News

2009 IN REVIEW

Jobless, schools, water, health care top stories
By MIKE BROWN Reporter Editor
It was the year Alcoa didn’t make any big news. That’s not a good thing for Rockdale. Since

Steelworkers had mixed views of layoffs from Alcoa in a February interview. Some returned to school, others dealt with unemployment checks and a tough job market. Steelworkers had mixed views of layoffs from Alcoa in a February interview. Some returned to school, others dealt with unemployment checks and a tough job market. 1951 the ups and downs of Alcoa’s Rockdale

Operations have been major news in year-end Reporter news roundups.

There was plenty of news made in other areas during the year just past.

• Luminant’s Sandow 5 power plant went on line, despite missing an environmental deadline. Luminant now employs about 375 in mining and power generation.

• Rockdale entered a new era in school facilities with the opening of a new intermediate school and virtually new high school.

• The Texas Department of Transportation’s proposed US 79 loop around Rockdale, which had drawn the ire of many in the business community, entered 2009 on life support due to funding uncertainty. It died for the foreseeable future during the year.

Hospital district chair Dr. John Weed III (above left) and Blackhawk Healthcare executive Jeff Madison talk about Blackhawk’s plans to purchase Richards Memorial Hospital and add to the facility. Hospital district chair Dr. John Weed III (above left) and Blackhawk Healthcare executive Jeff Madison talk about Blackhawk’s plans to purchase Richards Memorial Hospital and add to the facility. • It was Rockdale’s hottest summer ever with 62 highs of 100 or more. A drought came with the heat but when it rained, it really rained as 11.2 inches fell in less than four days the third week in September.

• Eligible voters created a new municipal development district by five votes.

Alcoa

In 2008 Alcoa announced it was closing the smelter at Rockdale Operations, throwing 1,100 people out of work.

The shutdown was completed in the early months of 2009 while unemployment in Milam County soared to 10.9 percent.

With exporters eyeing area aquifers, water was on a lot of people’s minds, a situation exacerbated by the area’s continuing drought and heat wave (below). With exporters eyeing area aquifers, water was on a lot of people’s minds, a situation exacerbated by the area’s continuing drought and heat wave (below). It didn’t go below 10 percent until December when the rate fell to 9.7.

Rockdale grappled with the shutdown through all of 2009 but the full effect won’t be felt until mid 2010 when SUB (supplementary unemployment benefit) pay runs out for all those on layoff.

There’s still a small Alcoa presence in the Rockdale area. About 55 jobs, most in the atomizer, remain at Rockdale Operations.

About 55 laid-off Alcoans were called back during the year to recover metal from the now unused pots but that project is over and the 55 are back on layoff.

Company officials have indicated the price of aluminum would have to approach the $2,400 to $2,500 per metric ton range in order for a re-start to be feasible.

Luminant Manager Steve Skidd stood in front of Sandow 4 and new Sandow 5 power units. Luminant’s investment and the Bechtel-Becon construction force have bolstered the local economy. Luminant Manager Steve Skidd stood in front of Sandow 4 and new Sandow 5 power units. Luminant’s investment and the Bechtel-Becon construction force have bolstered the local economy. Aluminum prices are poised to close 2009 above $2,200, an increase of about $400 in the past two months.

Sandow 5

The long-awaited 581-megawatt Sandow 5 power plant was completed by the Aug. 31 deadline, went on-line and was turned over to Luminant but a few problems remained.

The unit did not meet all of its required environmental mandates as specified by Federal District Judge Sam Sparks, by the deadline and the company filed a request for more time.

By October some neighbors in the area immediately east of the plant, were complaining noise and vibrations from the new unit were intense enough to jiggle water in a glass and loud enough to cause discomfort.

Luminant shut down Sandow 5 for 12 days in November to install steel plates as a remedy for noise and vibrations.

The plant came back online Nov. 18 amid general consensus the noise problem had been substantially alleviated.

Luminant impacted the area in other ways during the year.

Sandow 5 value on the Rockdale ISD and county tax rolls more than offset the loss of the Alcoa smelter and prevented tax increase by those two entities.

A nd Luminant is now t he area’s largest employer with 375 employed in Sandow Power Plant Units 4 and 5 plus the Three Oaks Mine.

Alcoa, which has a pending lawsuit against Luminant over power supply issues, amended that litigation during 2009 to indicate the aluminum company may ask Luminant to return the Three Oaks Mine which Alcoa once owned.

Bye, bye loop

2009 was a year of big changes in Rockdale. Top: 20-year RISD Supt. Walter Pond retired, but not before overseeing a bond issue that provided $28 million for new schools. 2009 was a year of big changes in Rockdale. Top: 20-year RISD Supt. Walter Pond retired, but not before overseeing a bond issue that provided $28 million for new schools. The Texas Department of Transpor tation (TxDOT) for many months had been putting back forecast on when construction would start on a US 79 loop north of Rockdale.

By early 2009 the handwriting was on the wall. Due to the national economic crisis of 2008 there was no money for the Rockdale loop nor many other proposed projects.

There was a brief period in which state bean counters held out the prospect federal stimulus fund might free up money for TxDOT projects, or that the demise of the Texas Transportation Corridor (TTC) might lead to the same outcome, but that turned out not to be the case.

Finally, TxDOT threw in the towel and admitted the obvious. There will be no US 79 loop around Rockdale in the foreseeable future.

Middle: Workers carefully put up the cupola on the new addition at Rockdale High School, which more than doubled the size of the school. Middle: Workers carefully put up the cupola on the new addition at Rockdale High School, which more than doubled the size of the school. The loop has been removed from the highway department’s short term list of projects.

New schools

With all the bad economic news Rockdale needed a point of pride to hang its community hat on and 2009 provided just that.

The new 73,645 square-foot intermediate school, housing grades 3-5, and 77,589 square foot addition to the high school were ready for the first day of classes in August.

The high school is virtually brand new. More than three fourths of the campus is now either new or remodeled and new, matching windows were added to the old portion.

The 2007 bond issue which assured those two construction projects also provided for a new wing at the junior-high and a new cafetorium-kitchen complex at the elementary.

Below: Crews from Dixie Construction dismantle Alcoa Power Units 1, 2 and 3. Plans call for at least one of the 1950s-era power units, shut down in 2006, to be sold and reassembled in South America. Below: Crews from Dixie Construction dismantle Alcoa Power Units 1, 2 and 3. Plans call for at least one of the 1950s-era power units, shut down in 2006, to be sold and reassembled in South America. In November, consultant Dr. Ned Walton reported to trustees the bond project would finish “in the black” with an amount of money, yet to be determined, being returned to the school district.

Sweating it out

It was Rockdale’s hottest spring and summer ever recorded in the 85 years U. S. Weather Bureau records have been recorded.

The hottest June ever—18 consecutive days of 100 degrees—was followed by the second-hottest July and the brutal heat lasted through August.

In all, 62 days of 100-plus temperatures were recorded, breaking the record of 59 set in 1998.

And the highs were higher. Nineteen of those maximum temperatures were 105 or higher.

The city continued to put a dent into dilapidated properties by razing several sites. The legal process and informing heirs of properties slows the process considerably, but several places were cleared around the town. The city continued to put a dent into dilapidated properties by razing several sites. The legal process and informing heirs of properties slows the process considerably, but several places were cleared around the town. That’s another record. Previous mark was 17, set in 2000.

The heat was accompanied by drouth but when it rained, it did so big-time.

Rockdale was soaked with 11.9 inches of ran in four days the third week of September, almost eight inches before sunrise one Sunday.

Development district

Facing an Alcoa-less future city officials had long dreamed of acquiring funds for an economic development entity to attract new business to the area.

That opportunity presented itself last spring when the state ruled the Rockdale Hospital District was not entitled to collect sales taxes in the area inside the city limits which had been annexed since 2002.

Abe Doss practices blacksmithing hobby in the new building on the grounds of the I&GN Depot. The depot restoration was named best in the state by the Texas Downtown Association. Abe Doss practices blacksmithing hobby in the new building on the grounds of the I&GN Depot. The depot restoration was named best in the state by the Texas Downtown Association. That’s because the hospital district had never legally expanded its boundaries since it was created in 1994.

That sales tax portion could be directed to economic development, if approved in a municipal election.

But there was a kicker. Only those people who lived in the post-2002-annexed areas of Rockdale were eligible to vote.

City officials nervously called an election for May 12 and waited to see if anyone would show up.

Ninety-three people did and they created the Rockdale Municipal Development District by a 5-vote margin, 49 to 44.

January

Rockdale ISD trustees unanimously hired Dr. Howell Wright, superintendent of the Rosebud-Lott ISD to replace Walter Pond, who retired after a 38-year career in the Rockdale ISD, the last 20 as superintendent.

For the second time, city council members denies a tax rollback petition, noting that petition organizers still did not provide state-required information with signatures, including printed names, place of residence and date of birth or voter registration number.

Preliminary budget numbers released by State Comptroller Susan Combs made it highly unlikely the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) would be able to continue with plans for Rockdale’s proposed US 79 loop.

February

South Milam County United Way organizers announced the 2008 drive was only 3.5 percent of the way to its 90,000 goal and, due to the closure of Alcoa’s Rockdale Operations whose fund drive routinely raised two-thirds of the UW goal, would be fortunate to meet half its funding obligations to 23 organizations.

Rockdale financial institutions announced they were not taking any federal bailout funds.

TxDOT said federal stimulus funds would not be used to construct the Rockdale US 79 loop.

Rockdale school trustees turned down a request by the local Masonic Lodge to donate and set cornerstones on the new high school and intermediate school.

March

Rockdale’s annual Tejas Fest drew crowds estimated at between 1,500 and 2,000 and featured authors, artists, a car show, historical exhibits and more.

Top award winners from the annual Rockdale Chamber of Commerce banquet: Becky Booker-Marek, Citizen of the Year; Collier Perry, Outstanding Citizen; Bland Construction, business of the year; Workforce Solutions of Central Texas, special award for service to laid-off Alcoans; Rockdale Downtown Association, Organization of the Year.

April

Robin Faulkner moved up from the assistant principal’s position to become new principal at Rockdale Elementary School. Pam Kaufman, former principal was named principal of the new Rockdale Intermediate campus.

The Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District (POSGCD) voted not to cut transport and production fees by half as requested by Blue Water LP, which had received permission to pump an additional 40,000 acre/feet of water from underneath Milam and Burleson counties.

Germaine Dawson, Rockdale High School graduate and a student at the University of North Texas, was shot to death in Lewisville and 18-yearold Ryan Harrison was arrested for murder. Dawson played linebacker for the UNT football team.

An 84-year-old visiting priest from Staten Island, New York, was arrested and charged with sexual assault in Rockdale. Charges against Father Stephen Valenta involved an incident alleged to have occurred in 2008.

Blackhawk Healthcare officials were recommending the current Richard Memorial Hospital be expanded and renovated. Blackhawk had been considering where to take that option or build a completely new hospital.

May

It was a squeaker but voters in the portion of Rockdale annexed since 2002 approved creation of a Municipal Development District by a 49-44 margin. District funding is from a portion of a sales tax no longer collected by the Rockdale Hospital District.

Voters were in an anti-incumbent mood in Thorndale and Milano. Challengers unseated two Thorndale ISD trustees and only Milano board member seeking re-election ran last in a field of four.

Only incumbents filed for election to the Rockdale ISD board of trustees and the Rockdale City Council.

General Motors closed down about 1,100 of the 6,246 General Motors dealers nationwide but Rockdale’s Miller-Starnes Chevrolet-Buick “dodged the bullet” and remained open.

April Eschberger, assistant principal at Rockdale High School, was named the new principal at Rockdale Junior-High, replacing Brent Kirkpatrick.

Thomas Merka IV was valedictorian and Jason Korenek salutatorian of the 111-member Rockdale High School graduating class of 2009.

June

Taxable values on Rockdale motels increased as much as 1,000 percent after the Milam County Appraisal District used an appraisal system based on income instead of value of the motel’s physical plant.

On a 4-2 vote, the Rockdale ISD School Board endorsed a recommendation by district administrators and decided to close the new Rockdale High School campus for lunch in 2009-10.

Gordon Currin, 76, drew a life sentence for the 2008 shotgun slaying of Gregory Story, 48, in a dispute over a Milano barbecue restaurant.

Kelvin Knauf, 54, of Conroe, was named Rockdale’s new city manager, replacing Randy Holly who had occupied the position on an interim basis following the resignation of T. Flemming.

July

Final weather figures showed 2009 contained Rockdale’s hottest June ever with 18 days over 100, soaring to a monthly high of 108.

Robert Donald of Troy was honored by the Department of Public Safety for pulling truck driver Willie Rabelais of Killeen from the wreckage of Rabelais’ 18-wheeler seconds before the overturned rig burst into flames on FM 908.

The Milam County Cour thouse in Cameron received its Recorded Texas Historic Landmark marker, the only historic designation which the restored Victorian Era courthouse had yet to earn.

August

The Rockdale ISD was celebrating improved ratings in the annual Texas Education Association (TEA) “school report card.” The high school and elementary were rated “recognized” with the junior-high and district as a whole were listed as “acceptable.”

Rockdale’s city budget sliced four persons from the city payroll.

Milano ISD purchased the former fourth-grade portable building from the Rockdale ISD and turned the structure into a new junior-high.

A new era began in the Rockdale ISD as classes began in one brand new campus (Rockdale Intermediate School) and one that was more than three-fourths new (Rockdale High School). The 2007 bond program which provided funds for those campuses also built a new wing at the junior-high and a new cafetoriumkitchen complex at the elementary.

A power failure on the first day at the junior-high sent RJH students to the high school while Oncor crews fixed the problem.

Classes began with an unexpected, bonus for the district, an enrollment increase of five students, reversing a five-year trend.

September

The 581-megawatt Sandow Unit Five power plant fired up and was turned over from builder Bechtel- Becon to owner Luminant. The plant did not meet environmental deadlines and Luminant attorneys were asking Federal District Judge Sam Sparks for an extension.

Rockdale City Council members adopted a budget with a 3-cent tax hike, from 63 to 66 cents.

U. S. Army 2nd Lieutenant Darryn Andrews of Cameron was killed in action in Afghanistan.

The Texas Department of Transportation made it official. The US 79 Rockdale loop was being dropped from its list of “near future” projects.

School trustees, in a series of split votes, gave the go ahead to hire a construction manager at risk for a major upgrade of the RHS baseball field.

City councilman Griffin Rogers was removed from office. Rogers had been the subject of a delinquent tax lawsuit and had been unable to attend council meetings in the aftermath of an auto accident. Rogers termed the tax issue a “misunderstanding.”

October

Milam County Deputy Sheriff Chris White obtained a confession in a Milano-area burglary case by raising the specter of DNA identification from drops of perspiration collected at the scene by investigators.

The fourth annual Kay Theatre 5K Run/Walk/Unrun grossed another $8,000 for restoration of the theatre. The four walks have now raised over $40,000.

A six-month zoning ordeal was finally over as the Rockdale City Council, on a split vote, changed zoning along an area of Ackerman Street to “heavy commercial,” allowing Elaine Van Horn to open Elaine’s Emporium Antique Shop.

Some neighbors of the new Sandow 5 power plant were complaining of a buzzing sound when the new facility was operating. Luminant officials pledged to remedy the situation.

For the first time ever the Miss Rockdale Fair Queen pageant was held prior to the Fair. Kassie Roddam, RHS senior, won the pageant, held the Saturday before Fair week.

2009 Rockdale Fair highlights: The $189,934 youth livestock auction was the third highest in Fair history; Jonathan McAnulty of the Cameron Junior FFA showed the grand champion steer; headliners were Jason Boland, Roger Creager and Rick Treviño; Darryl Gayheart’s 1952 Willys won the auto show.

Bids on RHS baseball field upgrades came in double the expected price and board members sent contractors and architects literally “back to the drawing board.”

A restored 19th Century blacksmith shop was dedicated at Rockdale’s historic I&GN Depot-Museum.

Blackhawk Health Care announced it was ready to begin construction of a new, expanded Richards Memorial Hospital. As the first part of that project Blackhawk began negotiations to purchase the current hospital facilities, and land, from the Rockdale Hospital District.

Alcoa amended its lawsuit against Luminant to indicate it might seek return of the 3 Oaks Mine. Damages sought in the lawsuit were put at half a billion dollars.

November

The newest shoplif ting fad in Rockdale was for shoplifters to stuff pajama pants or multiple pants with items, then leave the store. Police said two such incidents had been reported within two weeks.

Mike Cahill, 60, of Cameron died in the shootings at Fort Hood.

A redesign of the RHS baseball field upgrade didn’t satisfy the Rockdale ISD school board as a motion to approve the project died for lack of a second.

Rockdale’s International & Great Northern Railroad Depot Museum was named the best restored building in the state by the Texas Downtown Association.

A 22-year-old Rockdale resident was jailed for possessing a stolen semiautomatic weapon near the elementary school.

Luminant’s Sandow 5 power plant came back on line after an outage to work on noise problems with the consensus being that vibrations from the new power plant had been reduced.

A 22-year-old Milano man was hit three times in a late-night shootout with Police Ofc. S. A. Smith outside the vacant Walmart building. Erric Scott Anderson recovered and was charged with attempted murder. Smith was not hit.

December

Twelve Democrats and two Republicans filed for the March 2, 2010, primaries on the first filing day. Races already contested include county judge with incumbent Democrat Frank Summers and Republican David Barkemeyer seeking nominations of their respective parties.

Michael Stewart was named the Rockdale Volunteer Fire Department’s firefighter of the year.

One arrest was made as a flurry of fake $20 bills began to appear around Rockdale.

Two-thirds of Rockdale ISD students were termed “economically disadvantaged.”

About 100 LaGrange football fans escaped injury when a pickup struck two charter buses near the Y-intersection south of Cameron.

Christmas Roundup set an all-time record with 331 families served, containing 1,258 individuals, including more than 800 children.


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The burn ban for Milam County has been lifted. Burning is always prohibited in the county's municipalities.


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