Veteran Official Retires; Tourism ‘Giving’ Up to $1.2 Million

After 21 or so years of devoting his energies to the health and well being of the 71,151 men, women and children in Belmont County, Jim King will call it quits at the end of this year and devote his full time to a smaller segment of the population comprised mainly of his three grandchildren.

On Dec. 31 King will close out his career with the Belmont County Department of Health – the last five years as deputy health commissioner. “I’ve worked 45 years all told. Now I’m going to take it easy.”

It was somewhat a tumultuous period five years ago when King stepped into his current position. He was elevated to the position of interim health commissioner to replace Harold “Rusty” Vermillion, who, along with the department’s nursing director, Kathy Yeater, were relieved of their duties over the alleged misuse of some $249,000 in grant funds. Vermillion had filed suit to reclaim his job but King said the suit “is done.” He wouldn’t elaborate. He did mention that Vermillion is now health commissioner in Brown County in southwestern Ohio.

Before taking over as the deputy health commissioner in 2007, King had served as director of environmental health and prior to that as a sanitarian. In preparation for his departure, Robert Sproul, a seven-year veteran in the health department, has been named interim health commissioner until a successor to King is named.

“We’re going to start advertising for the position immediately and begin interviews as soon as possible,” King noted. That action is being taken even though King described Sproul as “an excellent candidate for the position.”

What King considers the hallmark of his career with the health department is centered on that troubled time when he took over as director. “I think recovering the health department from that situation and trying to correct all the problems that existed. We’re in pretty good condition now.”

One of his first major concerns when he stepped into his new job was paying back the grant money which the state had alleged was misused. “We paid it all back. It came to around $245,000” King explained. “We did it in one year.” Efforts to have the money paid back over a longer period of time were denied by the state health department. They wanted their money right away.

But a funding situation that developed just recently has caused new concern. “Our WIC (Women, Infants & Children) grant was cut by $86,000 and we were forced to lay off a couple of employees,” King noted. The original grant totaled $400,000. King said Belmont County was not the only department that was cut. “It happened all over the state,” he said.

As a result of that, the two employees who lost their jobs have appealed their case to the State Personnel Board of Review. King said a decision in that case has not yet been handed down.

This is the time of year when giving is on the minds of many people – giving presents to family and friends, giving to help the needy and homeless, and giving time and energy for some church or community project.

Giving also has been a key function of the Belmont County Tourism Council not only during the Christmas season but throughout the year – and for many years. Various organizations in the county that are affiliated in some way with attracting tourists to the county have benefitted from the financial grants the council has awarded.

At the council’s recent annual Christmas dinner, tourism director Eugene “Doc” Householder revealed statistics showing that since the year 2000, the council has approved grants supporting tourism and tourism related projects totaling over $1.2 million.

“Our financial dealings over the years have been far reaching and have consistently been designed to attract tourists to our hotels and motels, to our restaurants and to the many retail outlets in the county,” Householder stressed. “We are encouraged with our efforts since occupancy statistics obtained from our hotels and motels reflect a steady increase in numbers of rooms sold.”

One tourism council program that has appealed to local organization is the Grants Assistance Program (GAP). Since 2000 the council has approved grants totaling $517,974 to individual organizations that applied for financial assistance.

“The first year for the GAP program in 2000 we awarded $10,000 in grants to nine different organizations,” Householder noted. “Since then the GAP program has steadily increased to the point where we now award individual grants up to $2,500 and a maximum total of $50,000 each year.” Grant requests come from as many as 40 organizations.

The second largest outlay of grant funds during the 12-year period was for the Carnes Center where various events are held that attract out-of-the-area people. When construction of the facility was completed, the tourism council in 2000 granted $200,000 to help pay the final construction cost on the building. Then another $123,316 was awarded that to pay the center’s delinquent bills and the salary of the Carnes Center manager.

Householder noted restoration of the former sheriff’s residence at the century-old Belmont County Jail into hopefully a tourist attraction as well as the future home of the tourism council, was made possible through an award of $176,952.81 to match grants received from the state for the project.

To help with the development of the new Belmont County fairgrounds, the tourism council awarded the fair board $159,000 to construct buildings at the site. This year’s fair was the third to be held at the new location. It was the biggest ever held in the 163-year history of the event and also attracted the largest crowd.

“In addition to their regular grant requests the council recently approved awarding the county’s five museums an additional $25,000,” Householder pointed out. “They received $5,000 each to make needed repairs and improvements to their facilities.” The $5,000 was in addition to the GAP grant of $2,500 that each of the museum’s applied for and received.

Two other significant awards listed by Householder included approval of $5,000 for the appearance in Barnesville of a traveling veterans exhibit in 2014 and $1,962 to Ohio University Eastern to provide matching funds for restoration of the Lentz Tavern, an 1830 brick structure on the college campus that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There are lighter and longer days ahead. That’s about the only good thing I can say about winter making its debut on Friday in a fashion that indicated harsh times ahead with the combination of strong winds, freezing temperatures and snow. For the first time this season salt and cinder trucks were evident on state and county highways to ensure safe driving conditions. Arrival of the new season marks the end of the short days and long nights. It won’t be noticeable for a few weeks but minute by minute the days will get longer.

Santa Claus is on his way. Monday ends the long Christmas shopping season and undoubtedly there will be many procrastinators in the crowds who will have to finally make the choice of that special gift for that special person. For others like yours truly, the shopping has been accomplished with ease.

May your holiday be a peaceful and joyous one filled with fun and good cheer.

Merry Christmas.

Al Molnar can be reached via email at: