Monday, March 15, 2010

Settling in at NPHD

Between the blizzard and the flood, when life was mostly unfrozen and nearly dry, I visited our new highway superintendent at his job.

Among criticisms of Nielson during the campaign were concerns that his job as a Kingston firefighter would prevent him from overseeing emergencies on New Paltz roads.  This last winter storm of this season brought more snow to New Paltz than any since 1996, and heavier snow than we've seen since the 1970s, according to Nielson, who has spent time getting to know the veteran highway superintendents in the area.

He was happy to show me around the facility, from the massive salt barn to the gigantic trucks that were purchased during the Reagan administration and still do the bulk of the plowing.  "A lot of what we do each day is pretty routine," he explained to me.  "We try to start all the trucks and, if we're lucky, we can get two of them running.  Then we pull the rest of them into the garage and fix them."

The highway department does have a number of newer vehicles, including 2008 truck which was acquired for the superintendent's use, and several pieces of heavy equipment.  However, the heavy truck capacity of the department at this time is lacking.  For example, it takes two trips to the department's garage to sand all the roads west of the Wallkill, because none of the trucks the department owns is rated to carry that much weight.

It looks like Nielson wants to create a plan to replace the aging fleet without facing taxpayer backlash; he told the town board he'd like to replace the deputy superintendent position with a part-time secretary, freeing up resources to get what amounts to a second foreman while cutting his payroll down by about twenty grand.  That's probably no more than a quarter of what a new triple-axle truck would cost.

Any vehicle replacement plan will have to be approved in the next budget, and Nielson says he's starting work on that as soon as possible.  First he's focusing on putting systems into place, such as a daily prioritized task list and a longer-term project list that can be used by the crew to identify the most important job to do next.

So what types of things has the new superintendent learned since he took office?  Not surprisingly, a lot about plowing.  "Mailboxes are a funny thing," he told me.  "By law they should not be in the town's right-of-way, but if they aren't the post office isn't going to deliver to it."  Pushing snow with up to 26 tons of force, a plow doesn't actually have to touch a mailbox for it to be destroyed by its passing.  Nielson told me he also understands why it's common for trees to be pushed out of the way by plows during a storm - it may not be the best tool for the job, but there's no time to bring in heavy equipment while the snow is still falling.

Nielson couldn't comment on the recent termination of one employee and suspension of another, but from what I've seen any allegations of his actions being a vendetta are beyond the pale.  He's already clocking over 45 hours a week and I'm sure he wouldn't create more work for himself like that unless there was good reason.


Maria said...


Anonymous said...

He may have saved money on the deputy superintendent by making the secretary part time BUT he create two foreman positions to cover himself when he is not available. He is a very capable politician.

Terence said...

Yep, anonymous . . . Mike's terribly crafty. Imagine that: saving money in the first couple of months by cutting waste, and then studying the department for a year to see if he could become more efficient by bumping one of his existing crew up to foreman. Crafty devil.