2019 City Employee Award winners

The City of Gastonia's annual Employee Awards recognize exceptional and innovative service by employees in four categories. Nominations are made by City employees and a committee of employees selects the recipients. The winners were recently announced.

The four Employee Award recipients were to be recognized by the City Council on March 17, but that was indefinitely postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak. Their names and photos will be added to plaques displayed at City Hall. Photos of the honorees will be included in a future edition of Employee Focus.

Tim Jones – Safety Award

Jones is a Motor Equipment Operator for Public Works. He typically works in the rights-of-way along streets with various types of tractors and mowers. He trims grass around guardrails, edges along sidewalks and cuts low-hanging limbs over sidewalks and streets. He also cleans out storm drain catch basins, removes storm debris from streets such as fallen trees and operates snowplows and spreaders.

Those who nominated him said Jones encourages coworkers to use proper safety precautions. Jones says he believes City employees should watch out for each other and make sure everyone is doing their jobs as safely as possible.

Jones was also recognized for recommending a new type of ear protection that is equipped with Bluetooth technology. “I was looking for a way to hear my phone if my supervisor would call me,” Jones explains. “The mowing tractors are very loud and this solves the problem.” He says the technology also allows crew members to communicate easily with each other while operating loud or heavy equipment.

Jones has worked for the City for nearly five years. When not at work, he likes riding mountain bikes, spending time with his family and cheering for the Carolina Panthers.

Tyler Davis – Customer Service Award

Davis works in the Community Services Department. He manages the financial records for federal grants for the Community Development Block Grant and HOME Investment Partnership Programs. He assists with managing three grants that fund the Gaston-Cleveland-Lincoln Metropolitan Planning Organization. He also manages the financial records for Keep Gastonia Beautiful and Gastonia Sister Cities, and assists with their budget preparations and minutes of their committee and board meetings.

Several City employees nominated Davis for the award, saying that he is “always there when you need him” and that he “goes above and beyond for everyone.”

Davis says serving others brings him joy and gives his life purpose, and his Christian faith guides his approach. “I strive to serve others and treat them with respect, the way I would like to be treated,” he says. He says each day, he tries to provide support and encouragement to those around him and be professional, compassionate and sincere.

Davis’s title is Grant Manager in the City’s Community Services Department and he has worked for the City for four years.

Chris Adams – Leadership Award

Nominations said Adams leads by example and is always willing to pitch in and help others. Those who nominated him also emphasized that Adams is a good mentor and continually encourages his employees to seek education, enrichment and personal growth.

Adams, a crew chief with Public Works/Solid Waste, acknowledges that he tries to be a positive example for the 35 employees who report to him. “I want employees to value their job and I lead by example,” he says. Adams has worked for the City for 30 years. He says hard work and honesty are the characteristics he values most in the workplace.

Marshall Green – Extraordinary Service

Safety cameras in City parks, the FUSE construction camera, WiFi in City buildings, mobile data terminals in police cars and firetrucks, accessing City emails on your phone – all of those and more are managed by Senior Network Engineer Marshall Green of Technology Services.

Managing computer connectivity within the City is a vast and complicated job. The nominations commended Green for suggesting that the City install security cameras in parks after Maddox Ritch went missing in 2018 and for leading the way to install the live FUSE cam.

“Awareness and safety are hot topics,” Green says. For the cameras at Rankin Lake Park, he coordinated with the Electric Division to run fiber optic from the Skeet and Trap facility to a multipoint wireless link that works across the park’s lake. In addition to installing cameras, Tech Services updated phones, computers and public WiFi at park facilities.

He says computer connectivity is much like a transportation network, with computers, phones, door-card access, utility payment kiosks and WiFi all linked so they can “talk” to each other. “I make sure all of the City’s technology devices have the necessary metaphorical roadways, sidewalks, parking lots, railways, flight paths and shipping lanes they need,” Green says.

Green has worked for the City for six years and says what he prizes most in the workplace is a willingness to help.

Department profile: Financial Services Department

Your paycheck, as a City employee, is processed by Financial Services. If you wear a uniform, write with a pen that came from a supply cabinet at work, use a City-owned computer, drive a City-owned car or work in a City-owned building, Financial Services handles the money used to pay for those tools, vehicles and buildings.

Other responsibilities aren’t as obvious. The City’s mailroom, water and electric meter readers, the warehouse and the parts room are also under Financial Services.Shaun Moore Warehouse

“It seems like we do a lot of everything,” says Financial Services Director Crystal Certain. “We’re responsible for all of the City’s financial transactions. Even if a transaction takes place in another department, we’re responsible for making sure it hits the general ledger correctly.” Financial Services not only handles general fund dollars, but a variety of monetary transactions for City government. And the department makes sure every financial transaction meets precise standards for accuracy and transparency.

It’s not just day-to-day receipts and disbursements. Financial Services also oversees all of the City of Gastonia’s purchasing, contracts, grants, debt, and investments – and spends months providing documentation to comply with the annual audit, ensuring that all of those financial transactions were handled correctly. Financial Services has $11.3 million in expenditures and handles $63.3 million in revenue each year.

Meter readings and Utility bills

The City employees who read water and electric meters for the 33,000 Utilities accounts do not work for the Public Utilities Department. Meter readers work for Financial Services. Certain says that allows for a streamlined system. The meter Meter readerreadings are used to calculate customers’ water and electric bills. Finance handles that billing.

Likewise, employees who work at the Utility customer service windows are part of the Finance Department, not Public Utilities. “Control measures have to be in place whenever money is involved,” Certain says. “It’s a checks-and-balances kind of thing. Our department bills the Utilities customers and we collect customers’ payments.”

Public Utilities provides the money that pays the salaries of the meter readers and customer service representatives. In fact, every City enterprise fund chips in a pre-determined share to pay for the work done by Finance.

To simplify the charge-back process, the amount each City department owes Finance is an estimate and is determined through a cost-allocation plan that is calculated every two years. Departments pay a portion of their amount each month. Even so, Certain admits the cost-allocation system can be complicated.

Three divisions

Despite having far-ranging responsibilities, Financial Services has only 52 employees and three divisions.

Accounts Receivable is under Dana Carpenter. The division’s responsibilities include meter reading, billing, Utility customer service, treasury, and the mailroom. Carpenter is also the assistant director of Financial Services.

Wendell Hendrix is the City Controller. He is over the second division, which includes payroll, accounts payable, general ledger, capital assets, purchasing, the warehouse and the parts room.

The third division is Budget, with Crystal Falls as budget administrator.

Certain says her department has two busy times of the year that each last for about six months. City budget season is normally from January through the end of June, with some work beginning in December. In February and March, department directors go before the City Manager’s Office, making their budget requests for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The City Manager’s team and the Budget Division then construct a budget, which must be approved by the City Council, typically in June. The City’s current budget is 351 pages long.

Audit season is usually from July through December, but begins as early as May with a visit from the auditors. The City’s audit is due to the Local Government Commission by Oct. 31. The City’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) must be sent to the North Carolina Government Finance Officers Association by Dec. 31.

Award-winning work

You’ve heard of the Grammys, Emmys and Academy Awards. The City’s annual budget and its CAFR get the equivalent of an Oscar every year. In fact, the City budget and its financial report have won national recognition for each of the Budget awardpast 26 consecutive years!

The City has won the Distinguished Budget Presentation Award and the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting every year for more than a quarter century. Both are national awards presented by the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States.

Certain says Gastonia’s Financial Services Department can’t simply copy and paste the previous year’s award-winning entry and submit it. That’s because the organizations that oversee the audit and annual financial report often revise their requirements.

“The rules and standards change every year,” Certain says. “So we have to change the way we report information.” The changes might include requiring that statistics be broken down into greater detail or adding new types of information that previously had not been required. Certain says the annual changes mean City employees must do significantly more work to meet the new specifications.

Best part of the job

Certain has worked for municipal or county governments for more than 16 years, including nearly three years with the City of Gastonia. She says the best part of her job is being able to balance routine tasks with challenges and variety. “I’m not good with complacency, doing the same thing over and over,” she says. “I thrive under pressure.”

As a department head, she says it is gratifying to watch and help employees grow. She wishes she had more time to interact with all of the employees in Financial Services. “It’s hard when we’re so scattered and there are so many personalities involved,” Certain says. “I like to find ways to encourage them, helping them to realize they can grow into something more.”

Certain spends much of her time at work dealing with people, not with spreadsheets. And like many City employees, she acknowledges the pressures from all directions can be challenging at times. “It can be hard to meet everyone’s expectations,” she says. “I’m trying to be the employee I need to be, the boss I need to be, the coworker I need to be, the public servant I need to be,” she says.

‘We are willing to help’

Budget cover photosWhen asked what she wishes City employees knew about Financial Services, Certain chuckles. “I think there’s a misperception that we are mean,” she says. “We do have rules, but we are willing to help people.”

Policies, procedures and protocols must be followed, or City employees can be held liable. Most of the rules pertaining to money, ethics and government employees are state statutes. “Money is tempting,” Certain says. “You read about a city official somewhere who was embezzling and didn’t have proper oversight. That’s why we try to have so many different sets of eyes looking at things.”

Certain acknowledges that some employees get frustrated by Financial Services’ detailed oversight and being a stickler about the rules. “Our jobs are to ask those difficult questions,” she says. “Like, ‘This doesn’t look right. Did you follow the requirements?’”

She says employees cannot sidestep Financial Services’ rules, but that her department will help City employees. “We want to help them do it the right way,” Certain says. “We want them to have what they need to do their jobs. We want them to be able to function as efficiently and effectively as they can. There are rules that they have to follow. And we will help them follow the rules.”

March is a busy month for Financial Services, as the City’s budget begins to take shape. But the department works year-round to make sure customers receive accurate Utility bills, invoices sent to the City are paid, City revenue is processed correctly, employees get paid every two weeks – and much more. If it involves money and the City of Gastonia, be assured that Financial Services is directly involved.

Army colonel interning in City Manager's Office

Like many military veterans transitioning to civilian life, Shaun Tooke’s big question has been, “What’s next?” Two months into an internship with the City of Gastonia, he thinks he has found the answer.Tooke S Photo

“I see entering a local municipality in some leadership role at the division or department level,” he says. “With that foot in the door, I’d potentially work up or gain more experience to seek a management level position for a city or county.”

Tooke is a third-generation soldier. His grandfather served in the Army Air Corps in World War II. His father is a Vietnam veteran with 29 years of military service. Shaun Tooke will retire from the Army in June after 30 years, including two tours to Bosnia and three tours to Iraq. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Cameron University in Oklahoma, an MBA from Clemson and a master’s in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College.

Last year, Tooke applied for the Veterans Local Government/Management Fellowship Program sponsored by the International City Managers Association. “I was accepted into the program, but it was a challenge to find a city in close proximity who would host me,” Tooke says. City Manager Michael Peoples had learned about the VLGMF program last summer at a conference and welcomed the opportunity to bring Tooke on board as a Fellow. Tooke started his internship with the City of Gastonia on Nov. 4, 2019. “Now I’m here and loving every day of it!” Tooke says.

Tooke believes many of the skills he developed in the military will translate easily into a civilian career in city or county government. “I’m learning what it takes to run a city, provide essential services and balance priorities, all while managing expectations of various stakeholders,” he says. He believes his internship with the City is reinforcing abilities he developed in this military career. Among those are problem solving, strategy development, people skills, planning and execution, and being a good steward of resources.

Tooke describes himself as a lifelong learner and says he appreciates the opportunity to see day-to-day government operations. “Having access to experienced city leadership to discuss the challenges they face, the calculus involved in their decision-making process, and the planning considerations for economic development have been invaluable,” he says.

He also has seen some of the challenges. “The average citizen of any city takes for granted the essential services and functions provided for the public’s safety and well-being,” he says. “It takes a great deal of hard work by a dedicated team who often go unnoticed or underappreciated.” Tooke says he’s impressed by the City of Gastonia employees and what he calls their “high degree of passion for their work.”

Tooke describes the internship as a “test drive” to determine if he truly wants to pursue a career in city or county government. He says it’s been an excellent way to gain experience and tap into a network of proven city leaders.

As he comes to the end of his military career, Tooke hopes the City of Gastonia has helped him answer that “What’s next?” question. It involves applying the skills he developed in the Army and in the internship, and a calling of the heart that prompted him to enlist three decades ago. “It boils down to being service oriented with a service mindset,” he says, “and wanting to contribute to a community’s success.”

Honoring our Veterans

by Mary Elliott
Communications and Marketing Director

This Veterans Day was special for me. Although I'm not a veteran of military service, I have always had admiration and respect for those who have put their lives in harm's way to serve our country. Being new to my job with the City and to Gastonia, I wanted to take photos of our Veterans Day Parade and include them in this article. But the task turned out to be more than just an assignment for Employee Focus.

Veterans Day originated as Armistice Day on Nov. 11, 1919, marking the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution in 1926 for an annual observance, and Nov. 11 became a national holiday beginning in 1938. Unlike Memorial Day, Veterans Day pays tribute to all American veterans – living or dead – but especially gives thanks to living veterans who served their country honorably during war or peacetime.

Lining parade routeWhen I arrived at City Hall to park my car on Nov. 11, 2019, I wasn't sure if the parade was about to start or not, so I decided to just get a few photos and be on my way. Because I didn't see many people on S. South Street, I thought the parade would be short. But turning the corner onto Main Avenue, I was surprised to see how many men, women and children were lined along the street – on both sides – waiting for the parade to start! My mission quickly changed and I decided to see how many veterans I could find and how many photos I could take to document our parade that day. 

I walked down Main Avenue from South Street to Broad and, along the way, I saw many veterans wearing jackets, shirts and hats or carrying signs advertising their tours of duty. I didn't want to miss the start of the parade, so I walked quickly, saying "Thank you for your service," to each veteran I saw in the crowd.

AirforceVet 1The response was the same from each person – a nod or acknowledgement of pride and honor to have served.

I had never attended a parade on Veterans Day and didn't know what to expect. When I finally got to Broad Street it seemed like a sea of people were lined up, ready to begin the parade. There were school bands, junior ROTC cadets, color guards, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts – all happy to say "thank you" to our veterans. I took lots of pictures of the people who came out on a day that featured the most perfect weather.

GirlScouts  Bands 3  JROTC 

The parade featured two World War II veterans in a red car, veterans from the American Legion, veterans who work for the City of Gastonia, veterans wearing insignia indicating where they had served, veterans wearing medals including the Purple Heart. The veterans in every photo I took exuded a sense of pride and honor.

WWIIVets  POWMIA 

Even during the solemn ceremony at the American Military Museum on Second Avenue, there was a feeling of camaraderie as each veteran held their salute while taps was played by a bugler.

Veterans Day in Gastonia was special for me this year because I had the opportunity to join others in showing our veterans how much we appreciate their service to our country. Being new to the City, it was even more special to have my husband with me, a retired Army veteran. So, that makes me a proud Army wife. We'll be at the Veterans Day Parade next year and we hope you'll join us!

 

Department profile: Police

Chief speaking in a Highland Neighborhood Assocaition meetingChief Helton speaking at a recent Highland Neighborhood Association meeting.Police work relies on community support for maximum efficiency and effectiveness. That’s why officers with the Gastonia Police Department (GPD) cultivate relationships in the community along with providing highly professional police services.

“More than ever building strong relationships based on genuine trust between residents and law enforcement is essential,” Chief Trent Conard said. “Bridges between the public and our officers have resulted in many positive accomplishments, especially today when nationally many citizens are speaking out negatively about police actions and the use of force.”

Organizationally, the GPD has two main divisions: Field Services and Support Operations. Field Services includes all uniformed officers in Patrol, the Street Crimes Unit and the Traffic Bureau. Support Operations includes the Criminal Investigations Division (CID) and the Special Investigations Division (SID). The CID consists of Detectives, Juvenile Investigations and the Identification Bureau. The SID provides investigations into vice-narcotics and organized crime with a focus on drug trafficking, public corruption and Homeland Security. Assistant Chief Aaron Wurster leads Field Services and Assistant Chief Nancy Brogdon leads Support Operations.

The GPD is nationally accredited through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). The process to become accredited focuses on best practices and standards to ensure preparation to meet service expectations and manage critical events.

“CALEA accreditation is a voluntary process that recognizes the pursuit of professional excellence and, because the local community is involved in actual assessments, GPD’s accreditation in 2014 and reaccreditation in 2017 is a positive statement about our community as well as our police department,” Chief Helton said.

How GPD Officers Build Bridges in the Community

So how does the GPD reach out to the community? The City’s and the GPD’s citizen academies, the Gastonia Community Watch Association and many other community outreach efforts and partnerships help to build public trust. Crime Prevention officers, Community Coordinators and public information efforts are all a part of community education and outreach efforts.

GPD and Community collage 2The GPD's outreach and community partnerships help to build public trust.A significant community partnership involves the covenant between local law enforcement and the Gaston Clergy & Citizens Coalition (GC3). Members of the GC3 are area ministers and citizen advocates that work together to build community relations among the races. Chief Helton and other local law enforcement leaders originally signed a covenant with the GC3 in 2016 to be proactive and build even stronger community relationships. The covenant was signed again in November 2019 because a number of new police chiefs were not listed on it.

Other bridges include the Gastonia Police Foundation (GPF), which supports the GPD with community outreach, officer wellness, professional development, evolving technology, public safety equipment, research, the police memorial and youth programs such as Shop with a Cop and CSI Camp.

GPD’s organization includes the Office of Professional Standards, which handles hiring and personnel matters; the Police Attorney, Laura Burton, who keeps the department abreast of ever changing laws; and the Problem Analysis & Research Center (PARC), which assists the department with statistics and analysis for manpower allocation and various projects, as well as providing CALEA coordination and management. The PARC director is Amanda Neese.

GPD’s Records Bureau handles court documentation and case management, communications and quality control, as well as being GPD’s point of contact for the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and the N.C. SBI’s Division of Criminal Information (DCI). Records also provides a tele-service to take some types of police reports over the phone, as well as validations of guns, vehicles, missing persons, runaways, and maintenance of permits and domestic violence orders. Records staff also man GPD’s front desk (704-866-6702) and assist many callers with general information questions. Emily Burr is the Records supervisor.

In addition to regular duties, GPD officers can be involved with Special Teams like the K-9 Unit, SWAT Team, Bomb Squad, Hostage Negotiators, Shift Tactical Team/Field Force Officers or join local or federal task forces.

GC3 covenant resigning 2The Gaston Clergy & Citizens Coalition sign a covenant with Gaston County Law Enforcement on Nov. 18.“All of the GPD strives to accomplish the department’s mission to Protect, Serve and Enhance the Quality of Life for All,” Helton said, starting with the department’s Police Training Officer Program. In PTO training new officers hone problem-based learning skills and their application to police activities. Community projects are selected, data is gathered, and a plan to solve or impact the problem is created and implemented. After the project is completed data is used to measure success.

Working with the GPD to Help Reduce Crime

Statistics in the GPD 2018 Annual Report: Cultivating Community & Collaboration show a 27 percent decrease in crime from 2008 to 2018. In 2018 there were 87,237 calls for police service and 8,926 criminal offenses. There were 155 violent crime arrests, 852 property crime arrests, 95 juvenile arrests, and 4,899 arrests in other more minor crimes. There were also 4,324 vehicle crashes in 2018 and programs to promote traffic safety in our community.

“We’ve reduced crime greatly over the years,” Helton said, adding that there’s still work to be done to continue crime reductions. Gastonia’s population is 77,024. The GPD has 199 employees. There were 27,062 visits to the GastoniaPD.org website in 2018 as well as 28,145 social media followers and Nextdoor members. And did you know the GPD has three Patrol Districts: East, West and Central?

GPD Patrol car 2GPD Patrol car 2For some problems such as a suspicious person or vehicle, or when someone needs to speak with an officer, the police non-emergency number can be used (704-866-3300). More complex issues such as a neighborhood nuisance at a rental property generally requires additional planning and legwork that can start after the initial call to an officer, district captain or sergeant. Some cases require follow-up investigation by the Criminal Investigations or Special Investigations Divisions.

“We have many options to address crime trends or community issues, and our officers can create something new if needed,” Helton said. “We want our citizens and visitors to feel safe, understand crime prevention measures, and understand how to work with us so we can make Gastonia as safe as possible for everyone.”

 

No-Shave November and Don’t-Shave December

No Shave art before and after group 2019Trooper Wooten FundraiserGastonia Police Department’s No-Shave November raised more than $3,000 this year for Special Olympics North Carolina. And some beards will continue to grow in Don’t-Shave December, a fundraiser to support NC Highway Patrol Trooper Christopher Wooten who was injured in a vehicle pursuit crash in October.

“It’s a fun opportunity to grow a beard and support our community at the same time,” said Sgt. Scott Norton, GPD’s SONC fund-raising committee chairman. By policy, GPD officers are clean shaven. To participate with No-Shave November, officers contribute $40 to SONC and hand out flyers to anyone who asks about their growing facial hair. Participation with Don’t-Shave December also requires a $40 donation.

The mission of SONC is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympics-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.

Anyone interested in making a donation to SONC in honor of the GPD may do so online at http://sonc.net/give/. Anyone interested in making a donation in support of Trooper Wooten or participating with Don't Shave December can contact Sgt. Norton at norton_scott@cityofgastonia.com or Officer Jackie Quinley at quinley_jackie@cityofgastonia.com.

Shop with a Cop to be held on Saturday, Dec. 7

Shop with a Cop collagejpgFundraising is underway for the fifth annual Shop with a Cop event hosted by the Gastonia Police Department.

Shop with a Cop will be held on Saturday, Dec. 7 to help youth in our community have a joy-filled Christmas season and build positive relationships with police officers. The event starts at 8 a.m. with breakfast with Santa at the GPD for the 50 participating youth. Then there’s shopping with uniformed officers at Target. Participating children are selected by the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Gaston, and each child has $250 to spend on items such as clothing, shoes, pajamas, school supplies and even a toy.

“We want this year’s Shop with a Cop to be great like last year’s,” said Chief Robert Helton. “Everyone’s help is greatly appreciated!”

Christmas ornaments are for sale again this year to raise money for Shop with a Cop. A new collectible GPD Patrol car ornament is for sale for $20. Paper ornaments are $5 each and you can sign them and hang them on the Christmas tree in the GPD public lobby. Purchases can be made at the GPD front desk. Donations can be made by mailing a check payable to the Gastonia Police Foundation, P.O. Box 336, Gastonia, NC 28053. Please indicate on your donation: “Shop with a Cop 2019.” Please call 704-866-6937 with any questions.GPD Shop with a Cop 2019 collectible ornament

Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park

Chief Helton's 6,000 mile motorcycle ride

Glacier National ParkGlacier National Park

Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton can cross an item off his bucket list: taking a 6,000 mile motorcycle ride out west with his wife, Ruth. In July they rode their Harley-Davidson motorcycle from Gastonia to Glacier National Park, Montana, passing through 15 states in all kinds of weather and seeing majestic landscapes and wildlife along the way.

“We passed through Jackson Hole, the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, with the goal of getting to Glacier National Park in Montana,” Helton said. “We had to be pretty specific about the time of year that we went out to Glacier because it can snow up until June and then start again around September. So there’s only a short time when you can get up there on a motorcycle and get across. It’s about a 53-mile ride across the pass.” They traveled across the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park to Logan Pass, a high overlook surrounded by mountains reaching 10,000 feet.

Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons were also amazing sights. “The Grand Tetons are incredible to see and what makes them standout is that there are no foothills,” Helton said. “It’s just flat plains and then the mountaintops. They rise to nearly 14,000 feet with snow tops. We could see the tips of the Grand Tetons from 100 miles out."

In the Dakotas they saw Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Needles Highway, which has rock formations including one that looks like the eye of a Grand TetonsChief Helton and his wife, Ruth, in front of the Grand Tetons.needle. “We saw elk, antelope, bear, deer and big herds of bison,” he said.

Challenges of the trip included packing for two on a motorcycle in preparation for cold, heat and rain, and finding gas along the route. “On the bike you can run 225 to 250 miles before you need gas so that could be close in some of those areas.”

Overall, they enjoyed great weather on the trip. Out of the 15 days, they only had a couple days with rain, but not enough to dampen their spirits. “We had one storm that came up that produced a little bit of hail, so we pulled over, but luckily it didn’t last long,” Helton explained. “Another thing we had to deal with while going through Wyoming was the wind. You can imagine what it’s like to have 30 mile-per-hour winds pushing to your left and then a truck passes you and all of a sudden it changes. You really have to pay close attention and hold on going down the road when you’re traveling through an area like that.”

The Heltons made the trip with another couple, retired Gastonia Police Chief Tim Adams and his wife, Jackie. “It was helpful to have bikes with cruise control, stereo and GPS. I had voice-activated communication with Ruth and a CB to talk with Tim and Jackie. About every 125 to 150 miles we pulled over to stretch our legs and top off gas because it does get tough sitting on that bike for that long!”

Other interesting sights they saw on their journey were some of the old western towns, Indian reservations, Devil’s Canyon, the famous motorcycle rally site, Sturgis, the Mississippi River and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

In reflecting on the trip, Helton said, “With such a vast and majestic country, I can understand why the words were written to the song, ‘America the Beautiful.’”

Yellowstone National ParkChief Helton and Ruth at Yellowstone National Park.

Mount RushmoreMount Rushmore

Department profile: Schiele Museum

Schiele T Rex 2016 IMG 7878 compressedGo inside The Schiele Museum of Natural History and Planetarium, close your eyes and listen. You can’t miss it: the energetic laughter and excited chatter of children. Museum accountant Janice Edge says it’s one of the best parts of her job. “I love to see and hear the excitement of children and their families,” she says. “This is an atmosphere of learning being fun and cool. Bright and happy learning.”

One big surprise about the Schiele is that it’s not only for kids. “We plan our programs and our exhibits around them being a family experience, things that three generations can come and do together,” says Director Dr. Ann Tippitt. “We provide a clean, safe, exciting environment for our families to be together and learn together.”

The Schiele attracts about 96,000 visitors each year. Many arrive on school buses that line the perimeter of the parking lot. Others come in small groups of family or friends. From artifacts to interpretive displays, live animals to fossilized bones, Schiele bugs microscope kids 2012 Bug001 compressedlooking into microscopes or up into the universe at the James H. Lynn Planetarium, the Schiele has something for every age and interest.

“I often hear people say, ‘I haven’t been to the museum since I was in junior high school,’” Edge says. “And I say, ‘You wouldn’t even recognize it. It’s so much fun.’ I wish that, when I was in school, science would have been presented to me in this way.”

Program specialist Candice Jordan says she hears that, too. “Parents come along with a school group and tell me how much they learned. It’s not just for kids. Adults can have just as much fun,” Jordan says. Stephenie Berggrun, another program specialist, says adults are not an afterthought when they plan programs and exhibits. “It’s not just about bringing your kids here,” Berggrun says. “We have adult workshops that are not just for teachers. We have adult-focused events.”

Education is the largest department within the museum, and Jordan and Berggrun are two of six full-time educators. “I love my job,” Jordan says. “You get to do something in your area of expertise and have fun with it. The content that I get to produce is fun for me, so, hopefully, it’s fun for the audience as well.”

underwater at the schiele compressedTony Pasour is Director of Interpretation at the museum, overseeing education, exhibits, public programming and the planetarium. “If our educators talk about things that they are already interested in, they are going to do a better job,” he says. “That makes for the best products we can put before our citizens.”

Assistant Director Karl McKinnon says the employees are more than just interested in the topics. “Our educators are passionate about what they do. They spend their waking hours and probably their sleeping hours thinking about how they’re going to present it. The students and guests get a fantastic program because of our educators’ passion,” McKinnon says. Tippitt adds, “We have the brightest, most competent, forward-thinking team we’ve ever had.”

Another surprise about the Schiele, at least for many out-of-town guests, is that the Smithsonian-affiliated museum is in Gastonia. “People get off the interstate and say, ‘What is this museum doing here?’” Tippitt says with a smile. “Sometimes staff might be offended. But it’s really a compliment. Why shouldn’t it be here?”

McKinnon says the Schiele is unique and one of only a handful of museums of its type in the Carolinas. “There are lots of museums in North Carolina, but there are no others like this one,” he says. “There are little science museums dotted throughout the state. But there are only about four of the size and quality of this museum. We hold our own, especially in the quality of our programming,” McKinnon says.

The Schiele Museum’s history in Gastonia

Schiele Kachina dollas 2016 IMG 7923 compressedRudolph “Bud” Schiele and his wife, Lily, moved to Gaston County from Pennsylvania in 1924 to form and lead a regional council of the Boy Scouts of America. Bud Schiele had worked as an apprentice curator at a museum in Philadelphia. He spent his life studying nature and taught himself taxidermy. He loved bugs, rocks, animals and the wide scope of the natural world. His wife was interested in Native American artifacts. The two amassed a huge collection of natural wonders and historical relics, which they displayed at the scout office in Gastonia and took to Boy Scout summer camps in the area.

In 1959, three former Boy Scouts who were now adults decided to create a museum for the Schieles’ collection. The museum opened in 1961 in a 1,500-square-foot building in Gastonia. It began as a public-private partnership with donations from interested people, and money and land from Gaston County government, Gaston County Schools and the State of North Carolina. The City of Gastonia took over the museum in 1964 after paying the County $1.

The Schiele Museum of Natural History is still a public-private partnership, but it now has 77,000 square feet indoors and six outdoor exhibits. Its official mission is to inspire “curiosity and understanding of science and the natural world through exceptional educational programs, exhibits and research.”

Schiele Mountain Goat 2013 Lucas compressedA total of 51 people work at the Schiele. Of those, 29 are City employees and the other 22 are described as board employees because their salaries and benefits are not paid by the City. The Schiele’s board of trustees helps guide the museum’s expenditures and activities.

The Schiele’s annual operating budget is about $3.1 million. Nearly 75% of that comes from the City’s general fund. The rest comes from private sources, grants, admission fees and donations. In the past two decades most capital costs have been funded by private contributions, such as building the Environmental Studies Center in 2013 and the 2015 upgrade to the planetarium.

Tippitt says most of the revenue to continue expanding and improving the museum will likely come from private sources. “We have grown the nonprofit side of our organization,” she says. “We’ve become more active in fundraising and growing our earned-income streams.”

Tippitt says museums across the country must increasingly rely on private money. “Customer service is really important to us. We operate like a business and understand that we must produce a great product so that people are willing to spend their money and their time here,” she says. The museum also seeks out sponsors for events and exhibits, and Tippitt says they have received “extremely generous support” from individuals and businesses in the area. The next big fundraising campaign will be tied to the museum’s 60th anniversary in 2021.

Schiele boy with snake 2011 DSC 1150 compressedThe museum began charging admission in the 1990s, but, twice a month, there is no charge to enter. On the second Tuesday of the month, it’s free from 4-8 p.m. And there’s no charge from 1-5 p.m. on the fourth Friday of each month. On the second Tuesday of July, 600 people showed up for free admission.

“This has become a really cool place for people to be,” says Edge, the accountant. “It’s a good value for the money.” City employees get a $2 discount on admission. And the museum is open 361 days a year, including many City holidays.

In addition to providing programs and exhibits for the public, the Schiele offers training classes and certification for educators who work in parks, museums, nature centers, aquariums and the like. The National Association for Interpretation certification focuses on professional development for educators who don’t work in traditional school classrooms.

Reality vs. virtual reality

The hands-on, interactive learning that happens in a museum is designed to complement school-based instruction. And for some people, that “see-it-touch-it-engage-with-it” style of learning is more effective. “We call them ‘lightbulb moments,’” McKinnon says of the times when a visitor, especially a child, suddenly becomes interested in a topic because the museum provides interactive rather than passive learning.

Schiele Grizzly Bear 2016 IMG 7912 compressedAnd the Schiele is doing more to serve guests with special needs. Recently, the planetarium offered a show for people who are unusually sensitive to light and sounds. The event drew a big crowd and “good positive feedback,” Tippitt says.

The Schiele’s biggest attraction may be its emphasis on authenticity. McKinnon describes it this way: “People might say, ‘That taxidermy bear (on display) is old.’ Or, ‘I can see a bear on the internet, and I can see him move and hear him growl.’ But you won’t see that bear up close. Or you won’t see what his whiskers look like. Or how he compares to you, size wise. In the digital age, you can see almost anything in a device in the palm of your hand. But that doesn’t mean that you experience it. The Schiele Museum is all about experiential learning.”

That’s why the best nickname for the department might be “It’s Real at the Schiele.” Real animals and other artifacts. Real people who are passionate about what they do. A real value for people of all ages looking to learn and have fun. The Schiele is a real treasure right here in Gastonia.

Wellness program annual report

At the June 18 City Council meeting, Debbie Bellenger of CaroMont Health presented the City of Gastonia with the trophy for winning the Employer Wellness Award editWalking Challenge saying, “You have a culture of wellness at the City.” Bellenger, who is director of employee wellness services for CaroMont added, “You should be very proud. Overall participation is up and the City of Gastonia has developed an excellent health culture.”

The City met two of its three wellness goals for this fiscal year:

  • Increase overall wellness score from 70 to 27
          >Result: Overall wellness score dropped to 69
  • Increase percentage of employees who exercise at least three days a week from 73% to 75%
          >Result: 75% of employees exercise 3+ days a week
  • Decrease percentage of employees with prehypertension from 47.1%
          >Result: 44.6% of employees have prehypertension

“City employees are moving more. They are interested in being healthier,” Bellenger said. And she noted that nearly every employee health metric measured by the City improved from 2018 to 2019, including waist circumference, blood pressure and employees’ perceptions of their own health. A few areas that did not improve in the past year include employees’ diabetes prevention and control, coronary risk, ability to cope with stress, and depressed mood.

Other year-end statistics:

  • City employees lost 1,578 pounds in the past year.
  • At employees’ request, the City began a Weight Watchers group.
  • The City achieved Gold Level status in Healthy Gaston’s Healthy Employer program.
  • 98% of employees participated in health screenings, an increase from last year.
  • 81% of employees participated in at least one Wellness activity, up from 73% last year.
  • 37.5% of employees rated the City’s health culture as excellent, up from 34% a year ago.

City Wellness Coordinator Wanda Flowers said the numbers show the program’s second year was a big success. “This is all great news for our wellness program,” Flowers said. “The employees are engaged and supporting me and one another in our wellness journey. I am so excited about all the support the program has from senior leadership as well as the employees.”

City Wellness strategy for FY2020:

  • Focus on employees’ top-two risk factors: weight management and good nutrition
  • Partner with diabetes management program
  • Develop programs to keep employees engaged in wellness activities for 10 months or more
  • Offer quarterly blood pressure, weight and waist circumference checks
  • With department directors, create a wellness plan for each City department

“I encourage those employees who have experienced improved health to please share their stories with their coworkers,” Flowers said. “Please continue to promote the wellness programs and activities as we work to live healthier and thrive!”

Department profile: Parks and Recreation

Only two employees of Parks and Recreation are scheduled to work 8-5, Monday through Friday: administrative assistants. The other 84 Parks and Rec Baseball 2007 100 1078employees are expected to work nontraditional hours, especially in the summer. “If you’re a dedicated Parks and Rec employee, there are hours across the board that you have to work,” says department director Cam Carpenter. “There are nights, weekends, special events and holidays. Our programs cater to working people and their families.”

Parks and Rec employees’ days often start early to beat the summertime heat and go late into the evening for games and other activities. “It’s not as easy as it sometimes looks,” says Skip Youngblood, one of two recreation managers. “People think that we just sit around and don’t do a lot.”

“Or they envy us because we get to wear shorts to work,” says Municipal Arborist Robert Stroud. “It looks like a lot more fun than it is,” he says with a smile.

Youngblood and Stroud speak for Parks and Rec’s two divisions:

  • Maintenance/landscaping
  • Recreation

The maintenance/landscaping group mows the grass at City-owned parks, cemeteries and other properties; takes care of trees, shrubs and flowers at City-owned buildings, greenways and other facilities; picks up trash on City-owned properties and rights of way; maintains ballfields; and provides free guidance for residents who have questions about trees or other plants on their private property. This division does the landscaping and groundskeeping for 50 different areas, including the five interchanges along I-85 in Gastonia.

Lineberger Park train 2018 DSC0085The recreation division, with two managers, oversees community center programs, athletic programs for kids and adults, Rankin Lake and its boat rentals and fishing, picnic shelters, the Skeet and Trap range, and amusements such as the Lineberger train, playgrounds and swimming pools. Parks and Recreation has a $6 million annual budget, with 7% of funds coming from registration and admission fees.

Don’t assume that Gastonia’s Parks and Recreation Department is like a TV sitcom or that it’s unchanged from decades ago. “When I started in the ‘80s here, we were just high school kids who’d drag a ballfield and mow the grass with a regular riding lawnmower,” says Carpenter, who began working for the City’s parks department at age 15. “Now, Maintenance uses specialized equipment and fairway mowers like you see on golf courses.” Stroud, the municipal arborist, says landscaping employees are specialists now. “Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, you could have had a grounds maintenance worker picking up trash one day, then mowing, then planting. Now it’s specialized with a custodian crew, a mowing crew and employees who specialize in horticulture and planting,” Stroud says.

Martha Rivers sign 2018 DSC0315Beyond cutting the grass, City landscaping crews emphasize ecological conservation. Parks and Recreation partners with Keep Gastonia Beautiful, creating gardens in Optimist Park, Martha Rivers Park and another under construction in Rankin Lake Park designed to attract bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators. Last fall, Gastonia was recognized as a Bee City USA. Educational gardens, like the new one at the water plant clearwell on Long Avenue, are also part of the modern face of our parks department.

Another change is the growing emphasis on safety, with cameras and more staff added to parks. And special events have become so important that the City hired an events manager last November. Christine Carlson works for Parks and Recreation, managing City activities like the July 4th celebration and Christmas parade, in-kind services, and ribbon cuttings for big City facilities like the water plant.

Senior Citizens Dance 2006 100 1180xCarpenter says the ongoing investment in City parks and in recreation programs is paying off in huge numbers. Patrons must reserve a picnic shelter at Rankin Lake Park and Lineberger Park a year in advance. Programs for seniors and people with disabilities are strong. Themed summer camps at community centers attract kids interested in a range of topics like math, art, and STEM. Swimming pools and spraygrounds are summertime favorites. Participation in youth soccer this past spring was up 25% over a year ago. And instead of offering one sport at a time, with a total of four sports in a year, Recreation now offers four or five sports at a time. “Our parks are packed,” Carpenter says, “which means more maintenance.”

Carpenter wishes more City employees would sign up for adult recreation leagues to play basketball, softball, volleyball or dodgeball. And there is an Soccer 2008 8 26 19 4 43 599increasing need for adults who will coach kids’ teams. “The lack of volunteers is one of our biggest problems,” he says. “Parents want their kid to play, but they are often busy.” Carpenter emphasizes that rec-league coaches don’t have to be experts. “The goal is recreation and fun,” he says, and he urges City employees to contact Skip Youngblood for more information.

City employees eagerly step up to attend the barbecue each December, hosted by Parks and Recreation. The department handles everything from waxing the floors and trimming the bushes at the Erwin Community Center to ordering the food and choosing the holiday playlist.

Behind the scenes, the department is updating the Parks and Recreation Master Plan, rewriting the City’s tree ordinance, revising its vegetative plan and landscaping policy, and creating a Downtown landscaping plan. And it has a major role in FUSE, guiding decisions on the scoreboard, turf, lights, sound system, food services and permitting, as well as streetscaping from Downtown to the FUSE District.

Rankin Lake picnic shelter 2012 100 6302The department known for its “fun and games” does a lot of work. Carpenter says a big reason for his staff’s success is collaboration with other departments, such as KGB for beautification and Public Utilities/Electric for right of way maintenance or repairing ballfield lights. “The partnerships we have with other City departments is unmatched,” he says. “I’ve worked I other municipalities. If you don’t have teamwork, it doesn’t run smoothly.”

Carpenter, Stroud and Youngblood also praise Parks and Recreation’s emphasis on customer service. “I like to think I’m available to each and every person who lives here,” says Stroud, the arborist. Youngblood adds, “We have a few parents or customers who complain, but overwhelmingly, the positive feedback and positive interaction all supersede that. It makes it all worthwhile.” Carpenter agrees, saying, “People love our great customer service. And that’s what it’s all about!”

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Gastonia, N.C., just minutes west of Charlotte, is one of the area’s best places to live and work with an ideal combination of location, size and livability. Gastonia is the largest of Gaston County’s 13 municipalities and one of the largest cities in the Charlotte metropolitan area. Selected as an All-America City three times, Gastonia’s desirable quality of life is the result of its beautiful natural surroundings, friendly neighborhoods, responsive government and vibrant business environment.










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Gastonia, NC 28052