Year in review: Five local stories top 2009
It was a year in which almost every news story, in one way or another, related to a national economic downturn unseen since the Great Depression. While the recession did not affect Carbon County as quickly, as directly or as strongly as it did many parts of the nation, the area was not totally spared. The downturn's effects will certainly still be felt strongly during the next year as well.
The Sun Advocate has selected five areas of interest during the last year that the staff considers to be the top stories and topics of the year. Here is a short review of those stories.
The top story of the year was the proposed merger between Utah State University and the College of Eastern Utah. During the past 12 months, the Sun Advocate has published more than a dozen stories concerning this situation. The actual idea of a merger or some type of alliance with Utah State University began two years ago, when the state legislature and the board of regents began to discuss declining enrollment at CEU. In the past 10 years, the school not only experienced declining enrollment, but also increasing costs. At the beginning of the decade, it carried a huge debt. Since that time, much of the debt problem has been settled, but the decline in the number of students, or only very slight growth, has plagued the school. Last year, in the legislature, with a down year in budgets looming, it was determined that something had to be done. The board of regents appointed a former CEU president to complete a study. While talk of merging the two schools persisted, many didn't believe it would ever happen. However, this summer, at a meeting in July, the board of regents set up a task force to study what could be done. That task force returned to say that setting up an independent campus in connection with USU would be the best way to go. A time line was established to develop merger plans and create a memorandum of understanding between the present CEU structure and USU. That MOU was presented to the public for comment last month. The affiliated campus will be known as Utah State University College of Eastern Utah. The MOU and the proposed merger will be presented to the Utah State legislature for action in January 2010.
The second biggest story of the year was the swine flu, even though there was no report of deadly results from the malady within Carbon County. The story related to apprehension about the sickness and preparations to prevent it and also to the vaccine that came to the county late in the fall. There were two waves of the flu; one that hit in the spring and the other that started up as early as August. Last spring, and through the summer, the public schools, the college and the Southeastern Utah Health Department all worked to prepare plans for what they thought might be a terrible flu season this winter. However, in December, the peak of the flu seemed to have passed with some people getting sick and a few hospitalized. However, its widespread effect on the health of the area did not take place as many officials feared it would. However, officials are warning that a third wave of the flu could come later this winter. They are still working to see that people are immunized.
Tied directly to the bad economy, stimulus money provided by the federal government to help the economy was a big story in the county this year. Funds came to the county in various ways. Some were applied directly, such as those designated for schools and energy upgrades to homes and businesses. Others were received through state agencies that spent money in the area, particularly from the Utah State Department of Transportation, which worked on projects in the area (especially along Highway 6) some of which had been planned, but were not expected to be constructed for five years. The exact amount of stimulus funds that came into the area is still not completely clear, but it amounted to many millions of dollars.
While 2009 was considered to be an off year for elections (no national or state positions open, only municipal seats), it was a big year for local elected officials. Three towns saw incumbent mayors not run again. They were replaced with new mayors who will take the reins of their towns in January. Wellington received a new mayor in Ben Blackburn, Helper in Dean Armstrong and Sunnyside in Doug Parsons. Many new faces were also elected to city councils in the area as well. Interestingly enough, in the council seats that were open in the largest city in the county (Price), none were contested by challengers. The incumbents will remain for the next term.
Without a doubt, one of the most contentious issues in the area is land use, particularly when it relates to energy development. The Bush administration's sale of oil and gas leases in December of 2008 and the subsequent pulling back of those leases by the new administration's Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar created a firestorm within eastern Utah, not only among those connected with the energy business, but also with those who think the federal government has too much say over local federal lands. The debate rages on, even though some reconsideration was later given to specific leases that were initially pulled back. Despite some compromises, agreements and an announcement by the Obama administration that they want to consider land use at a more local level, the controversy over overall land use and, particularly, energy development is expected to continue to rage for a very long time.