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Noted: More Army suicides 

Army can't stop rise in soldiers taking their own lives

Despite widespread Army efforts to halt more soldiers committing suicide, including a servicewide "stand-down," stats for 2009 look grim: Through November, the Army reported a record 147 suicides for the year, up from 140 all of last year.

Though a Department of Defense news release says the trend can't be directly tied to deployments, the Army's vice chief of staff suggested otherwise Dec. 10 when he testified before Congress.

"Soldiers who are suffering from post-traumatic stress are six times more likely to commit suicide than those that are not," Gen. Peter Chiarelli said, according to Time magazine. "The greatest single debilitating injury of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is post-traumatic stress."

Of the 147 suicides, 45 are pending determination of cause of death. Fort Carson has reported eight suicides for the year, two of which are still pending. — AL

County's OK, Bensberg says

Thanks to creativity, collaboration, resourcefulness and volunteers, El Paso County has accomplished a lot in 2009, Commissioner Jim Bensberg told a Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday at the Antlers Hilton.

Bensberg, chairman of the commissioners, cited construction of a detox center, opening of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, formation of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District, launching of the county-sponsored discount prescription drug cards, and conversion of use-tax collections to the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department.

"Since the new process was put in place this spring," he said, "collections are up and paperwork is down."

You'd think he was running for office. Oh, yeah — he is. Term-limited, Bensberg now wants to be county treasurer.

Bensberg also noted challenges ahead, such as flat sales tax due in part to growing Internet sales; the state's attempt to run human services, such as food stamps and child protection, from Denver; and the loss of gaming impact money to state budget gaps. — PZ

Blurred vision at crime lab?

Oops — an internal quality assurance team determined the Colorado Springs Police Department's Metro Crime Lab messed up at least 82 blood alcohol tests, showing a higher alcohol content than the true result. The faulty lab results led to DUIs, license revocations and possibly even jail time for some unlucky drivers.

The lab, police and Colorado Bureau of Investigations are looking into how the errors occurred. Equipment failure has been ruled out.

Meanwhile, approximately 1,000 blood-alcohol tests taken during the same period are being retested; District Attorney Dan May and the Colorado Department of Revenue were notified that lab errors could affect criminal proceedings. — JAS

Local performer honored

A memorial celebration was held Wednesday at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center for 52-year-old local actor, director and drag performer Tony Babin, who passed away Dec. 9.

Babin, widely recognized as the man selling flowers at Austin Bluffs Parkway and Academy Boulevard, co-founded the Upstart Performing Ensemble. When he died, he was working on the Ensemble's 10th annual Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival, to be held Jan. 15 through 31 at Watch This Space.

Tim Muldrew, assistant director of performing arts at the FAC, remembers his longtime friend and avid Bette Midler fan for his "great belly laugh," his artistic passion and his devotion for raising arts funding. Citing an autobiographical essay Babin wrote, Muldrew says the stage artist owed his happiness to a National Endowment for the Arts "art train," which found the isolated 16-year-old who'd just come out of the closet in the rural farm community of Rocky Ford. — MS

Freedom filing raises ire

New paperwork has been filed just days before a critical hearing Thursday in the bankruptcy of the Gazette's owner, California-based Freedom Communications Holdings Inc.

Freedom, which wants to reorganize through Chapter 11 to reduce its debt from $770 million to $325 million, filed a new disclosure statement and plan of reorganization. The documents spell out how much Freedom is willing to pay to various classes of creditors. The unsecured creditors committee is upset, with the committee's lawyer Robert Feinstein saying the new filings contain "massive additions and revisions."

Says Daniel Callahan, who represents carriers awaiting payment of a $28.9 million settlement with Freedom for wages and benefits: "There will be a challenge."

Callahan called Freedom's late filings "very unusual," an insufficient attempt to satisfy the unsecured creditors by offering them more money.

Freedom's proposal calls for about 50 major creditors to set aside debt in exchange for equity interest. The Hoiles family now owns about 52 percent of the company but under the reorganization plan would wind up with just 2 percent. The Gazette has been laying off workers intermittently for about three years, most recently in November. — PZ

Assessor posts student video

For the cost of two dozen doughnuts and a box of sub sandwiches, El Paso County Assessor Mark Lowderman has produced a video for his Web site about how properties are inspected and measured for tax assessment purposes.

Lowderman's bargain came from about a dozen Coronado High School students in Dan Hoff's TV class. But first the assessor had to convince them. "They were kinda looking at their shoes," he says, until he mentioned his site gets 36 million hits per year.

After one day of production, interrupted by the doughnuts and sandwiches, the class presented Lowderman with a four-minute video that shows why and how appraisers inspect some 6,000 properties per year, mostly new construction and alterations. See the video at asr.elpasoco.com.

"I have real high expectations on the assessor Web site because we have so many hits," Lowderman says. "I was a little skeptical having a high school class produce a video, but after seeing it, I was just dazzled."

The piece opens with an aerial view of Colorado Springs that two students shot from a helicopter just for the video. In return for their work, Lowderman gave each student a certificate and letter of thanks, and promised to provide a reference for their résumés. — PZ

H1N1 vaccines available

The first doses of the H1N1 vaccine were nearly impossible to get, but now the vaccine is available free of charge to anyone who is willing to stand in line. Clinics will be held Mondays and Fridays from 2 to 5 p.m. and Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon at the Citadel mall (750 Citadel Drive East) near JCPenney. Booster doses are also available to anyone age 9 and younger. The vaccine is not for anyone with severe egg allergies, due to its production in inoculated eggs. — LE

Frogs provide latest scare

As a year marked by swine flu pandemonium comes to a close, perhaps it's fitting that health officials are now warning of a different disease coming from elsewhere in the animal kingdom: frog salmonella.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 50 cases nationwide — including two in Colorado — of a particular kind of salmonella that people have caught from certain water frogs, including African dwarf frogs. El Paso County health officials haven't yet had any local reports of the disease. Salmonella can cause diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps.

The CDC recommends that children younger than 5, along with the elderly and people with weakened immune systems, avoid contact with these and other types of amphibians and reptiles, and that anyone handling these animals wash with soap and water after contact. — AL

Jobless benefits extended

The state labor department announced last week that Colorado is among the first five states to begin the latest extension of unemployment benefits authorized under federal law. Payments began Dec. 10.

Within one day, 10,000 claimants had additional unemployment payments loaded on to their debit cards, the state said in a press release. The latest extension is called Tier III of Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC). It adds one week of benefits at most for Tier II, and provides a maximum of 13 weeks of benefits for those who have run out of benefits on other extensions. Payment of Tier III benefits will be retroactive to Nov. 8. For more info, visit coworkforce.com. — PZ

Compiled by Lora Elliott, Anthony Lane, Matthew Schniper, J. Adrian Stanley and Pam Zubeck.

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