Search and recovery divers prepare to face the chilly waters of Rocky Comfort Creek in search of Bill "Bo Peep" Farrer.
Search expected to move to land
By Ben Nelms
The December search
The disappointment on the faces of divers, K-9 handlers and law enforcement officers was unmistakable. The darkness that replaced the brief twilight along the banks of Rocky Comfort Creek Dec. 17 could not obscure the frustration in their eyes and in their words.
Some of those who looked unsuccessfully for missing Louisville resident Bill "Bo Peep" Farrer were new to the search that resumed Dec. 15, but most in the group could almost be regarded as veterans of what began Sept. 13 as a rescue effort and quickly became the largest search for a missing person that local residents or any of the multitude of divers and dog handlers from Georgia, Tennessee and Florida had ever seen.
Maintaining the position he took when the renewed search began, Jefferson County Sheriff Gary Hutchins vowed to continue efforts to determine if the 66 year-old Farrer is in the area by conducting a much wider land search in the coming weeks.
The resumption of the search in mid-December followed an 18-day effort in September where a daily average of 75-100 dog handlers, divers, heavy equipment operators and volunteers labored to find the man whose truck and fishing boat were found apparently abandoned at his favorite fishing spot on Rocky Comfort. The absence of substantial clues to his whereabouts, even after gaining permission from state authorities to divert a one-third mile section of the creek, led to Hutchins' promise that the search would continue.
That continuation came in below-freezing weather on Sunday morning, Dec. 15. Arriving at the site was the tenacious group from Jesup-based Dogs South Search and Rescue along with new handlers from St. Petersburg and Eatonton. What was intended to be a land search quickly became one on the water due to alerts by the dogs that the scent of human remains lay in the water, not on land. The efforts of cadaver dogs, divers from Washington and Putnam counties and forensic divers from Chattanooga during the following two days still offered no solution to the mystery of Bill Farrer's disappearance. Alerts by the dogs to the scent of human remains continued much farther upstream on the final day of the December search. The scent may originate in the water or might have made its way into the water from somewhere on land, carried into the creek after a rain. Whether that scent signals Farrer's presence or that of someone deceased more than a century ago remains unknown.
The reality that accompanied the lack of answers to Farrer's fate led to Hutchins' promise to return again to Rocky Comfort.
The next effort, tentatively set for mid-January, will take the composure of an extensive land search and will include a much larger number of cadaver dogs. Once the date is coordinated for the arrival of the dogs, handlers will use a grid system approach bolstered by global positioning satellites, said Hutchins. The search area will be expanded far beyond the areas on land previously ruled out.
"The hot spots in the water on the last search didn't pan out," Hutchins said Friday. "So we're going to a land search with enough dogs out there at one time once we can get enough dogs lined up. We are going to look for Bill Farrer until I feel comfortable that we have done everything possible to cover the area to the best of our ability."
The searchers perspective
Just as unmistakable as the frustration in the words and on the faces of family, friends, law enforcement officers, searchers and many in the community at the lack of answers about Farrer's disappearance, is the amazement on the faces and in the comments from the majority of the divers and dog handlers from Tennessee, Florida and across Georgia who have taken the time and expense to be a part of the effort.
The continuous comments made in September were echoed again in December. The amazement in their voices was rooted in the magnitude of the commitment by Hutchins to keep the search effort alive and by the community to support it, they said. In the numerous cases they work across the South and beyond, they see something in Jefferson County that may otherwise escape the notice of many that live in that rural landscape. The unusual participation by the community to find a missing man is what keeps the searchers coming. In other communities, they said, the search would have ended shortly after it began.
The fate and whereabouts of Bill "Bo Peep" Farrer remains a wide open question. While the answer to the question continues to be elusive, the reason to pose the question is simple.
"This is somebody's family member," he said. "And there's just no price you can put on an individual. We are going to do whatever is possible to bring closure to this. We are open to people's ideas and suggestions and we want people to come forward if they have information that can help determine his whereabouts."
Law enforcement center approved
By Ben Nelms
The smiles on the faces of commissioners were evident Dec. 19 as they voted 5-0 to award the contract for construction of the Jefferson County Law Enforcement Center to Clemons Rutherford & Associates (CRA) of Tallahassee.
The multi-year process to construct the facility funded by a one-percent sales tax approved by voters last year ended with the decision to build the completely outfitted, 120-bed facility at a cost not to exceed $5.597 million, a savings of more than $1 million over the proposal presented just two months earlier. A number of aspects of the project are open for negotiation that can decrease the overall price even further. The only participation required by the county includes running water and sewer lines from the road to within five feet of the construction site and installing a paved road onto the property. The center will be located adjacent to Jefferson County Correctional Institute off Highway US 1 in Louisville.
"I think that this board, along with (Georgia Sheriff's Association representative) John Southern and the sheriff, made a decision to build a law enforcement center that's been proactively planned and the cost has been minimized," said Chairman Gardner Hobbs elatedly. "I think that over the long haul the citizens, this county and our board will be happy with what has been decided today."
Plans call for the center to be laid out in two sections. The 22,728 square-foot administration building will house the sheriff's office, investigative and booking areas, E-911 Center, Magistrate Court, kitchen, visiting area, holding cells, a central control room and office space for lease. Plans for the facility will accommodate minor reconfigurations to interior rooms that may be needed prior to construction. The building will be of brick construction in front and metal in the rear.
The 17,681 square-foot housing pod, located in the rear of the administration building, will be outfitted primarily with self-contained two-man and four-man cells. The steel cells are equipped with a toilet and shower, diminishing both the traffic flow and potential security problems that would exist with congregate restroom and bathing areas. An additional advantage of using self-contained cells, referred to as drop-in cells, is that all required maintenance will be handled in a small corridor behind the cells.
CRA representatives suggested that the county would see a cost saving by determining whether the drop-in steel cells, office furniture and other needed items should be purchased directly by the county as opposed to having those items included in the overall price. County administrator James Rogers said he had already begun that process. Savings to the county by purchasing the cells directly from the manufacturer, for example, would represent a savings of as much as $70,000 on sales tax. The savings are possible because the cells, at a cost of approximately $1 million, are listed as equipment rather than construction material and can avoid the additional tax when purchased directly.
CRA also told commissioners that they would be interested in having local businesses subcontract for as much of the work as possible, a move that had surfaced since discussion about building a center began more than three years ago.
After the vote, Sheriff Gary Hutchins thanked commissioners for their perseverance and participation in what had been a long, exhaustive process.
"The commissioners have been supportive all the way," said Hutchins. "I see a lot of counties where it is not that way. I just want to thank each one of you for what you did by standing by us and backing us up."
The board's decision to hire CRA after such a lengthy selection process was applauded by Commissioner Tommy New. Cooperation from all parties involved in the construction should result in a facility that serves the county's current and future needs.
"I'm happy that the law enforcement center is finally going forward and I have all confidence that we will have a good jail with the people we have hired at this time," he said. "I think it's going to take a cooperative effort between the engineers, the contractor, the architect, the sheriff and the commission to make this thing come about, but I'm pleased with what's happened so far."
Outgoing Commissioner Wynder Smith said Saturday he was happy that his 14-year tenure as a county commissioner could culminate with the board's agreement to build the law enforcement center.
"I'm glad we finally made the decision to go forward with it," he said. "The firm we chose had a good plan and showed that we can negotiate with them to stay within the budget."
The second proposal under consideration by commissioners was provided by Rosser International Engineering of Atlanta. Though the board was pleased with the cost estimate and the thoroughness of the presentation, commissioners opted overall for the plan presented by CRA.
The meeting ended with commissioners voting to end that relationship with architect Rusty McCall, who along with builder Mark Massee, recently offered proposals that came in more than $1 million higher than those offered by both CRA and Rosser. The board decided to accept bids from other firms after becoming unsettled with negotiations with McCall & Associates that lasted nearly a year and a half. McCall had originally been preferred over two other firms also proposing to build the center.
Funding cut back for seniors' meals
By Ben Nelms
What amounted to only a minor budget cut by Jefferson County commissioners earlier this month reverberated at the Seniors Center one block away as a holiday disappointment. Though the board passed along a $13,000 federal cut recommended by the Augusta Senior Citizens Council, the reduction will likely leave a number of seniors attending the center without a lunch meal.
Commissioners made the decision at the Dec. 2 work session in a 5-0 vote, citing a Nov. 22 letter from the Augusta agency stating that federal Title 3 monies and contracting agency funding allocated for Jefferson County had been decreased by $13,125 for the federal fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The cuts have the effect of reducing the total number of weekday meals served at the center from 45 to 32 and home delivered meals from 32 to 30. The motion approved by the board and adopted without comment at the Dec. 10 regular session included the provision that center Director Marie Swint adhere to the figures indicated in the amended contract.
Swint said Friday that the center usually has average attendance of 40-45 seniors. She has not yet determined how the eating arrangement will be made.
Seniors Center President Martha Harmon, often the spokesperson for the customarily outspoken group, said she was concerned that the commissioners her group helped put in office made the decision to eliminate one-third of seniors from having access to the only substantial meal that some of them have each day. She acknowledged that commissioners were simply passing the cut on to the seniors, but questioned whether there might have been way to avoid penalizing those who can least afford to miss a meal.
"This came as a shock to us," said Harmon. "It makes me feel really bad and really sad to get that kind of news. We will have enough meals for 22 people, but how are we going to say who can eat and who can't? That's my concern because the people come here are really depending on the food. It's going to be heartbreaking to tell some of the people that they are not going to be able to eat."
Others who attend the center voiced similar concerns about their nutritional needs and how they or their friends will fare with the decision. Many at the center have a monthly income of only $545, said Harmon.
"We don't think it's fair to serve some and not serve all," said Eloise Chaneyfield. "We have a whole county of seniors. It's just not fair."
Several seniors said their disappointment would be made known at the next election cycle in 2004.
"I thought we were voting for commissioners who were interested in our seniors," said Jean Cunningham. "They're losing interest in us."
Asked about the low monthly income level of many who attend and the source of that income being Supplemental Security Income (SSI) rather than social security, several seniors said social security benefits were not amassed for people who made their living working in cotton fields.
Louisville native named Chamber of Commerce vice president
By Elizabeth Howard
Louisville native Lillian E. Agel has recently been named Vice President of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce.
"Lil possesses outstanding executive decision making skills and strong community pride," said Chamber of Commerce President Brad Day. "Lil is an asset to our member businesses and she enhances our community's reputation."
She has worked for the Chamber of Commerce as the Program Coordinator for over two years.
As Program Coordinator she has worked with such events as Leadership Jefferson County, the Legislative Breakfast, the annual STAR student banquet and Business After Hours.
"Leadership Jefferson County was started as I came to work there," she said. "I think that's the one that Brad and I would be most pleased with."
She also described it as the biggest program coordinated by the Chamber of Commerce.
The Board of Directors named Agel as the Chamber's new Vice President at their regular meeting on Thursday, Dec. 19. She will continue to function as the program coordinator and her responsibilities will remain mostly the same.
Chamber hosts annual legislative breakfast
By Ben Nelms
If there had been any doubt about local interest in state and national political affairs, that notion was quickly laid to rest Dec. 13 by the packed house at the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce Annual Legislative Breakfast.
A standing room only group heard comments from newly elected 12th US Congressional District Rep. Max Burns, "new" Republican state Sen. Don Cheeks, perspective state Dept. of Transportation (DOT) board members John Burns and E. H. Culpepper and local DOT Preconstruction Engineer David Griffith.
Rep. Burns told the audience that he was elected to represent the people of the newly created 12th Congressional District and not to represent only a party. He affirmed supported for Pres. Bush in the commitment to stay tough on terrorism while maintaining national integrity.
"If forced to commit troops, it will be a difficult but necessary decision," he said.
Burns said the federal government is expected to enact a process in coming months to stimulate the economy, including funds available for needed economic development projects and workforce development. He considered water to be his district's most precious resource and would oppose any attempt to transfer water rights.
In his statements, Sen. Cheeks told listeners that his recent switch to the Republican Party would not effect his commitment to the people he represents. The loyalty he displays transcends party affiliation.
"I'm still Don Cheeks," he said. "I've never been loyal to a party to the extent that it would tell me how to vote. I've voted my convictions for 30 years and that's not going to change."
Cheeks said he agreed with Governor-elect Sonny Perdue that Georgia must put a strong emphasis on education, including better opportunities for incarcerated youth through enhanced educational opportunities. The payoff for an investment in education statewide will be realized as Georgia continues to experience economic growth.
"Education is key," said Cheeks. "People who supply jobs will come if you have an educated work force."