Sheriff’s office

captures headlines; Walton to take over

The Harvey County Sheriff’s Department captured big headlines in 2008.

Prior to the Republican primary in August, it was revealed sitting Harvey County Sheriff A.J. Wuthnow had awarded more than $20,000 in bids to his electric company, Arlis Electric without letting the contracts for bids.

Wuthnow was defeated in the primary by Bruce Jolliff, an instructor at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center.

Shortly after the election, Wuthnow fired long-time office administrator Jeanne Drake.

Drake alleges Wuthnow fired her because she refused to sign a nominating petition for Wuthnow.

Drake asked the Harvey County Commission to conduct a grievance hearing on the issue, but they refused saying they did not have authority to hear grievances concerning staff supervised by elected officials.

Drake has since filed suit in federal court naming Wuthnow and the county commission.

After Drake’s firing, Wuthnow alleges former Harvey County Sheriff Byron Motter and former undersheriffs Steve Bayless and Mike Watkins went to Wuthnow and told him if he did not resign they would release a damaging letter about him to the media.

Wuthnow refused to resign despite the former sheriff’s officials calling for his resignation in a letter to the editor released to several area media outlets.

Wuthnow argued he had been blackmailed, but an investigation by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation resulted in no charges against the former sheriff’s officials.

Weeks before the general election, Wuthnow threw his hat back in the ring for sheriff and ran as a write-in candidate.

However, Democrat Lt. T. Walton of the Newton Police Department won the race for sheriff.

He will take office Jan. 12.

Rec debate goes round and round

but stalled for now

The debate about recreational facilities in Newton has been fierce this year, with competing plans for a Newton Activity Center expansion and a proposed YMCA floating around town. But the issue currently is at a standstill.

The Newton Recreation Commission has circulated the possibility of expanding the current facility on Poplar Street. The $13 million renovation could be done in three phases, according to prior interviews with Brian Bascue, superindentent of the recreation commission. The renovation and expansion would add items such as a leisure pool, administration space, lockers, a new wellness center, a lap pool, two new gyms and a walking path. Bascue said one possibility for the current pool space is a childcare facility.

Currently, the recreation commission receives about $1.1 million in funding a year, levied by the USD 373 school board. The city owns the current activity center. The recreation commission also oversees and maintains the municipal pool and several other outdoor athletic facilities, such as Fischer Field football stadium, Kelsch Field, Washington Field, Centennial Park and the new soccer facility near Newton High School.

Rather than expanding the current facility, some have proposed joining forces with the Greater Wichita YMCA and diverting current recreation commission funds to help build a new $18 million facility. The project would also require financial investment from the private and non-profit sectors.

Proposals for the new facility would include a playground, a lap pool, a leisure pool, a wellness center, gymnasiums, racquetball courts, studio room for classes and a day care, among other amenities.

Attorneys for USD 373, the Newton Recreation Commission and the city sent a joint letter to Kansas Attorney General Steve Six, asking for some guidance on currently rec commission funds and how they can be spent. A response has not been received.

On Jan. 13, the recreation commission will make a presentation to the city commission as part of the commission’s regular meeting.

Tons of stone go into Sand Creek project

This spring brought a host of heavy machinery to town as the Sand Creek restoration project got under way.

The project is expected to be completed next summer.

Suzanne Loomis, Newton city engineer, told the Kansan earlier this year the three goals for the project are bank restoration, hardwood planting areas and a wetlands area.

Bank restoration will extend along the creek from First Street to Main Street. Some planned improvements include the addition of quarry stone along the banks below the waterline, the building of a seven-foot wide concrete walking/biking trail in areas with no such access, dirt addition to provide a more sloping angle where necessary, and the addition of retaining walls in places along the creek banks as needed.

As of mid-December, 47,200 tons of quarry-run stone had been placed along the banks, and more than 7,000 linear feet of T-wall retaining wall has been installed.

All of the sidewalk demolition is complete, and bank demolition work is under way north of 12th Street, according to a city news release.

The 35-acre wetlands area will be on the south side of the dam, on the west side of Sand Creek just north of Southwest 14th, next to the wastewater treatment plant.

At the north and south ends of the creek, wildlife habitat areas will be planted with 127 hardwood trees. Trees have been planted in the north hardwood area at Centennial Park, and the wetlands grading is complete. Seeding will take place soon, and trees and other vegetation will be planted later.

The Sand Creek corridor in Newton was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s to alleviate flooding problems through the center of town. The Corps mandated repairs to the banks of Sand Creek in 1997.

Early on, the city pursued a three-phase plan to fund the project, but the Corps did not approve of a phased plan. Federal funding was located through federal environmental restoration funds.

The federal government is funding $5 million of the $12 million project with environmental restoration funds. The city’s portion of the funding, $7 million, is coming from sales tax revenues and sewer rates. The first planned sewer rate increase took effect in October.

Police search

for suspects

in arson/homicide

An apartment fire that killed a 26-year-old Newton man in May remains a mystery.

Shawn Ormsbee, 26, was killed when on May 18 someone set fire to a Slate Creek apartment in the 500 block of Cherry Lane.

Investigators ruled the fire an arson and are investigating Ormsbee’s death as a homicide.

Two men were seen running from the area the night of the fire, but police have not been able to identify them.

No arrests have been made in the case.

Newton Fire Chief Gary Denny said Ormsbee reportedly went back into the burning apartment complex and succumbed to the fire.

Sharon Fisher, 34, reportedly the girlfriend of the man who was killed, smelled smoke and went out on the balcony of the apartment.

Her exit was blocked when fire engulfed the stairwell, and she jumped from the second-story balcony of the building.

She was taken to Newton Medical Center for treatment of minor injuries.

Once the fire spread from the first apartment, it went into the adjoining apartment’s common stairwell and attic, which Denny described as a “fire suppression nightmare.’’

Several families were temporally displaced from their homes because of the fire.

At the time of the fire, damages were estimated at $240,000.

Police officials are looking for any information that might lead them to suspects in the case.

Crime Stoppers is offering up to a $7,500 reward for the arrest and conviction of a suspect in the case.

Tips to the hotline, which can be reached at 284-2400, are anonymous.

Local residents feel the hurt

of bad economy

Economic turmoil has captured the attention spans of those all across different socioeconomic levels, as Americans face mounting unemployment, a mortgage and foreclosure crisis, and other financial woes.

Locally, home sales had dropped 12.5 percent at the end of the third quarter, compared with 2007. But the median home price rose, while nationally median prices fell about 9 percent, reflecting the increasing number of foreclosures and distressed sales.

Local bankers said 100-percent financing has become basically non-existent, but mortgage loans still are available for those with a little money down and decent credit.

In the first week of December, new national claims for unemployment benefits reached their highest level in 26 years. Employers cut 533,000 jobs in November, the most in 34 years, putting unemployment at 6.7 percent.

Local charities also are feeling the pinch. In a Dec. 5 Kansan story, local organizations, such as Caring Hands Humane Society and the Salvation Army, have reported a decrease in cash giving.

And harder economic times can mean a double punch — an increase in assistance requests at the same time as giving decreases.

For example, Marcia Brazil, director of the Salvation Army of Newton, said while the amount being collected in local kettles is down, assistance requests are up by at least 10 percent.

Many charities and civic organizations receive funding through endowments, and the trouble financial times have hit them hit hard.

Sandra Fruit, director of the Greater Newton Community Foundation, told the Kansan earlier this month volatility in the stock market has resulted in a 3 percent decrease in the value of the foundation’s endowments.

The foundation is reducing payouts to charities from its annual 5 percent to 3 percent and asking organizations that can to refrain from taking any payouts this year.

Residents get swamped by flood plain changes

In Harvey County, flood plains were the topic of discussion in 2007.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration has been working to create new flood plain maps for the county, and in most areas, the flood plain has gotten bigger and will take in more homes.

Harvey County planning and zoning director Scott Davies’ office mailed out some 300 letters to home and landowners who may be affected by the new maps, notifying them of a public meeting, and possible changes, in August.

“The biggest changes to the maps are on the western part of the county,” Davies said. “On the western side of the county, they widened a lot of areas. In the southeast part of the county, they extended some areas. Along Sand Creek in Newton, they took out some areas.”

To find out if a property is affected by the new map, property owners should call Davies’ office at 284-6940 or stop by his ground-floor office to view the new maps.

Davies said for those people facing being added to the flood plain maps there are really only two options — and both include spending money.

One is to have the property surveyed to show inaccuracy in the map and the house should not be in the flood plain, or confirm it should.

The other option is to purchase flood insurance now, at a reduced rate, which can be transferred from one owner to the next as long as the insurance remains paid and in good standing.

The new maps are the result of federal Legislature approving funds for the creation of new, digital flood plain maps nationwide.

There are 19 counties in Kansas going through the process of having new maps created.

If a property is moved into the floodplain, flood insurance will be required by any federally insured lender if there is a mortgage on the property.

In order to avoid paying the flood insurance, a property owner would have to provide proof — in the form of surveying — the house is not in the flood plain.

Facilities access keeps expanding

at NMC campus

Facilities and health-care access continued to grow on the Newton Medical Center campus in 2008.

Construction is near completion on a new $3 million heart catheterization lab at NMC. That addition is located near the front entrance to NMC.

Equipment is being moved in now, and the lab is expected to start seeing patients in mid-January.

A for-profit joint venture with partners cardiologists Dr. Hoessein Amirani, Dr. Saad Farhat, Via Christi Health Systems and NMC, which is to be known as Newton Cardiac Services, will operate the lab.

Hoessein and Amirani already see patients in Newton.

The cath lab will offer both diagnostic and intervention services to local patients.

Among the procedures that will be performed will be heart catheterization, angiography, stinting, and installation of pacemakers and defibrillators.

Patients still will have to go outside of Newton for open-heart surgery.

The NMC campus also has become home to a new immediate-care clinic, Access Health Clinic.

The clinic is leasing space from NMC in the Medical Park building.

The walk-in center occupies about 1,700 square feet of the Medical Park building, which was built last year and also houses Anesthesia Billing Inc.

The new walk-in clinic is open seven days a week, including evenings and weekends.

Access Health Clinic hours are 5 to 10 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and 1 to 6 p.m. Sundays.

The clinic offers a range of services for those with non-emergency medical needs, such as vaccinations, minor infections, throat and ear infections and workers compensation.

It offers a variety of medical tests, screenings, sports and work physicals.

In addition to walk-in appointments, the clinic offers “Second Saturday” health screenings, which began in November.

A recent free skin cancer screening drew 37 people and 10 referrals for follow-ups.

The clinic is run by a partnership of doctors from Hesston’s Mid-Kansas Family Practice and Newton’s Axtell Clinic.

Immediate-care access also was broadened this year at Wichita Clinic-Bethel, which expanded its hours for its immediate-care clinic.

Bethel immediate care is available from 5 to 8 p.m. weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.

79-year-old church burns to ground

WHITEWATER — On the morning of Jan. 29, tragedy struck the Whitewater community — the 79-year old Emmaus Mennonite Church building burned to the ground.

The congregation still is meeting at Berean Academy each week.

Fire crews were dispatched at 12:30 a.m. Jan. 29 to the church at 10971 Meadowlark Road — or about a 20-minute drive from downtown Newton.

Randy Thiessen, who lives close by and called 911, said the church was gone within hours. By the time firefighters arrived, the building was engulfed in flames, and there was nothing that could be done.

His wife spotted what she thought was a light on in the building, and before long the church was all but gone.

“When we arrived the eastern third was fully engulfed,” said Whitewater fire chief Darryl Claassen after the fire in January. “There were flames on the roof. Within five minutes or so the flames moved through the building. There wasn’t anything we could do to stop it. There was just too much heat.”

Claassen and his department sprayed the building with water until it was obvious they would not be able to save it.

There was an ongoing Bible conference at the church. Members had met in the building just a few hours before the fire began to study the book of Jude, one of several letters to early churches in the New Testament. The conference was scheduled for completion Jan. 31.

Non-profit takes over hospital’s

child care center

A new non-profit agency was formed in July to take over the operation of the Newton Medical Center Child Care Center.

The hospital made the decision earlier in the year to cut funding to the center to the tune of more than $300,000.

The center was facing having to raise rates substantially.

NMC is assisting during the transition period and will allow the non-profit group to use the facility for $1 per year.

NMC had been trying to find a nonprofit to run the center for some time when a group of interested parents and community members stepped up and offered to take over the center.

The new Community Child Care Center is open but still has vacancies after a number of parents left the center this summer after threats of tuition hikes when NMC pulled funding and part-time care was eliminated.

Heidi Collins, center director, said the center had about 53 students but slots for 76.

The center is applying for United Way funding for scholarships for low-income families this year.

Collins said she hopes the scholarships will help parents utilize the center and fill the center to capacity.

Fallen soldier

honored; throng

attends funeral

Dozens of American flags whipped in the wind as the Patriot Guard lined Anderson Street and the Grace Community Church parking lot to honor fallen soldier Spc. Ronald Schmidt of Newton.

Schmidt, 18, was killed Aug. 3 in Iraq when the humvee in which he was a gunner rolled. The other soldiers in the Humvee received minor injuries.

An estimated 300 members of the Patriot Guard were on hand for the funeral, as well as hundreds more family, friends and members of the Kansas National Guard.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius attended along with Kansas National Guard Adjunct Gen. Tod Bunting and U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan.

Pictures of the young Guardsmen grinning in school pictures and stoic as the bright-eyed soldier were shown on two large screens at the front of the chapel as the church filled with mourners.

Schmidt, who graduated from Newton High School in 2007, was remembered as being loving, ornery and always ready for a challenge in statement from his mother, Andrea Schmidt, which was read by National Guard Chaplain John Potter.

Potter described Schmidt as a man of great dedication and intensity. He was so involved in working on his car, his friend Larry Nuehring found him asleep on the floor of his garage, Potter said.

Schmidt was a member of Battery C, 1st Battalion, 161 Field Artillery.

His unit was providing security missions in Iraq. They protected base camps and reacted to attacks.

The Patriot Guard escorted the funeral procession the 75 miles to the gravesite in Eureka.

Residents in the towns of El Dorado and Eureka lined the procession route, cheering the fallen soldier.