BY DEBBIE PAGE
The Troutman Town Council heard presentations from the Public Works, Troutman Police, and Communications and Employee Services Departments during its half day planning retreat last Monday, which will be followed by the concluding session focusing on Parks and Recreation, Planning and Zoning, and Finance Departments on Monday at noon at Town Hall.
Director Adam Lippard congratulated his staff for excellent safety standards this last year, recording only one hand injury despite the dangerous work his crew completes every day.
All required safety trainings and inspections were completed, along with updates of all safety policies and procedures, he said.
In the next budget, Lippard requested additional shoring and trench equipment and training, the procurement and implementation of a new wireless communication system to use during confined-space entries and everyday use, and an increase in funding for in-house safety training directives.
The department maintains 33 miles of gravity sewer lines, 16 miles of force main lines, 17 aerial line locations, and 17 pump stations and equipment. At its last wastewater system evaluation in August of 2020, the department had zero deficiencies in nine categories and 100 subcategories. The next evaluation is in April.
The department is continuing to work with engineers on the wastewater infrastructure system project and infiltration and inflow remediation of stormwater issues. The town got a $2.5 million fully funded state grant for the wastewater project improvement project on Westmoreland Road.
Lippard reported the 53-mile water line system is in excellent shape, despite a recent break of a line installed in 1926 and buried deeply because of the freight trains that once rumbled through the town.
Lippard noted that only 4 percent of the town’s water pipes are cast iron, in contrast with Statesville’s 25 percent and Mooresville’s 10 percent. Ninety-six percent of the water piping system consists of modern designs and materials, he said.
The department continues to modernize water meters and performed all compliance monitoring for water safety. Lippard set a goal to reduce reported water loss, now at 15 percent, to 10 percent in the next year.
Town Manager Ron Wyatt noted that though Energy United raised water costs 4.5 percent, the town absorbed the costs instead of passing them on to customers.
The department also does minor street repairs, completes weekly inspections to keep up with repair needs and storm drain clearance, and applies herbicide on curbs and sidewalks.
The department has also recently improved crosswalks with warning signs in the middle of the street at its own expense because the state will not provide funds or approval for flashing lights.
In addition to all these responsibilities, the department also maintains town-owned property, greenways, and ESC Park.
Another huge responsibility is the maintenance and inspection of the town’s fleet of vehicles and equipment, including nine pieces of heavy diesel equipment, 15 generators, and 18 vehicles.
Over the next year, the department is upgrading aging sewer pumping stations, modernizing wastewater systems, and replacing aging emergency sewer pump generators and sewer pumps near their operational expectancy.
Chief Josh Watson noted continued staffing challenges, with decreased attendance at Basic Law Enforcement Training sites indicating continuing shortages of trained officers. He noted that the town is offering $44,126 in starting pay to attract officers to the department.
Because the department is down two patrol officers and has one off-duty injured officer (returning next week), Chief Watson and the patrol commander are working day and night shifts in addition to their regular duty hours and SROs are pulling overtime on the weekends to meet department safety standards of a minimum of two officers on duty at all times.
Wyatt congratulated Watson on his leadership and for leading by example. “He doesn’t ask anything he won’t do himself,” the town manager said.
Watson said some training sessions have been put on hold because of these staffing issues, but he expects officers to catch up quickly once the department has its full staff complement. He has four promising applicants interviewing in March. He and his staff have also implemented a focused recruitment effort.
In addition to filling current staff openings, Watson is requesting the addition of two more officers to serve the town’s growing population and numerous newly annexed areas and to cover during increased volume periods, officer absences, and required training sessions.
Watson is working to streamline the budget and is reducing the number of FLOCK cameras to save $8,000.
He is also creating an outreach program for officers to connect with youth at sports and other activities. After a community feedback meeting on March 29 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall, Watson and his staff will develop a community policing plan reflecting residents’ input.
The TPD is also adding Computer Aided Dispatch in officers’ vehicles that is compatible with Iredell County ECOM. The cost is being covering by eliminating the current incompatible system. The new system will provide officers information on past call history at an address or prior arrests to improve officer safety and investigation efforts.
Council member Jerry Oxsher noted that he was impressed that Watson not only delineated challenges and problems but also offered solutions to each in his presentation.
COMMUNICATIONS AND EMPLOYEE SERVICES
Since taking this position last fall, Director Emily Watson has focused on identifying gaps and needs in the town administrative operating procedures and finding solutions for them.
“You don’t rise to the level of your goals; you fall to the level of your broken system,” she said.
One area Watson found lacking was in information technology. Aging computers, outdated computer programs, and basic IT infrastructure and internet speed were all issues impeding employee performance and time management.
Though the town has a part-time person troubleshooting and undertaking repair, Watson advocated for hiring a full-time IT person to thoroughly evaluate and streamline everything IT-related.
For example, when she wanted to arrange staff Excel training, Watson found that employees had four different versions of the program on their computers, making effective training impossible.
Problems with broadcast of meetings, internet outages, cyber security, and maintenance and repair needs also indicate the need for full-time help, she told the council. In addition to Town Hall, the Public Works and the new Planning Department location also need IT assistance.
Watson also has improved new employee onboarding to integrate them effectively into the organization, general employee services, and communications within Town Hall.
She is working hard to “invest in our people” to retain and attract employees and to “reinvent the culture in the workplace to show the benefit of working” in a positive and productive workplace.
Watson has also been developing policies and procedures to support workplace best practices, clearly communicate the town’s goals, missions, and priorities, and ensure accurate and quality record-keeping of personnel and training records.
She also oversees benefits management and support, serving as a liaison between employees and insurance and benefit providers. When she discovered that employees do not take advantage of all benefits, Watson invited provider representatives to come in and explain them.
Watson additionally conducted an insurance “inventory,” evaluating coverage and cost effectiveness and making sure all town assets are properly insured.
Her responsibilities also include maintaining employee compliance with Department of Labor, Fair Labor Standards Act, OSHA, HIPPA, and EEOC rules and training.
In her communications role, Watson is training employees in appropriate and preferred use of public communications. She is also working with media outlets to create public information videos and citizen engagement articles.
Watson is also updating communication tools, including instituting Blackboard Connect to directly communicate with residents via phone, text, and/or email. The digital marquee is also being replaced, and a new website is being updated frequently with new and additional information.
The town will also increasingly utilize its various Facebook accounts, continue Youtube meeting broadcasts, continue hanging event banners, and distribute the monthly newsletter both on the website and in utility bills.
The ultimate goal of Watson’s communications efforts are “education and transparency, inviting citizens to engage in their local government processes, and incite trust in their government officials through understanding and dialogue.”