Two vie for commissioner

NEW CUMBERLAND – This year’s Hancock County commissioner’s race features an 18-year incumbent and a challenger with his own experience in public office.

Democrats Dan Greathouse, 62, and Joe Barnabei, 58, both of Weirton, face off in Tuesday’s West Virginia primary. Since there are no Republican challengers, the primary will decide the winner, who will assume office in January 2015.

Barnabei, a longtime production worker at ArcelorMittal (formerly Weirton Steel), lost to Greathouse in a three-way race in 2008. He said he decided to run again because he’s “not happy with what’s going on (in the commissioners’ office). I see no changes in the past six years. A few of the things that did get done recently were on the agenda six years ago, when I first ran.”

Without mentioning specifics, Barnabei said he believes the county commission lacks “accountability and transparency” and sometimes pursues projects without public input.

“I don’t think all decisions should be made at the first impulse,” he said. “I like to talk things over with the taxpayers and get broader ideas before I settle in on an issue. … It’s their money that’s being spent.”

Barnabei said he took that approach during his 10-year tenure on the Hancock County school board, especially when it came time to build Oak Glen Middle School.

“We attempted to sell it to the public and get feedback,” he said. “We were able to secure state funding for the middle school, which we completed at no cost to the taxpayer.”

Barnabei said his experience with a school district budget in excess of $30 million would serve him well on the county commission, which currently has an annual budget of $10 million.

If elected, Barnabei said he would keep office hours and do more to promote economic development in Hancock County.

“I have some ideas for positive change. A commissioner can’t create a job, but we can try to provide whatever it takes to entice a business to come here,” he said.

Infrastructure improvements and tax breaks for the oil and gas industry are two things Barnabei said he would pursue as inducements for companies.

“We’re not seeing the oil-and-gas activity in Hancock County that we’re seeking in other counties,” he said.

Barnabei supports more oil- and gas-related activity in the county, if that’s what the public wants. Meanwhile, more should be done to ensure the viability of companies such as ArcelorMittal, Ergon-West Virginia Inc. and Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort.

With the decline of the steel industry in the area, Hancock County has become more dependent on the gaming industry-horse racing, casino gaming, slot machines and limited video lottery, he said.

“It’s what we have. We have become used to the money that’s generated from it. We need to keep it,” he said.

As for the smoking ban under review by the Hancock County health board, Barnabei said, “I think there needs to be a committee and a study done on the economic impact it would have if enacted countywide. I think there can be negotiations as to where and who has smoking and non-smoking.”

Greathouse suggested something similar last week and repeated the request, to no avail, at Tuesday’s health board meeting. Greathouse said he wanted an ad hoc committee “to sit down and think this through and work together – rather than bang, bang, bang – to see if there was any way … we could all come to some kind of resolution.”

Although he has declined to take a position on the proposed smoking ban, Greathouse said the policy draft “looks like it came from somebody downstate (in Charleston). I really don’t know what the health board is proposing.”

Greathouse said commissioners are concerned about an adverse economic impact, but he would rather see the health board grapple with the issue. “They have to walk through this, and I don’t want to see anybody beat them,” he said.

First elected commissioner in 1996, Greathouse points to his 18-year record and “what I’ve done as a county commissioner. If (Hancock County residents) think they’ve gotten good service out of me, then I ask for their vote.”

Greathouse said commissioners have been able to set aside $13 million for the rainy day, special projects and capital improvement funds. That savings has made possible $7 million in capital improvements that are underway, he said.

“I think Hancock County has been well managed. There’s no blip on my record,” he said.

If re-elected, Greathouse said he would like to pursue more gas and oil opportunities for the county. “I see the Marcellus Shale as being our next step. I want to be a part of that transition,” he said.

In addition to his work as commissioner, Greathouse is director of the Top of West Virginia Convention and Visitors Bureau.