City’s new fire chief has big shoes to fill

Morris: City staff make being mayor “the best job I’ve ever had”

By Kevin Spradlin

ROCKINGHAM — Harold Isler must have felt like the new kid on the block, and for good reason, too — he’s not yet an employee of the city of Rockingham and he was surrounded by people with more than 300 years’ of experience.

Kevin Spradlin | City of Rockingham department heads, including outgoing Fire Chief Charles Gardner, left, and incoming Chief Harold Ellis, second from left, were a part of the city's 15th annual budget retreat on Wednesday at Hinson Lake.

Kevin Spradlin |
City of Rockingham department heads, including outgoing Fire Chief Charles Gardner, left, and incoming Chief Harold Ellis, second from left, were a part of the city’s 15th annual budget retreat on Wednesday at Hinson Lake.

But it was important that Isler, the incoming fire chief who will replace retiring Charles Gardner in August, was on hand Wednesday for the city’s 15th annual budget retreat at Hinson Lake. After all, it allowed him his first real look at those with whom he’ll soon be working — and the atmosphere they’ve worked so hard to create and maintain.

Mayor Steve Morris made it a point of emphasis that sitting around the tables inside Rotary Lodge Wednesday morning at Hinson Lake during the city’s 15th annual retreat to Hinson Lake, there were 313 years of experience experience among the city’s 12 department heads.

“People ask why the city runs so well,” Morris said. “That’s a pretty staggering number.”

Morris told the department heads — parks and recreation, police, fire, building/grounds, water and sewer, planning and more — that they help to make his job and that of the council’s much, much easier.

“You obviously know your jobs, you obviously like your jobs,” Morris said. “The first time we did this, there was lots of fear and trepidation on your faces. Everybody was concerned … ‘why do they want to see us?'”

That anxiety was soon to be lessened, however. Morris said he has a ready answer when people ask him what it’s like to be mayor.

“I honestly tell them it’s the best job I’ve ever had,” he said. “You folks make it that way. Every job comes with complaints — I certainly get a few (but) not many. It’s fun. It’s exciting.”

Before breaking for lunch and then beginning an executive session to discuss City Manager Monty Crump’s annual evaluation, Morris took a moment to appreciate Crump’s contribution to the city.

“I appreciate what Monty does,” Morris said. “I don’t always agree with him … that’s okay. We talk our way through it and come up with a solution.”

Council members took turns adding to Morris’ sentiment.

Councilman John Hutchinson said that city workers, a workforce for which the draft Fiscal Year 2015 budget includes a 3 percent across-the-board cost of living adjustment, seem to not only do the right thing, but the “do them better than they have to be done.”

Councilman Bennett Deane expressed concern about what the city will do when it comes time to replace the likes of Gardner, who will retire in August after 31 years with the city, the last 11 as chief.

“When you guys start hanging it up, what are we going to do,” Deane asked, then looked to Isler — hired from the Goldsboro Fire Department — as an example of a good answer.

“It’s exciting to see we can bring talent in from the outside,” said Deane of the city’s first African-American department head.

Councilman Gene Willard said he is also grateful for current leadership and wondered what the next group of leaders would be.

“Your age group is a group of people that work hard,” Willard said. “You see the need to try to save the city money. The next generation that takes over your leadership may not be as helpful and as thoughtful trying to work towards that end. That kind of concerns me a bit.”

Willard credited current leadership for cost-saving efforts that have helped prevent a tax increase for at least a decade.

* * * 

The city of Rockinhgam’s FY 2015 budget features no tax increases nor fee or rate increases for water and sewer. It also includes a 3 percent across-the-board cost-of-living adjustment for city employees. The budget is not yet approved; a public hearing has been scheduled as part of the City Council’s June 10 public meeting. The meeting begins at 7 p.m.

On Wednesday, council members met with department heads to review successes in the current fiscal year and to evaluate requests for FY 2015.

Police Chief Billy Kelly said his department is “in very good shape” when it comes to training, building space and equipment when compared to other departments across North Carolina. That doesn’t mean his department is without needs, however. Tops on the list is $103,000 for four new vehicles, including two four-wheel-drive Chevrolet Tahoe SUVs and two patrol cars.

Three current vehicles have more than 110,000 miles and another has more than 80,000 miles but has been in the repair shop often, Kelly said. The two new Tahoes would bring to five the number of 4WD vehicles for the department. They came in handy during the winter snow storms, he said.

“They were very, very valuable to us,” Kelly said. “We can take ’em anywhere we need to go.”

Kelly said the department also is seeking new in-car cameras to replace outdated, record-to-VHS cameras currently in use. The new camera will be able to record up to two minutes before the unit is activated.

The new units would prove “very valuable” for evidentiary purposes as well as in any potential civil liability issues. Recently, a police officer was in a wreck in a unit with one of the new cameras and it had the two minutes prior to the crash.

“We see the entire event, not just what happened after” impact, Kelly said.

Charles Gardner Rockingham Fire Chief

Charles Gardner
Rockingham Fire Chief

Gardner said the fire department needs $24,000 in new  radio equipment to continue a transition from analog to digital frequency.

The new radios will allow “us to encrypt our channel,” Gardner said. “A lot of self-programmers are getting into our traffic. Unless we give (our code) out to somebody … scanners will be useless to them. We won’t have crowds interfering at a scene.”

Gardner participated in his last budget retreat. He is set to retire in August after spending a few weeks of overlap with his successor, Isler.

“It’s been difficult,” Gardner said of the decision to retire. He recalled serious but humorous conversations with his wife. Gardner said he’s been told that, “‘When you retire, you’re mine. You ain’t doing nothing else.'”

Gardner’s response: “Yes, ma’am.”

Gardner and his wife will celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary in June.



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