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The coins, also referred to as challenge coins, were outdated within a few months.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