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Top stories to watch in 2014

First Byline: 
Sean Gruber, Staff Writer

It's been a tumultuous year for Hampton County as the county and the area's towns both try to progress and deal with lingering problems.
Here's a list of some of the biggest news stories to hit our presses and a look into the challenges Hampton County will face in the coming year.

Estill's financial woes, new police chief and educational gains dominate headlines
Financial woes, new government officials and gains in education have dominated our paper's headlines during the 2013 year.
The town has been struggling to update its water system for the past few years, but controversy still reigns over increasing water rates to fund the $2.1 million needed to upgrade infrastructure to alleviate the problems that town residents have been complaining about, like sewage issues and brown water.
After eight public meetings and an emergency referendum, town residents decided to increase their water rates 25%, the lowest option available. In the coming year, look for the debate over water rates to heat up as residents and town officials try to reach a compromise over water rates.
Hampton County School District 2 also faces financial woes, having to lay off 16 employees and restructure various departments to pay off increasing debt. HD2 has been exploring options to generate revenue and cut expenditures for most of this year, but only began to publically discuss budget issues following a special called October meeting where a Columbia-based lawyer and a public finance expert warned the district could be heading toward a "financial crisis" if action was not taken. The district also has to generate funds to pay back a $2.1 million tax anticipation note (TAN) by April 15 of next year.
The layoffs have proven controversial, leading to a community forum and multiple meetings with concerned citizens groups. The district will have to continue to pay back their debts in the coming year, so watch to see how the ongoing financial situation could affect taxpayers, teachers and students over the next few months.
But not all is gloom and doom in the town of Estill. The town welcomed a new police chief named Keith Parks, an experienced 10-year veteran of law enforcement and an expert in organized crime.
Parks has already delivered $10,000 of donated equipment to his department and has increased revenue in his first few months in office. He has stated publically that he will continue to find new funding and resources for his new town, so residents should keep a close, hopeful eye on him in 2014.
Similarly, Estill area schools can now boast excellent growth ratings according to their annual school report cards. Can the district continue to improve despite their financial woes? Keep reading during 2014 to find out.

Yemassee incumbent mayor ousted, town still remains without post office
Other major news stories for the year came out of the town of Yemassee, as citizens voted to end former mayor J.L. Goodwin's 16-year term and still continue to look for a new place to house a post office.
Jerry Cook ousted incumbent mayor J.L. Goodwin during a November election, becoming the town's first new mayor in over a decade. Cook promised Yemassee's residents that he would bring "more transparency" to the local government and push for more town beautification projects in the future. Yemassee residents will see if he sticks to his promises over the next few months after his election victory
Another major story coming out of Yemassee with far reaching implications revolves around the town's struggle to regain its post office. The town has been without a post office for all of 201 following its closure due to problems with mold and decaying building infrastructure.
Several plans for reestablishing the post office have been floated during town meetings, the most recent being housing postal services in a privately owned facility recently remolded. Time will tell if the issue will be resolved in 2014 or if the town will continue to be without convenient postal services in the upcoming year.

Hampton County moves forward with capital sales tax project
Hampton County has passed and continues to create new plans for what to do with funds gained form the capital sales tax, which could have far-reaching impact for county residents.
The referendum imposed a special one percent "penny" sales and use tax on county residents for more than eight years. County government hopes to raise $11.4 million to pay off debt and fund construction and renovation projects for county buildings and parks.
As 2014 opens, residents should keep a close eye on the tax and the resulting projects as construction heats up and debts begin to be repaid.

Hampton, Varnville continue to improve
Have you noticed the new look of Historic Downtown Lee Avenue, with all the new park benches and Palmetto trees? The Town of Hampton has completed the second phase of the downtown revitalization project and is now in the process of applying for grant funding to finish the entire main street. Look for that to possibly be completed in 2014.
The Town of Varnville has been working hard to overcome some bumps and bruises to its image and financial stability over recent years, and under the leadership of Mayor Nat Shaffer and the Varnville Town Council the town is making positive progress. The town recently earned high praise from an independent auditor and officials appear to be making every effort to take care of the town and taxpayer money. Hopefully, Varnville citizens will see more of that in the New Year.

Hampton County gains new animal control officer
And our last major news story revolves around an issue that has proved particularly contentious for Hampton County: animal control.
Hampton County Code Enforcement Officer Tim Latham became the new director of the county's local animal shelter. Latham and company have brought in local residents to be volunteers, led large donation drives and increased connections with animal rescues to increase adoption rates.
With animal control continuing to be a hot button issue in the community, residents should keep up with happenings at the local animal shelter through the 2014 year.