities.

Resident along the line now rely on old, unsafe wells with low pressure. The $350,000 grant will pay for an 8-inch water main joining the two towns.

The Commission unanimously accepted both the engineering and grant management proposals presented by McKean.

Revenue Commissioner Sharon Barkley got the Commission’s okay to spend $25,000 of her budget over the next two years to take part in an aerial survey of the county.

The state-sponsored project will map one-third of the state over the next three years. Marengo County will be in the first group, which needs to begin immediately while trees remain leafless.

Barkley said the survey would photograph the county at a one pixel per 200-foot scale. She said $10,000 of the cost would be paid this year with the remainder remitted the next fiscal year.

The mapping firm offers two options that Barkley will look into to see if the costs can be met. The first would be a greater photographic resolution, and the second, called planimetrics, would compare the new photos with those taken the last time the county had an aerial survey in 2008.

After discussion, commissioners decided to leave the Tobacco Tax CD at Sweet Water State Bank for six months but extend the EMA CD at First Bank of Linden to one year.

District 2 Commission Jason Windham nominated Justina Quinney Allgood to the Marengo County Economic Development Authority. Nominated from District 3 was Mike Robinson. Both were approved. Calvin Martin asked to table his nomination from District 4 until the March meeting.

The Grand Jury report was accepted, but the Commission voted to direct Chairman John Crawford to look into the recommendation to replace some 50 chairs in the small courtroom.

Sheriff Richard Bates was recognized for having completed the Alabama Jail Training Academy. Bates attended four two-day sessions of the ACCA-sponsored program. At least two of the Marengo County jail personnel have graduated as well.

In other action, the Commission:

  • Approved a resolution for the Alabama County Commissions Association Liability Fund Participation Agreement.
  • Passed county levies for alcohol licensing set by the state.
  • Approved a request from County Engineer Ken Atkins for a resolution on a change in funding for the Gandy Ferry Road project. Atkins said the resolution was needed after the state made an error.
  • Set a one-hour lunch break for all county employees between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and the clock-out time at 4:30 p.m.

UPDATED: Eatmon resigns as coroner; commission awaits governor’s appointment

Stuart Eatmon Sr., has resigned from his position as Marengo County coroner effective Dec. 31, 2016, according to Marengo County Commission Chairman John Crawford Jr.

Eatmon submitted his letter of resignation citing health concerns during the Commission’s November meeting with an effective date of Dec. 31. In that meeting, Eatmon recommended Dan Beverly as his replacement.

“Dan has been on all calls since that [November] meeting, and he’s currently being reimbursed only for mileage. Stuart was paid through the end of December, but his pay ended then. Dan is serving as Deputy Coroner on an interim basis until the governor appoints someone to the position,” said Crawford.

Eatmon said he was going to submit a letter to Governor Robert Bentley, recommending that Beverly be appointed as coroner. It is unclear whether that letter has been submitted to the governor’s office.

Eatmon took over as coroner July 1, 2001 and had two years remaining on his current term.

“Up until this past year, for 24/7 for 365 days a year, I went on calls no matter the time or holiday,” Eatmon told The Watchman. “I was there for the people and families I served and consoled with the loss of their loved ones. That was always important to me. No matter what age they were or what the sad circumstance, I was there for the families even after my call was through.”

Eatmon came under fire on Tuesday after a derogatory racial comment appeared in a post on social media via his account. At the time, it was assumed that Eatmon was still acting coroner. The comment was a reply to an article shared by another Facebook user featuring the image of an African American, female sailor with the headline “Navy Sailor Who Refused to Stand for Anthem Gets Exactly the Punishment She Deserves.”

Eatmon’s post has since been deleted, but not before screenshots were shared on social media.

After the comment was shared, Eatmon initially appeared to offer an explanation on his personal Facebook page by saying that he was a U.S. Veteran and that anyone who is too sorry to stand for the flag should move back to another country.

As of Tuesday evening, Eatmon deleted the initial comment and posted another explaining that his Facebook account was actually hacked, and that the hackers not only posted the derogatory comment, but also sent nude images to his Facebook friends.

“I got hacked,” said Eatmon by phone. “It’s not true. A lot of people don’t know what a hacker is…you know what a hacker can do…to get in a Facebook and run it just like I’m on it.”

“I’m not the only one who got hacked yesterday,” Eatmon said.

When asked about the comment where Eatmon said he was a veteran, he said that that’s one more clue that indicated he was hacked because he is not a veteran.

“That’s one other thing that gave it away,” Eatmon said. “Whoever hacked me put that in there. I’m not a veteran. I don’t know who put that on there, but I’m not a veteran.”

“The people who truly know me know that I’m not that kind of person,” Eatmon said.

Eatmon indicated that he began receiving harassing phone calls and other communications Tuesday evening and that threats have been levied against his children.

“I don’t want my decades of service (on the rescue squad) and coroner to be smudged with the lie of something I didn’t do,” Eatmon explained. “Because I spent much of my life serving all people here. No matter their background, color, or status, we’re all people. I served all people.”

He indicated March 30 is his last day as coroner due to his health, but Crawford said Eatmon has not been on a call since mid-November.

On recommending Dan Beverly as his replacement, Eatmon said he has the experience to serve as coroner.

“He’s been a nurse for years, he was in the rescue squad for a little while, and he worked on the ambulances,” said Eatmon. “He knows how to treat people like I do and have a kind heart.”


Updated at 10:14 p.m. Wednesday with comments from Eatmon.

 Previous update at 6:50 p.m. Wednesday.


Commission approves voting machine contract, recognizes Tutt in Tuesday meeting

Webb Tutt, left, accepts a resolution from Marengo County Commissioner asdfaasdf

Webb Tutt, left, accepts a resolution from Marengo County Commission recognizing his team’s accomplishment after winning the AISA Class 1A State Championship and finishing the season with an 11-1 record. (WAW | Jan McDonald)

After questioning a contract for voting machine maintenance, Marengo County Commissioner Freddie Armstead moved to accept the proposal.

ES&S Hardware Maintenance has held the contract to service voting machines for Alabama, but the state no longer pays for the upkeep. Each county now must pick up the tab.

Armstead’s objection was the automatic renewal clause stating the contract was “subject to a possible increase” in costs. The two-year contract costs the county $9,236.50. When he learned the maximum increase would be five percent, or $400, Armstead moved to accept the contract, which was voted on unanimously.

Probate Judge Laurie Hall said the contract is based on maintenance of each of the 21 machines. If the county doesn’t use all of them for an election, the cost will decrease.

The Commission also approved an energy study of the county’s facilities by Schneider Electric Energy and Sustainability Services of Birmingham. The initial study would be at no cost to the county.

Company representative Keith Harris said the study would be the first step in a possible contract with the county for a Capital Recovery and Reinvestment Program. It would guarantee utility savings for 20 years, and those savings could be invested back into county facilities.

Webb Tutt, coach of the Marengo Academy football team, accepted a resolution from the Commission for his team winning the AISA 1-A state championship with an 11-1 record for the season.

Also approved were a $350,000 Community Block Development Grant to tie the Thomasville water system to the Linden system and the Professional Engineering and Grant Administration service to oversee the grant.

In other action, the Commission approved:

  • The Grant Jury report
  • Denial of a claim
  • 13 holidays for 2017
  • Renewal of a contract with the Dallas County Commission for long-term housing of Marengo County juvenile offenders.

A bid for sealing and restriping the courthouse parking lot for $24,500.

County commissioners take oath of office in Wednesday meeting

District Judge Vince Deas, left, administers the oath of office to Calvin Martin, center, and Jason Windham. (WAW | Jan McDonald)

District Judge Vince Deas, left, administers the oath of office to Calvin Martin, center, and Jason Windham. Windham is joined by his wife Carey. (WAW | Jan McDonald)

Members of this year’s Leadership Marengo class filled the Marengo County Commission chamber Wednesday and watched as District Judge Vince Deas presented the oath of office to two commissioners.

Sworn in were Calvin Martin, reelected to District 4, and first term commissioner Jason Windham, District 2.

The commission quickly went through a short agenda. They approved a resolution with Wilcox County, which is starting a Water Authority. Wilcox received permission from the Marengo commission to cross a corner of the county with a water line.

Two items were tabled until the next meeting. The first involved the approval of a maintenance agreement with ES&S Hardware to service each of the county’s voting machines. Commissioner Freddie Armstead objected to the two-year automatic renewal in the contract.

“It’s like they’re holding us hostage,” he said.

Tracy Walker was recognized by the commission. (WAW | Jan McDonald)

Tracy Walker was recognized by the commission for completing the Jail Training Course. (WAW | Jan McDonald)

The commission directed the Probate Judge to clarify the agreement before approval.

The second tabled item was the hiring of a full time employee for security. Members wanted to wait until Commissioner John Crawford, who was absent Wednesday, could be present for the vote.

Corrections officer Tracy Walker was recognized for completing the Jail Training Course.

The Commission also approved a resolution honoring Romilner Cunningham on her retirement from the jail, and an Employee Leave Donation for those working in the Marengo County Sheriff’s Department.

At the end of the meeting, Kathryn Friday, who directs Leadership Marengo, thanked the commission. “We appreciate the good financial management of the county,” she said.

Windham defeats England for county commission seat

Jason Windham defeated incumbent Dan England for Marengo County’s District 2 County Commission seat Tuesday. Windham took 1160 votes to England’s 967. In District 4, incumbent Calvin Martin defeated Emanuel Gary Jr., 1486 to 521.

Lynda P. Joiner defeated a write-in campaign of 569 votes with her 1207 for Marengo County Board of Education District 5.

In unchallenged local elections Greg Griggers received 7965 votes for 17th Judicial Circuit District Attorney, Rayvell Smith received 1328 votes for Marengo County Board of Education District 3, 7th District Rep. Terri Sewell received 7331 votes.

Democratic challenger Ron Crumpton outpaced incumbent Richard Shelby in Marengo County, 5,410 to 5,224. Shelby won statewide.

In the presidential race, Hillary Clinton edged Donald Trump in Marengo County, 5607 to 5224. Gary Johnson received 104 votes, and Jill Stein received 13.

In Marengo County, a total of 11,046 ballots were cast.