Come January of next year, there will be a new face on the Board of Greene County Commissioners.
Mike Belding, the current chairman of the Greene County Commissioners, has decided to not run for re-election.
Belding will leave his office after just one term, which is not a new idea for him. In fact, he more or less planned on it from the beginning.
“When I decided to become a county commissioner in 2018 and run in the primary for the 2019 election, there were a couple of things that were obvious to me that needed a little bit of adjustment or a little bit of rudder in the Greene County government. And I thought at that time a four year term would probably be adequate,” Belding said. “It takes a long time to move government, but I thought at that time I could shape some things and make some significant changes over that period of time. I think approaching this election cycle, I’m confident that that was true. So my plan is to get back to retirement.”
This will not be Belding’s first go at retirement. In 2014, he retired after a career in the Marine Corps that spanned decades and saw him achieve the rank of colonel.
“The five years that I was retired between my military career and becoming a commissioner were enjoyable,” he said. “Having had the taste of that, it’s easy to say, okay, I’ve put on track what I thought was a little derailed in Greene County government.”
As he prepares to re-enter retirement, Belding is excited to spend time with his family and travel the country once again.
“Although my previous career was in the military and I’ve traveled extensively all over the world, there are still untouched corners of the world in the country that I’ve not seen, and I’m going to go find the rest of them, Belding said. “I’m ready to get back to family time and the opportunity to travel.”
His impact has been felt in the community. Douglas G. Lee, president of Waynesburg University, said Belding has had a positive influence both on the university and the surrounding community.
“He’s been very supportive of the university and education in general. I think he’s worked really hard to make Greene County a better place. He was willing to make hard decisions and do what he felt was best for the county and right for the county,” Lee said.
Lee believes that Belding’s experience in the Marine Corps prepared him for county government.
“He was very supportive of projects that he believed in and felt would make Greene County a better place and was willing to cooperate in any way to do that. He had obviously a leadership position coming from the Marine Corps as a colonel,” Lee said.
Belding came into office with three goals: making county government more efficient, making it more fiscally responsible and targeting the opioid crisis.
Overhauling the structure of the county government to promote efficiency was helped along by an unexpected source- the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The silver lining to that was we could move county staff around within offices, move them between buildings without customers being interrupted because they weren’t allowed in here during COVID,” he said. “ We got the organizational structure to be more efficient. We put people that should work together on the same floors so they could communicate more easily and built around two teams that would be effective and efficient in the business that they had to conduct.”
The focus on efficiency didn’t end at government operations; it guided the commissioners’ efforts to achieve fiscal responsibility. Belding said the commissioners successfully trimmed the Greene County budget during his term, cutting the deficit from $5 million to $1.1 million.
“The first opportunity to adjust the budget came in the execution of the 2020 budget,” Belding said. “We stopped unnecessary spending. We had some individuals that either retired or left county employment in 2020 by their choice. So we reduced the payroll requirements and then we really took a hard look at what we were spending money on.”
The opioid crisis was, and still is, a difficult, multi-faceted problem that faces the county. Belding said the county focused on providing resources to people who wanted to recover from their addiction. He said this allowed the county to maximize its resources and help keep the people that it treated from relapsing.
“The individual that’s affected has to make a personal commitment to change people, places and things. And our record, our desire in the county is to offer the resources available once they’re committed. You can’t force somebody into being clean or sober, but when they’re committed, we want to offer a warm handoff from a medical facility to a counseling center,” he said.
Just months after Belding was sworn into office, he was thrust into a major issue that didn’t just impact the county, but the entire world itself: the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, Belding had to navigate social distancing and other pandemic-related restrictions without crushing small business in the county. He said he is proud of how the county provided resources to local businesses to help them to stay open during the pandemic.
“I think we did really well in implementing some of the COVID programs that were available for businesses and hospitality in Greene County,” Belding said. “I think we got about $2.3 million out to qualified businesses and hospitality organizations to get them over their losses during the COVID programs. And that was all federal and state money as well, not county taxpayers monies.”
COVID-19 revealed another major problem for the county- a lack of high-speed internet access for many. According to Belding, 40% of Greene County did not have access to adequate, high speed internet. The problem was greatly exacerbated when schools were moved to virtual learning.
“We saw 40% of Greene County without broadband capability. There were actually stories of buses, school buses delivering and picking up homework, you know, when the kids weren’t allowed to go to school.”
Belding said the commissioners began work on the project in 2020, while the pandemic was still raging on. The groundwork for the project was laid with funding from the CARES Act.
“We were able to implement the first installation of broadband in Greene County, and we now have a model program for rural communities in the Commonwealth too to get broadband out,” he said.
The commissioners further developed the project with additional funding through grants and donations. According to press releases issued by the county, some significant sources of funding were a $2.5 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission and a $1 million donation from the CNX foundation.
“It’s been a really successful program in getting funding. None of that money was Greene County tax dollars, it’s all outside money,” Belding said. “Philanthropic money, some federal programs and then industry partners that have contributed matches to get that money.”
All told, the county has spent $9 million on the project and brought broadband internet to 11,000 homes and businesses during the last four years, according to Belding. All have received fiber optic cable connections that are capable of gig-capable internet.
“Our goal is no matter where you live, in what hollow or draw, that you’ll have the same capability as anybody living in Waynesburg or Carmichaels,” Belding said.
The future of Greene County
As Belding leaves office, he said he is well aware not only of the challenges facing the county moving forward, but also the opportunities that lie just ahead.
One of the biggest factors he thinks will impact Greene County’s future is population change. According to the 2020 US Census, the median age within the county is 42.5, and the population has been getting older every year. Belding attributes this partly to younger people leaving the county.
“Every time a young person leaves, our population gets artificially older. So we need to retain residents and then entice more back,” Belding said. “A lot of times our high school students leave here to get better paying jobs, and our college students go off to college and never come back. So there’s a drain of younger people.”
As a way to reverse the trend, Belding said he has focused on bringing more infrastructure to the county that will attract and retain people- and he believes that approach will be key in the future whether they attract tourists or serve residents of the county.
“[We are looking to create] those kinds of amenities where individuals that live here can partake in that or we draw somebody from Fayette County or West Virginia or Washington County that don’t have that amount of specific amenity. They come to Greene County, spend time, buy lunch, fuel up, stay in a lodging if they spend overnight an influx of money into the economy, he said.
In Belding’s eyes, the county’s economy also needs to diversify and grow. The coal industry, which for years was the backbone of the Greene County economy, has been in decline. According to the 2020 US Census, construction and extraction jobs make up roughly 12% of the market in Greene County, roughly equivalent to the market for office and administrative support jobs.
The impact isn’t just felt in terms of jobs: as more coal is extracted, the number of taxable assets in the county decreases, according to Belding.
“Every time a carload of coal goes down the railroad track, it cannot be taxed the future year,” Belding said. “There’s a steady decrease in taxable assets in the coal industry. It’s really hard to make that same rate of decline up in a positive climb of other taxable assets.”
One way to make up for these losses is to attract companies to build manufacturing, assembly, or logistics plants in the area. Belding pointed to companies like Costco, Wal-Mart or Amazon as examples of companies that could benefit the county by bringing warehouse jobs ranging from forklift operators to package handlers. Further, Belding said that Greene County is well-situated for one of these plants because of its proximity to interstates I-79, I-70, and I-68.
Expanded housing would be necessary to support such an influx of logistics jobs, Belding said. He said that a focus on expanding senior living will free up family homes.
“I personally think there’s a targeted audience in seniors and not high rise senior housing, but patio single level living retiree type homes. And once we are able to move those empty nesters into a more affordable, smaller footprint, single level living, it opens up three and four bedroom homes that they’re currently living in but don’t have kids at home,” Belding said.
Life as a county commissioner
Serving as a county commissioner in Greene County is not the easiest job in the world. Belding said he constantly had to work with different groups of people with different needs and priorities.
“The county is broken down into townships, and each township then is focused on themselves.That disrupts this larger group thing a little bit when everybody has a special interest to get reelected within their township. So when we’re talking about utilities, broadband, water, sewer, everybody wants to be on the top of the list,” Belding said. “It’s our job as county focused individuals to say, well, we can get 1,200 people in this project or 70 in this project, and then determine the best project.”
Despite the difficulties and collisions of personalities, he was still motivated to serve the community by identifying the best way to serve the most people.
“As a county commissioner, you get to work with people. One of the things I always started with was and I do this every day, go to work, make the best decisions for the largest group of people that you can positively impact,” Belding said. “There’s been friction at times. And I’ve always been one that says, let’s sit down at the table, put all the cards on the table, and we’ll and we’ll have a casual discussion about it.”
Belding acknowledged that there is something special about Greene County and pointed to the tight-knit nature of the community.
“I think a lot of it goes back to the history of coal mining and the blue collar, tight knit group of people that work in kind of dangerous industries,” he said. “You find this parallel in the military, you know, when you’re underground at 700 feet and you’re relying on your buddies to keep you safe, to get you out if it becomes out. That builds a camaraderie and a legacy of hardworking blue collar people that stand up and take pride in the red, white and blue patriot American way of life.”
There is also a stong connection between families and the area. Belding said that there are prominent family names that go back two hundred years.
“A lot of a lot of family names, last names go back 200 years here. And they grew up here. They split a farm. Their son lives on the farm. They go into the coal. There’s a very stable family population,” Belding said. “In the last 20 years, we see some of those last names leaving as well. But if you go back 120 years, that that’s our tradition of staying in the local area.”
A new county commissioner will be sworn in to replace Belding next January. No matter who that person turns out to be, Belding said they have a chance to leave their mark.
“There’s great opportunity in the future of Greene County. Have vision and look out the 20-year mark,” Belding said. “There’s a vision laid out. There’s an opportunity for Greene County to continue to grow. There’s an opportunity for manufacturing and business to come here. And now that those next team members, the three commissioners together, need to work and continue what we what we started over the last couple of years.”
Belding warned that it will not always be easy going. He advises that even when people disagree with you not to take it personally.
“When people are not happy, it’s not that they’re not happy with you individually as a person. They’re not happy with their situation,” Belding said. “it can be a long day if you think people are disgruntled or mad at you individually.”
Lee said he hopes Waynesburg University and the Greene County Commissioners continue to have a positive relationship.
“The current commissioners, as well as Commissioner Belding, have all been very supportive of the university and I deeply appreciate that and I look forward to working with whoever falls into the empty position that his retirement will leave. But I hope it continues because we all are in this together, working together to make this region a better place,” Lee said.
The groundwork laid during the last four years provides a framework for the future of the county government, Belding said. The work must continue, and he said projects can not be allowed to lapse.
“Some of the initiatives that we started need to be coached along and make sure they stay on track,” Belding said. “More than maybe any time in the recent past, we’ve laid a good groundwork for future development and to continue those things and stay focused on what will fix our big problem is, is really the capability to put more taxable assets on the ground and to take up for that loss of the coal.”