Incoming agriculture commission takes short hiatus before settling into role
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - After a brutal, almost yearlong campaign for agriculture commissioner, Walt Helmick is taking a short political hiatus before settling into his new job.
The state senator from Pocahontas County said he hasn't been in contact with the state Department of Agriculture since winning Tuesday's election to replace longtime Commissioner Gus Douglass, who has served as state farm chief for four decades.
Helmick said he had his "nose to the plow" on Thursday, working around his home. Strong winds from this summer's derecho knocked down 25 trees on his 200-acre property, but his campaign duties have prevented him from properly cleaning them up.
"I'll talk to Gus and look at what's there, but I'm not going to do anything for a little while," he said. "I'll get down to work here in a week or two."
Helmick said he briefly visited the department in the spring after he won Democrats' nomination but has not returned since.
"I didn't want to interrupt the daily operation," he said.
When Helmick takes office this January, he will inherit a department with about 350 employees and a $42.8 million budget, according to TransparencyWV.org.
All department employees serve at the will and pleasure of the agriculture commissioner. When asked if he plans to clean house once he enters office, Helmick said he would make sure "the best people are in place to move forward."
Two top agriculture department staffers, deputy commissioner Bob Tabb and assistant commissioner Steve Miller, ran against Helmick in the May Democrat primary.
At an April meeting with the Daily Mail's editorial board, Helmick made it clear some heads would roll if he were elected.
"You have to have the people you're comfortable with," he said at the time. "There would be some changes. Change is inevitable. I think it's good."
But Helmick, now with the agriculture commissioner job securely under his belt, was less bold this week.
"There's a lot of good people in the Department of Agriculture," he said Thursday. "I know some of them were my opponents, but I don't have heartburn over that. I've been on the ballot since 1976; I've seen this occur before."
Helmick, who has served as Pocahontas County's state senator since 1989, also runs a water bottling business from a natural spring on his Minnehaha Springs property.
Allegheny Enterprises, Inc. produces private label water bottles for businesses and organizations including the Mardi Gras Casino and Resort, the state Treasurer's Office, The Coal Heritage Highway Authority, Charleston Area Medical Center, Allegheny Insurance in Elkins and the Hatfield-McCoy Trails.
The plant produces about 5,000 bottles of spring water daily, five days a week, and employs one full-time and one part-time worker.
Helmick does many of the deliveries for the business himself, hauling the bottles around West Virginia in a big single-axle Freightliner truck. He said he would hire another employee to make those deliveries for him now.
"Obviously I won't be able to spend the time on it I did when I was a member of the state Senate," he said.