Boosting morale at DENR … with collector coins

When the former Secretary for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources sought a way to boost employee’s morale last summer, his agency ordered up several hundred commemorative coins engraved with both his and the agency’s name.

DENR commemorative coin

DENR commemorative coin

The environmental agency spent $1530 in June buying 500 coins engraved with former DENR Secretary John Skvarla’s name etched on them, in addition to the agency logo and the state seal on the back.

The coins, also referred to as challenge coins, were outdated within a few months.

Skvarla left the agency in December at Gov. Pat McCrory’s behest to lead the N.C. Commerce Department. Donald Van der Vaart, a longtime DENR employee, how heads the state environmental agency.

John Skvarla

Commerce Sec. John Skvarla (formerly DENR)

A number of the coins, but not all, were handed out to DENR employees as a way for Skvarla to recognize exemplary performance, said Drew Elliot, a spokesman for the agency.

Elliot said he did not know how many of the coins remained. N.C. Policy Watch has requested, but not yet received, a copy of a spreadsheet detailing how the coins were distributed under Skvarla’s leadership.

The $1,530 purchase of the coins this June comes as the agency has had to trim many of its programs and lay off environmental regulators in response to deep budget cuts, including 225 jobs lost between 2011 and 2014, according to this February 2014 news article. Some environmental groups say the cuts have left the state unable to protect its natural resources and prevent future disasters like last year’s toxic coal ash spill in the Dan River.

Challenge coins like the ones ordered by DENR are a well-known tradition in the nation’s military branches, as explained in this Mental Floss article. The coins are sometimes handed out by secret handshakes, as they were during a 2011 visit to Afghanistan by then Defense Secretary Robert Gates who passed them out to servicemen and servicewomen.

Probably one of the most popular uses of the coins in the military is to settle up bar tabs.

The practice, which Mental Floss article attributes to starting with Americans stationed in Germany after World War II, leaves anyone without their medallion responsible for buying drinks for others. If all have coins, whoever has the lowest ranking coin ends up buying.

Law enforcement agencies and other civilian groups have begun adopted the practice of handing out commemorative coins, though it remains primarily a military custom.

At DENR, Elliot says van der Vaart plans on handing out the remaining coins, even with his predecessor’s name stamped on them.

“Secretary van der Vaart intends to continue our internal recognition program, including using the coins we have,” Elliot wrote in an email. “Having come up from the ranks, he knows the value of recognition for a job well done.”


Invoice for DENR commemorative coins:


DENR Coin invoice 2014.pdf by NC Policy Watch


  1. Tarheelborn

    January 30, 2015 at 11:03 am

    This is almost beyond comment, but DENR should probably get in touch with the former Republican state legislator who wanted to create a state currency. Might be able to make something happen.

  2. George Matthis

    January 30, 2015 at 11:11 am

    This really is beyond belief! Certainly low morale needed to be addressed, but at a time when the agency has seen historic budget cuts and staffing issues, why not come up with something a little more cost effective, like a brown bag lunch with the Secretary. That might even be a way to hear from staff about concerns, recommendations, even ways to save more money. Maybe Don vanderVaart can learn from his predecessor’s blunder and do something more constructive. He can even ask Bill Cobey, who did brown bag lunches during his tenure as DENR’s Secretary under the Martin Administration.

  3. Cathy Stewart

    January 31, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    So I asked my husband about this (he works for NCDENR) and he said that since there was no way to give people raises and no way to boost morale from a financial perspective, he heard they were offering these in some offices as recognition for going above and beyond work plans (Raleigh office he thinks – his region had not seen any). That being said, what is UNTRUE about this post is that NCDENR has not had massive budget cuts nor layoffs. Most of NCDENR is funded by sources other than the state budget. For example, though most of water quality is funded by the state budget, air quality is funded by fees that the polluters pay, and public water supply is funded by federal funds. There is a GREATER likelihood that the funding did NOT come from tax payer money.

  4. Kirk Smith

    January 31, 2015 at 4:21 pm

    Now had they had logo’ condemns, then our progressives would have been elated!

  5. Ryan

    January 31, 2015 at 8:43 pm

    George, the problem with a brown bag lunch idea is that most of the folks at DENR (I was one) were just too scared to say the truth. They had their idea of what they wanted DENR to be, which was a yes-man to the developers. If you went against that ideal, you were relieved of your duties. The other problem is that they would have to leave Raleigh, and that was just not going to happen!

  6. Erock

    February 7, 2015 at 12:32 am

    Republican cost cutting at it’s best! McCrory, the polluters Governor!

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