Stories of the Year 2016

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec / Timothy Barr from EST answers questions from area residents during an informational session for commercial property owners concerning Blair County's reassessment process at the Blair County Convention Center.

 

Reassessment in Blair County and sexual abuse by church officials were among the top local stories of 2016.

The Mirror’s news staff voted in mid-December on the top stories from a ballot that contained 31 prominent local news items. The following is a look at the top stories, as chosen by the Mirror news staff:

1. Blair County reassessment

Blair County’s decision to conduct the first countywide reassessment since 1958 led to criticism, appeals and new tax rates.

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec / Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump works the rope line of supporters after his speech at the Blair County Convention Center.

However, in December, the Blair County commissioners said their latest reassessment report showed earlier projections on property tax changes were close to accurate.

Evaluator Services & Technology, the Greensburg-based company that handled the county’s reassessment project, predicted earlier in the year that roughly a third of the property taxes would go up, a third would go down and a third would stay the same.

Based on 2017 certified assessments and break-even tax rates, the latest report showed for 63,019 taxable parcels: 36 percent of the property taxes will be up, 31 percent will be down and 33 percent will be staying the same, which is defined as within $150 of the 2016 bills.

While EST and the county have wrapped up the formal appeal process being held at the Blair County Convention Center, hundreds of property owners have submitted court appeals. Mediation hearings and related court proceedings are expected to continue into this year.

On Nov. 30, about 100 taxpayers gathered outside the courthouse to protest what they called unfair property values assigned through the county’s reassessment project. The peaceful event included speeches, some cheering and a request for the county to delay certification of the assessed values assigned through reassessment, pending further review of ones deemed to be inaccurate.

Mirror file photo by Gary M. Baranec / Altoona police and Pennsylvania State Police investigate the scene where Cathy Copley’s body was found in a garage at 408 E. Pleasant Valley Blvd. on June 8.

It also included the promise of a forthcoming lawsuit on behalf of property owners accusing the county of assigning higher than fair market values and setting up an appeal process that stymied the elderly and those with little computer knowledge.

During an assessment year, the county and municipalities are allowed to raise taxes to reach a 10-percent increase in revenue to combat money lost to appeals.

The commissioners  reluctantly voted unanimously on Dec. 20 in favor of a proposed 10 percent general fund real estate tax increase for 2017.

Altoona City Council approved the 10 percent increase; Hollidaysburg Borough Council voted for a 7 percent increase; Logan Township supervisors voted for a 6 percent increase, and Tyrone Borough Council and the Antis and  Snyder Township supervisors voted for no tax increase for 2017.

However, property owners in those municipalities will not necessarily pay those figures as reassessment has scrambled their individual assessed values.

2. Sexual abuse by church officials

On March 1, then-Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane said that hundreds of children were sexually abused by about 50 priests or church officials over more than 40 years in the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese, and some bishops attempted to cover up the crimes.

Kane stopped in Altoona to reveal the results of an extensive statewide grand jury investigation into child sexual abuse associated with the local diocese.

When they were in office, Bishops James Hogan and Joseph Adamec used their influence to get reports from victims or their parents, stymie police investigations and ward off inquiries by powerful court officials, Kane said. Adamec even created a chart outlining potential payments for victims based on the type of sexual abuse, the grand jury found.

The grand jury found it was Adamec’s practice not to call police when dealing with child sexual abuse cases involving priests or others.

Kane said 50 diocesan priests over the last 40 years or more have been identified as committing horrendous acts against hundreds of children.

Investigators reviewed more than 115,000 documents, many of them acquired by search warrants from diocesan “secret archives.”

Canon law requires each diocese to maintain such archives, she explained.

As of that point, Kane said, none of the criminal acts outlined in the grand jury report can be prosecuted.

In some cases, the perpetrators were deceased. In other cases, the victims were so traumatized that they could not testify in court, and in many cases, the statute of limitations, which can run up to 30 years for criminal cases, had expired. The grand jury recommended that the state Legislature do away with the statute of limitations.

Kane praised current Bishop Mark L. Bartchak, saying he had removed many of the priests named in the report.

The Revs. Robert Kelly, David Arsenault, Charles Bodziak, George Koharchik and Martin Cingle, as well as Monsignor Anthony M. Little, were mentioned in the grand jury report. Kane said she hoped Bartchak would vigorously pursue reports of abuse.

The grand jury commended Bartchak for the cases it had identified action in reporting allegations of child molestation to authorities and removing accused child predators from ministry.

But, she said, the grand jury was concerned the purge is not moving quickly enough. Bartchak said he was unaware of the number of historical predators in the diocese.

Meanwhile, also in March, three retired Franciscan leaders were charged for their alleged role in bringing an accused child predator to a Johnstown Catholic high school, allowing him to abuse at least 88 children while acting as a teacher and physical trainer.

Giles A. Schinelli, 73, Robert J. D’Aversa, 69, and Anthony M. Criscitelli, 61, all retired Francis­can Friars with the Third Order Regular, face one count each of endangering the welfare of children and criminal conspiracy. A state grand jury report showed that each minister provincial played a role that allowed the late Brother Stephen Baker’s abuse to continue for upward of 20 years by assigning him to the school without informing administrators of the accusations against him.

Kane said the report identified “significant criminal wrongdoing” and that each man “engaged in efforts to protect the image and reputation” of their organization at the expense of children.

3. Trump visits Blair County

A crowd of more than 2,000 jammed the Blair County Conven­tion Center on Aug. 12 to listen to Republican presidential  candidate Donald Trump.

Trump delivered a wide-ranging — and at times combative — speech. Trump touched on many of his recurring campaign themes, promising to return manufacturing jobs to the U.S. and insisting that he will “knock the hell out of ISIS.”

Trump also turned to controversial themes, blaming the news media for the outcry surrounding his claim that President Barack Obama “founded” the Islamic State terrorist group. And in a return to a claim he’d visited in recent weeks, Trump suggested the only way he could lose Pennsylvania in November was through voter fraud.

Trump also made an appearance before a crowd of about 6,000 Oct. 21 at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena in Johnstown.

He urged people to turn out to vote, and he said he’d bring prosperity back to Johnstown, which had once been a thriving steel producer.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was joined by running mate Tim Kaine and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, during a July 30 visit to Johnstown.

Clinton pushed a tough message of workers’ rights and economic security before a largely union audience of 200 or more at Johnstown Wire Technologies. In a city hit hard by the decline of once-powerful industries like steel, Clinton’s speech addressed the same people Trump had targeted in his campaign.

Bill Clinton made a campaign stop Oct. 28 at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union office in Duncansville.

Clinton focused on economic and policy details and remained upbeat on the state of the race.

4. Cathy Copley disappearance and murder

The body of Cathy Copley was found June 8 by someone passing through the alley behind 408 E. Pleasant Valley Blvd.

The 29-year-old mother of four went missing on Dec. 10, 2015, after she was seen getting into a car. No one has been charged in Cathy’s disappearance and death.

What started out as a missing person case turned into a murder investigation.

Altoona police Detective Sgt. Benjamin Jones said recently that the case is complex and police have a lot of factors to consider, but stressed that it is a “very active and ongoing investigation with detectives dedicated to this practically full time.”

Jones said investigators are reviewing a large amount of scientific evidence, a process that will require patience.

It’s not by any means a cold case, Jones said.

“There’s so much information to review, it’s taking more time than we would like — more than anyone would like,” Jones said, adding police are working diligently to look into every aspect surrounding Copley’s disappearance and death.

“We want to one day give her family the justice they deserve,” Jones said, asking that anyone with information about Copley’s homicide contact Altoona police. “We’re following up on every lead we receive.”

5. Altoona considers new building project

As 2016 came to a close, Altoona Area School Board members were considering a major building project.

Board members must decide whether to build a new B Building or to renovate the old one.

Tower Engineers of Pittsburgh recently told board members that building new rather than renovating schools is better in the long term. The firm estimated that renovation of the high school could be millions of dollars cheaper than building a new one, but a renovation wouldn’t produce the same modern educational environment.

The school board and administration have promoted the $88 million high school construction project and an $18 million elementary school project at the Keith Athletic Field as a major driver of job growth and economic prosperity.

On Dec. 6, a majority of board members passed measures to continue toward constructing new school buildings, while a minority of members remained staunchly opposed.

Three members, Judy Berryman, Ron Johnston and Sharon Bream, voted against seeking state exceptions to tax limits as well as other measures during the meeting related to spending for new construction of high school and elementary buildings planned to be erected in 2020.

The six-member board majority approved a contract addendum to its current deal with KCBA Architects that allows more flexibility to explore the option to build a new elementary school at Keith Field or renovate an existing building to serve as a school. The addendum arranges KCBA’s fees for work on a new elementary school in phases so that the board can “pull the plug” at any phase. There are six phases adding up to more than $1 million in fees, which are based on the estimated $18 million construction cost.

The first phase of KCBA’s work on the elementary school is to begin in January — the preliminary design phase.

While KCBA’s work on the elementary school has not yet begun, the board approved the final payment of the $171,000 total for KCBA’s design phase of a new high school building estimated to cost $88 million.

To finance the construction cost of the high school, the board passed the administration’s recommendation to hire John McShane, with the firm of Boenning and Scattergood as bond underwriter for the proposed construction project.

The board’s plan is to finance the high school project with one or more series of tax-exempt general obligation bonds or notes in an estimated principal amount of $88 million.

6. Catholic school changes

Holy Trinity Catholic School opened in August as part of a regionalization of Catholic education in the Altoona, Hollidaysburg and Newry areas.

In August 2015, the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown approved a plan under which the five schools were set to be consolidated to three in the 2016-17 school year, and the diocese decided to move away from its pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade model. Hollidaysburg Catholic and Altoona Central Catholic were to serve children through fifth grade, and St. Rose of Lima school was to serve as a middle school for the students in grades six to eight. St. Patrick in Newry and St. John the Evangelist in Lakemont were scheduled to close.

Holy Trinity Catholic School was chosen as the name for the new school system by parents who preregistered their children to attend one of the three campuses. Diocese spokesman Tony DeGol said 300 families, or about 70 to 80 percent of the families who preregistered, responded to a survey about the name change. Parents had two other name options — Holy Family Catholic School and Ave Maria Catholic School.

St. Patrick and St. John the Evangelist leaders subsequently opposed the consolidation, asserting the diocese’s consolidation violated church law regarding parochial school ownership.   Members of both schools sent a formal appeal to the Vatican.

St. Patrick leaders decided to keep their school open and began the school year with 77 students with more continuing to enroll.

In September, the school’s attorney, Philip Gray, said the Vatican could take until early 2017 before it issues a decision on the appeal.

7. Josh Gallagher finishes fourth on “The Voice”

Cresson-area native Josh Gallagher won fourth place in fan voting in the 11th season of the popular NBC show “The Voice.”

Gallagher, a 2009 graduate of Penn Cambria High School, was competing to win a recording contract. He did win a home state-of-the-art recording studio.

Gallagher, now 26, moved to Nashville two years ago to pursue a country music career, playing nightclubs and other gigs.

He had previously said that regardless of the show’s outcome, he would return to Nashville to complete an album he has been working on and start a mini-tour — it might be a major one now, considering the exposure he has received.

Two concerts at the Mishler Theatre in Altoona for Jan. 28 sold out quickly, and he’s already been named as a headliner at next year’s Thunder in the Valley event in Johnstown.

8. Kaneshiki comes under fire

It was a year of ups and downs for Lois Kaneshiki.

In June, Blair County Republicans elected the libertarian-minded activist and Hollidaysburg Area School Board member to head the local party, ushering in an ideological shift as they prepared for November elections. Kaneshiki beat attorney Michael Routch by a “fairly good margin” to take control of the party.

Kaneshiki is a former Libertarian Party official and a member of the state Republican Liberty Caucus.

In September, Kaneshiki came under fire at a school board meeting when she cast a no vote to create an entry-level, long-term substitute teaching position to keep kindergarten class sizes manageable at Foot of Ten elementary school and equated kindergarten teachers with babysitters.

Kaneshiki denied that she made those comments, but the Mirror obtained a transcript of the meeting which confirmed she did use the term “baby-sitting.”

9. Teens plead guilty to murder

Two teenagers pleaded guilty and were sentenced in Bedford County Court in the 2015 murder of  Stephanie Waters.

On Dec. 2, 18-year-old Deauntay Moye received a life sentence from Judge Travis Livengood, who denied Moye a chance for parole, all but ensuring he’ll spend the rest of his life in state prison. The sentencing concluded the nearly two-year investigation and court cases that followed Waters’ January 2015 shooting death in a Woodbury parking lot.

Moye of Woodbury and fellow defendant Ryan Hardwick of Martinsburg, then 16 and 15 years old, met Waters in a parking lot to purchase marijuana. They had expected Waters’ boyfriend, hoping to shoot him and steal the drugs — but when Waters arrived instead, they moved forward with the plan.

Police and prosecutors said Moye pulled the trigger that day — leaving Waters, 21, to die slowly in the back seat of her own car as the teens drove around the area. The teens also shot Waters’ dog before later abandoning the car in a rural area.

As the gunman, Moye’s sentence was harsher than Hardwick’s, who faces at least 60 years in prison before he gets a chance at parole. Hardwick, who was sentenced in October, faces lighter, concurrent sentences for lesser charges in the case.

10. Long plans to renovate Bon Secours building

In September, Jeff Long, the local developer of Graystone senior housing projects, announced plans to to invest $14 million to turn the two largest buildings in the former Bon Secours Holy Family Hospital complex into a facility featuring both independent-living and personal-care units.

Altoona Blair County Development Corp. sold to Long the 6.3-acre, four-square block area on which all the hospital buildings stood for a nominal $1 fee.

ABCD Corp. had been contemplating demolition of all six buildings on the site, which have been vacant for four years, and given that the buildings would have continued to deteriorate, Long’s plan to create his 14th Graystone qualified as a “rescue,” according to Patrick Miller, ABCD Corp. executive vice president.

Long got involved when he heard the demolition talk — and the $1.8-million estimated cost.

The development will be approximately commensurate with his 150-unit Graystones in Altoona and Johnstown, but “higher-end,” with more “upgrade finishes” than the Altoona building, Long said. “Grande Palazzo” will have an Italian-villa look, with hand-painted ceilings, columns and marble floors,

The property occupies all of the ground between Seventh and Eighth avenues and 25th and 27th streets. The work, which will take two years, will include demolition of three central buildings: the power plant and the two structures closer to Eighth Avenue.

The independent-living apartments will range from 600 to 2,000 square feet.

Rents, which include all utilities except phone, will range between $700 a month for some one-bedroom apartments and $1,800 for the largest two-bedroom units on the top floor. All units will have washers, dryers and the usual other appliances, according to the news release.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.

COMMENTS