It was a private meeting between a long-time county commissioner and the head of the agency tasked with bringing jobs to the area.

She called for more spending. He disagreed.

“Don’t be stubborn, don’t be a peckerhead,” he told her.

Four months after that exchange with Morgan County Commissioner Bob Ford, Economic Development Authority Executive Director Betsy Heath resigned—after just eight months on the job.

She was the agency’s third director in as many years, taking the position after serving on its board and briefly working as a paid consultant. Her last day is June 1.

“Although progress has been made toward the effort of financial stability, I cannot, in good conscience continue in this role knowing that my presence (salary) will lead to financial insolvency for this organization,” her resignation letter reads. Heath declined to speak on the record for this story.

Ford was not mentioned in Heath’s resignation but stands by his position on EDA funding, regardless of whether or not his comments were politically incorrect.

“I called Betsy a name and I apologized for saying it because it was probably inappropriate. But I said it to her not in an open meeting, but in her office with her and I only there. And I was talking to her like a father—telling her to stop being a peckerhead and hardheaded,” he said.

But their argument illustrates a real debate happening in West Virginia.

How should local governments best use taxpayers money to bring economic development to small, cash-strapped counties?

In case you didn’t know, Morgan is the smallest of West Virginia’s three Eastern Panhandle counties. Unlike neighboring Berkeley County, Morgan doesn’t have a major interstate cutting it in half. While 111,000 people live in Berkeley, only 17,000 live in Morgan.

Times are so tight that Morgan County has had to dip into its own rainy day fund four years in a row to balance its budget.

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Morgan County is identified in red.

“If it was up to me, I wouldn’t fund it at all.”

Ford has been a long-time critic of his county’s EDA. He doesn’t believe it’s done enough to bring jobs to justify its funding. He also objected because responsibilities are not clearly defined between the county commission and the EDA.

Opinions on funding—how much is enough, how to increase revenues—differ, outgoing Morgan County Commission President Brad Close said. Close chose not to run for re-election after just one term.

“I’m not in agreement with people who say we’ve decreased the EDA’s funding, because the reason it was cut in years past was simply because we didn’t have a director,” he said.

EDA board secretary Jeanne Mozier said a lack of adequate county funding is crucial because the EDA has few other financial options. The EDA can sell its business park lots but that’s hardly steady source of income.

But the county commission has agreed to pay for water and sewer service at the business park, which will save the EDA approximately $20,000 annually, Ford said. That’s in addition to a costly office renovation at the county’s courthouse.

Morgan County Commissioner Bob Ford, Commission President Bradley Close & Commissioner Joel Tuttle. (Facebook)

Morgan County Commissioner Bob Ford, Commission President Bradley Close & Commissioner Joel Tuttle. (Facebook)

Critics say the county has shorted the EDA on its director’s salary. Heath was hired at a salary of $40,000; they say the county only provided $30,000.

Close said there’s no doubt the agency will now be funded. For example, proceeds from the sale of business park land will go to the agency. The goal is to get to a point when more county revenues are available as property valuations again increase, he said.

EDA board members should tap into their own $100,000 reserve fund before expecting commissioners to pay all of the director’s salary, he said.

“They need to share in this cost till they can’t share anymore. Then the county is going to have to make a decision if we are going to have this position or not. Because we are in the same position they’re in, we’re balancing our budget with surplus. So we all need to get on the same team here,” he said.

Close praised Heath’s work as exemplary, but expressed regret about Ford’s choice of words.

“The bottom line is that I don’t condone that kind of behavior and I think everybody understands that. But I can’t control what he says—nor will I ever try. He’s a commissioner, just like I am, but I do my best to try and lead by example,” he said.

Ford said he voiced these opinions during the private meeting with Heath in January.

“That’s when I made the statement to not be so hardheaded,” he said later. “The commission didn’t have the money to pay someone that kind of salary. But we made that clear to the EDA board before they even hired Betsy.”

His remarks surfaced at the EDA’s February meeting. Draft minutes included a reference to the remark, referring to it as a “verbal insult to the director.”

All but one board member voted to remove the reference. The lone dissenter, local business owner Paul Mock, later criticized Ford for making the remarks and said it should be part of the public record.

“To my knowledge, he has used that phrase more than once,” Mock said in a telephone interview. “As a representative of this county, Mr. Ford shouldn’t be making those types of remarks.”

Although disappointed by Heath’s departure, it was not a surprise to some.

Mozier, who prepares the minutes, voted against including any mention of the offensive remark because she didn’t hear Ford say it.

“You also have to understand that these are minutes, not a transcript of the meeting. Our minutes tend to be fairly brief, but straight to the point of what business was conducted,” she said.

“I didn’t hear Bob say this, but I would have done something if I had because this is no way for anyone to talk – much less a county commissioner. He was elected to help move the county forward, not make us look bad,” she said.

(Featured Photo by Julian Preisler/Flickr)

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