New Year Starts With 15 County Employees Losing Jobs

Although the plague of financial cutbacks endured through much of the old year of 2012, Belmont County survived without any employee layoffs until the year’s end. Then for the last month of the old year the county commissioners and their attorneys from Columbus wrestled with that problem and were forced to carry it into the new year.

Concluding its first meeting of 2013, a session that lasted seven straight hours, nine union employees from the Department of Jobs and Family Services and seven management employees were designated for layoff no later than Jan. 19.

“That’s a better number than what we started with over a month ago,” explained commission president Chuck Probst. “When we started our negotiations 25 employees were to be laid off. Then it was down to 21 and we finally ended up with 15. Our main focus was to restructure the DJFS to save some of the jobs. With 25 layoffs, we wouldn’t have had enough employees to staff the office.”

In addition to the layoffs, all employees in the DJFS will have their work week reduced from 40 hours to 35 hours. “Right now the union employees have a 35-hour work week. In the future everybody from the director on down will be on a 35-hour week,” Probst added.

The 15 layoffs coupled with the cutback in the work week will mean a savings of $1 million, according to Probst and Dwayne Pielech, director of the DJFS, who has been a part of the executive sessions held to fall in line with the financial cutbacks ordered by the state and federal governments. Over 90 percent of the funds to operate the DJFS come from the federal government.

When the final vote was taken on the layoffs and the hourly work schedule change, Probst and Commissioner Ginny Favede voted in favor. Commissioner Matt Coffland, however, voted against it. Coffland later explained his negative vote was a slam against both the federal and state government for the cutbacks that are handed down to counties without any consideration of the job losses and other damaging effects they have.

Working with the commissioners and the other local officials on the restructuring was Mark Lucas of Clemans-Nelson and Associates of Columbus, the same firm that assisted the commissioners in the sale of the Park Health Center four years ago.

Although the old year ended on a somewhat unpleasant situation, there were some very bright developments such as the steady flow of funds into the recorder’s office from leases sought by oil and gas companies, the fantastic success of the first Ohio Valley Regional Oil and Gas Expo, and bringing an end to the sewage plague in Neffs.

Looking back at 2012, January started off for county government the same way as it did for hundreds of landowners, seeking oil/gas leases on county owned property. As it turned out they received only one response. Also in January, the establishment of three medical facilities in the county was revealed. One is still under construction.

The first of several developments involving senior citizens came to light with the movement of food preparation from Bellaire Community Hospital back to Oak View where it had been. Deputy Health Commissioner Harold Vermillion and WIC nursing director Kathy Yeater, of the Health Department were ousted from their jobs because of shortages that developed over how grant funds were spent. St. Clairsville Council rejected a second time the appointment of Jill Lucidi as finance officer.

In February there were high hopes a cracker plant would be located south of Shadyside. That plant went elsewhere but there are still hopes such a plant will come to that site.

March saw the development of a 55-room motel; plans were revealed for establishment of an RV park in Morristown and Chesapeake Energy started construction of three corporate buildings on 28 acres of land in the county’s Fox Commerce Park.

There was rejoicing in April because the area had come through one of the mildest winters in many years. Belmont County Engineer Fred Bennett said he spent half as much money for snow removal than the year before. The same was true in cities, villages, and townships. Sales tax receipts proved what many suspected – the 2011 Christmas shopping season was the best in five years. Construction started on the $2.8 million Neffs sewage system. And the oil and gas expo was a tremendous success with approximately 180 exhibitors.

In May, two offices in the courthouse – the clerk of courts and the law library – switched locations in order to provide needed extra space for the clerk’s office. The Bannock Post office closed; restoration of the former sheriff’s residence at the century old Belmont Count jail was started and most important, my little angel, Sara, graduated cum laude from Akron University.

June saw the Belmont County wagon train start out on what promoters anticipated would be the final fun. But the event was such a success, the wagon train may continue its “westward ho” movement again this year. Addition of two administrative staff members to the senior citizen program operated by the Department of Jobs and Family Service stirred dissension on the board. One commissioner was vehemently opposed to the move.

Realtor John Goodman launched July activities with the announcement of a 14-unit housing development for senior citizens. Because thousands people lost electric service during a violent storm that hit the area, the Belmont County fairgrounds was cast into an emergency center for nearly a week so electric companies could restore massive service disruptions. Purchase of the former Army Reserve Center in Bellaire was finalized by the county and leased to MPR transloading facility. Ohio Valley Mall landed major new store, Rural King Supply. Construction was started on another motel, Microtel Inn adjacent to Hampton Inn.

In August, seven Belmont County attorneys end up in running for judge of Western Division Court and Belmont County received its first casino gambling tax check in the amount of $64,000.

The best and worst were recorded in September. The Belmont County Fair was rated the best ever held and in Barnesville, the turnout of pumpkins for the annual pumpkin festival was rated the “worst ever” due mainly to the harsh summer weather marked by the lack of rain. In between those two events the DJFS presented an elaborate program to show improved service to senior citizens but one commissioner was not impressed. Reconstruction of the access ramp from I-70 to Ohio Valley Mall started.

In October, early voting in the presidential election got off to a fast start and the Ohio Department of Transportation proposed turning over manning of the I-70 travelers information center west of St. Clairsville to the Belmont County Tourism Council.

It was also when talks started to put the senior service organization on a new direction and relieve its operation by the DJFS. Progress on the senior program was sidetracked by the commission’s concentration on the layoff situation.

November recorded a record vote in the presidential election; a festive, two-day celebration marked the end of the renovation of the Ohio Valley Mall and Belmont County Recorder Mary Catherine Nixon reported a fantastic statistic as her office surpassed the million-dollar mark in business conducted – mainly by the oil and gas companies seeking land leases.

In December, Department of Jobs and Family Services director confirmed that 21 employees in that office faced layoff as a result of a cutback in state and federal funds and submitted his report to the county commission. It set off a month-long series of executive sessions by the county commissioners in their effort to restructure the DJFS with the idea of saving some of the jobs. To avoid crowded conditions in the county recorder’s office, some abstractors were doing their work in the St. Clairsville Public Library – a practice that does not sit well with some library patrons.

Al Molnar can be reached via email at: