CHERRYVILLE Even before a corruption scandal rocked Cherryville’s city hall and police department last fall, Mayor Bob Austell hadn’t been feeling well.
After the FBI made arrests and the uproar partially subsided, Austell landed in the hospital for open-heart surgery. Now, he’s back for a few hours a day in his office, helping with Cherryville’s recovery.
New key city personnel have been hired, including a finance director and city manager. The city is looking for a new police chief and plans are to reorganize the police department.
Also, officials are working on a new budget that addresses needed road repairs and expanded water and sewer lines. They’re hoping to recover part of the more than $500,000 that was embezzled from the city by two employees.
“A large majority of citizens were shocked over these activities,” said Austell, 73. “They were disappointed and hurt. They were also angry and they had every right to be. But I believe our people are looking through the hurt and disappointment and that together this town will stand tall again.”
The Gaston County town became the focus of national attention in October when FBI agents swooped in and began their roundup.
Three Cherryville officers and a Gaston County sheriff’s deputy were among six men accused of conspiring to provide protection to trucks carrying stolen goods and cash. All have pleaded guilty.
In January, the former Cherryville finance director and former city customer service representative/utility supervisor were charged with embezzling. Both agreed to plead guilty.
No date has been set for sentencing and until that happens, Austell said the scandal “won’t be out of the public eye.”
Meanwhile, the city is getting on with business.
“The focus of the City Council and city staff has moved from the past to the future,” Austell said. “It’s time to restore public trust. I’m proud to have served with this council through this unfortunate series of events. They’ve handled it professionally.”
New employees include Finance Director Dixie Wall, Lisa Workman in accounts payable, City Clerk Paige Green and City Manager Ben Blackburn.
Oversight measures now in place include an audit committee that will go beyond state audit requirements. Also, a whistleblower policy has been established for the finance department.
Planning for a new fiscal year has already started. Like the current $11.4 million budget, Austell said the 2013-14 budget will also be conservative while providing a high level of service.
The City Council is looking at the immediate needs of each department and coming up with a budget plan.
Austell said the city should be in good financial shape “with some cuts and money not going out the door in peoples’ pockets.”
Officials say Cherryville is slowly returning to some degree of normalcy.
Interim City Manager Jeff Cash is back full time at his old job as city fire chief. He’d been in the interim position since former City Manager David Hodgkins was fired in June.
Sgt. Cam Jenks remains interim police chief until a new chief is hired.
“Cam stepped up to the plate and has done a wonderful job,” said Blackburn, 52, former Lowell city manager. “Morale in the department has remained high.”
The salary range for the police chief position is $49,993 to $74,214. Blackburn is encouraged that more than a dozen qualified applicants from around the region and out of state are seeking the chief’s job. He sees this as proof “people haven’t given up on this community. Cherryville is a place where they want to live, work and play.”
A Cherryville native, Blackburn became city manager in his hometown on Dec. 3.
While he called the scandal “a cloud looming over the town” Blackburn said, “….I don’t know anyone who has experienced shame of being from Cherryville.”
The Rev. Rick Fite, pastor of Cherryville’s First United Methodist Church, is counseling several people who’ve been impacted by the scandal. He pays weekly jail visits to former reserve police officer Frankie Dellinger, 41, a church member who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and extortion.
Fite said Dellinger has the support of his family and is doing as well as possible under the circumstances.
As pastor, Fite has to “walk a tight line” and has purposely not read any newspaper accounts of the scandal.
“I don’t want to know all the details. My job is to deal with each individual person,” Fite said. “I don’t bring judgment to them. I go in a spirit of compassion.”
In Fite’s view, the town still has “quite a bit of anxiety.”
“It’s nowhere near closure, that’s certainly true,” he said. “There are a lot of rumors that the other shoe is going to drop and there will probably be other arrests.”
Cherryville’s anxiety won’t end until “there’s full disclosure and everything’s on the table,” Fite said.
City Council member Malcolm Parker doesn’t think people are talking as much about the scandal as they once were and that “it’s leveling off a little bit.”
He wants the public to know the city council is making every effort to stop something like this from ever happening again.
“And we’re hoping to get the money back,” Parker said. “We’re going after every penny we can get.”
Meanwhile, he looks forward to the day when “we can get all this behind us and our citizens can hold their heads up. We’ve got good people and a good town.”
Retired Carolina Freight employee Bob Pierce doesn’t think the town he’s called home for 30 years should be judged by the actions of a few.
His response when somebody makes a derogatory remark about Cherryville: “Sorry, you’re wrong.”
Gaston County Commissioner Alan Fraley of Cherryville hopes there’ll be no more indictments, but if that happens “we’ll have to deal with whatever comes our way and make the best of it.”
Like many others, he wants to put the scandal behind and “get headed in a positive direction.”
Fraley recalled that when trucking giant Carolina Freight Carriers closed in 1995, putting 1,800 people out of work, “some said it was doomsday for the city.”
“It was a tough deal and it hurt,” he said. “But people found a way. You’ve got to dig deep and keep moving. I think we’ve got a great city. People support each other. This scandal has torn our city. But I don’t believe we’re torn beyond repair. I believe we’ll make it.”
So does Austell. He grew up in Cherryville and at age 18 got a third-shift job on the dock at Carolina Freight. Thirty-eight years later, he retired as vice president of terminals.
Austell is serving his fifth term as mayor and doesn’t plan to run again.
Last year was a rough one. Besides dealing with the city’s problems, Austell had trouble breathing and felt “terrible.” He was hospitalized five times.
After open-heart surgery on Dec. 28, Austell feels rejuvenated. He keeps office hours again in city hall on weekdays.
“I’m going to make the best of my last ten months here in office,” Austell said.
Since scandal hit, he’s heard all kinds of bad things about Cherryville. But Austell’s faith in his hometown is stronger than ever.
“We did have some citizens who made bad choices and are having to pay the consequences,” he said. “These people all have extended families and this town always responds to peoples’ needs. The kids caught up in this will be loved and taken care of and supported.”
Calling himself a “living testament” to the community support system, Austell said that during his recovery from surgery “I received a box full of get-well cards with the warmest comments, even from people I didn’t think liked me.”
As Cherryville moves on, Austell said it’s up to each person to figure out “what they want their attitude to be: look forward and build or look back and tear down. I believe we have more who want to look forward. With that majority this town will recover.”
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