Highway Superintendent David Miller and the Town of Lockport
Lori Lovely – PROFILE CORRESPONDENT - May 2023
Town of Lockport Highway Superintendent Dave Miller and his crew were taking a lunch break while doing a paving job a few years ago. He grabbed a bite at Ted's Hotdogs.
"While sitting there, I could hear someone choking," he recalled. "I looked around and saw just about nobody else there, so I asked her to slide out of the bench." He then proceeded to use the Heimlich maneuver on her. It saved her life.
It's rare for a highway superintendent to have such a dramatic "best day" on the job, but the Lockport native has two. One Christmas Eve, the crew had been out plowing snow since 5 a.m. The 70-80 mph winds turned 3-4 feet of fresh snow into a blizzard, with dangerous conditions and limited visibility. The crew stopped to have some chili provided by a council woman, watching the Bills game as they waited out the weather, but they were back out plowing when a call came from the fire chief at 6:30 p.m.
He needed someone to plow a path for the ambulance to get into a trailer park in order to reach a man having a heart attack. The trailer park is private property and hadn't been plowed, leaving thousands of residents trapped at home.
"Everyone was out plowing, so I took the high lift — the big loader," Dave said.
Once he got to the trailer park, the fire chief jumped into the cab with him, bringing along his GPS to help guide them. They found the man in his car, attempting to drive himself to the hospital. While the chief attended to the man, Dave plowed a turn-around for the ambulance. He's convinced that clearing the road for ambulance access saved the man's life.
All in a Day's Work
Lockport, just 20 miles east of Niagara Falls in Niagara County, receives an average of 80 inches of snow a year. To handle that, the highway department's 14 full-time employees, including Deputy Superintendent Scott Donner, run seven plow routes, which typically take about 3.5 hours each to cover the 181 lane miles, all paved.
During warmer weather, one of the crews' duties is to take care of the local parks. They're getting ready to dig a pond at Day Road Park.
"It's a gem with a playground, two irrigated soccer fields, a walking path, restrooms and a memorial tree program where people can buy a plaque for loved ones," Dave said.
In response to the request for a lacrosse field, Dave and the town's engineer from Wendel Engineering realized they'd need to bring in fill dirt for the field since it's a wet area. But fill is expensive, so they came up with a low-cost alternative: digging a pond. Roughly 200 feet by 200 feet and 10 feet deep, the pond is located near the walking paths and will be stocked with bass and sunfish so the locals can go fishing.
Another project in the works is a box culvert replacement on East High Street, but some of the superintendent's favorite projects are construction jobs he and his crew do for the town, such as remodeling the town hall and bathrooms, building a new pole barn, garage and gazebo and many other projects that save the town money.
Prior to 2011, Day Road Park had only portable outhouses. Estimates for a contractor to install a restroom were around $250,000. Instead, under Dave's guidance, the highway crew did 80 percent of the work — subletting plumbing, tiling, exterior cultured stone work and electrical service — for a cost of just $82,400.
The town purchased a 30-foot steelwork octagonal structure in 2014 for Day Park. Dave's crew poured the concrete foundation and put together the prefab kit — subbing out electrical work. The project cost $24,000, minus an $8,000 donation.
Four years later, the town put up a heated, finished 24-foot by 36-foot garage, a portion of which they rent to the New York State Troopers to use for storage and plate-reader cars as part of a lease expansion. The town did the bulk of the work on this project — excavating, concrete, roofing, siding, drywall, painting and trim. They subbed out electrical, insulation and garage door installation. Total cost of the project was just $27,325.
The same year, they erected a 32-foot by 48-foot pole barn to be used as a storage facility in Day Road Park. Once again, the department did all the work except the garage door installation, including using a 30-foot-reach telehandler, purchased from Bureau of Federal Property Assistance (excess government military equipment). Bids for this job came in at $104,000, but Dave spent only $34,408.
Grant money helped pay for the Snyder Road sidewalk project. Bids to install sidewalks from Shimer Drive to the Y on Snyder Drive came in at $144,800. After buying the sidewalk forms to do the work, costs when the project is completed are expected to be under $40,000.
Building a Background
Lockport was able to save so much money on building projects due to Dave's background in construction. Fresh out of high school, he worked at Frontier Stone for five years, making cement blocks in the block plant.
When the quarry closed, Dave got into construction, working for others and running his own company with a focus on residential and commercial construction. After approximately 20 years in the industry, he was asked to consider becoming Lockport's highway superintendent.
"Lou Hagen [then-highway superintendent] came to see me about cutting grass," Dave said. "He was getting ready to retire but had nobody lined up to take his place. He told me, ‘I'd give it to you in a minute.' I thought about it for a week."
At the end of a week, Dave became Lockport's deputy highway superintendent. With a mere three months of training under his belt — which did not include any winter plowing, he pointed out — he assumed the top spot.
Carving His Own Path
Dave's first year in office was 2010. One change he made was to alter the brush pickup schedule.
"When I first got here, we would pick up brush only three times a year," he said. "I changed the policy to pick up brush once a month: March through November."
The change was intended to provide better service. He said that if residents missed the first pickup, they complained about the length of time until the next one. So, every third Monday, nine times a year, he shuts down paving work to pick up brush.
"I saw a need for more frequent pickup. We work for the residents. It doesn't matter what projects we do, as long as it's for the good of the town."
Pleasing the townspeople is important. In addition, Dave enjoys a good relationship with the town's board in large part because he saves so much money on projects, but he also has a good rapport with the other towns throughout Niagara County.
"We work with pretty much all the towns in Niagara County," he said. "We share trucks and equipment throughout the year, especially during paving season. It wouldn't be unusual to see five or six different town trucks lined up at one town's paving job."
A member of the Niagara County Association of Superintendents of Highways Inc., Dave also is the current president of the New York Association of Town Superintendents of Highways Inc., where he is extending his network of cooperation and community. Many of the 934 towns in New York are part of the group.
"We have a strong association and provide a lot of services," he said.
During his one-year term, he'll visit other counties and address the highway school and Cornell. He also hopes to revamp the association's bylaws and initiate better connections with the vendors by including them in meetings and decisions.
He's also prepared to meet with state senators on budget issues, in the hopes of increasing their CHIPS allotment. Lockport's CHIPS amount is $339,199.84 (out of a total operating budget of $3,010,650, which includes: EWR — $44,740.59; Pave NY — $54,436.80; and Pop — $36,291.20). "It's not enough," he said.
Despite funds from Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act (part of the Inflation Reduction Act), he said costs have increased to such an extent that they offset the additional funds.
"There's been an increase in the cost of fuel, blacktop … we need money for roads, bridges and culvert."
Budgets, Buildings, Big Equipment
Dave manages Lockport's highway budget judiciously. While he does buy a big truck every other year, much of his equipment is older, like the 50-year-old paver.
"A new paver costs $450,000," he said. "That's two years' budget."
Instead, he added, they "maintain equipment the best we can. We just keep fixing it."
Key in that enterprise is lead mechanic, Barry Kibbe. Not only does he schedule all vehicle maintenance and log maintenance records in the computer, he also explores parts options to save money. And if he can't find it, sometimes he can make it.
"Our mechanic wired up lights on each end of the front plows on all our big trucks so the drivers can see the edges of the plows, especially in bad weather," Dave said.
The department's current equipment list includes:
- 2020 Chevy Silverado pickup
- 2005 Chevy Silverado pickup
- 2015 Chevy Silverado pickup
- 2013 Chevy Silverado pickup
- 2009 Ford F250 (two)
- Ram trucks
- 2019 Freightliner dump
- 2017 Bobcat
- 2017 Western Star dump truck
- 2019 Mack dump
- 2022 Mack granite dump
- 1985 International flatbed dump
- 2011 Caterpillar excavator
- 2013 Kubota tractor
- 1988 Midland paver and 1988 Midland shoulder widener
- New Holland tractor
- John Deere wheel loader
- Caterpillar vibratory rollers (three)
Dave has a new truck on order. "We will buy new trucks. It's important to have reliable trucks."
He also said the department "could use a new paver and one or two leaf suckers."
Their main garage is 120 feet by 190 feet with a 25-foot by 150-foot attached office, built in 1976. They also have a 40-foot by 70-foot storage barn, a 40-foot by 50-foot salt shed storage and a 55-foot by 70-foot salt barn with a 25-foot by 70-foot lean-to that can store 3,000 tons of salt. The property also houses the town hall and court/troopers building.
On the Green
Dave's current four-year term expires December 2025. Contemplating retiring "sooner than later," especially on those winter weekends when he has to get up at 3 a.m. to check the roads, he knows his future doesn't allow for a lot of time to sit around his new in-ground pool. He's already so busy, he sold his 30-foot boat last year because, after 20 years of boating, there just isn't time for it anymore.
"I've always had two jobs my entire life," he said. "I come from the private sector where you have to bust your butt."
His present "second job" is overseeing the executive par 3 golf course he created on his 26-acre farm. He designed the course and, with a partner, opened it to the public in 2005.
Having since bought out his partner, Dave built a "nice clubhouse" — an enclosed banquet facility for 150 that features a bar, where a weekly crowd gathers on Saturdays. "It's my happy place," he said.
It has become his social life, but it's more than that.
"It keeps us here," he said, including his wife of four decades, Ginny, who manages the golf course and banquet facility when she's not working as the music director of the local Catholic church, where she sings and plays the organ.
"Here" is his hometown of Lockport, population 20,570, established in 1824, the same year the Erie Canal opened from the Hudson River to the Lockport locks. Today, the Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride, offering guided historical tours of the 19th-Century locks, caves and tunnels is a popular attraction.
A popular nearby tourist stop is Blackman Homestead Farm, a 160-acre family-owned and -operated farm for more than 150 years. Located on the Niagara Escarpment, the working farm produces apples and other fruit, cider, fruit butter and more.
The town, still largely rural farmland, is known for organizing the first volunteer regiment of the Civil War in 1861 and for being home to the co-inventor of the steam fire engine, Birdsill Holly, who obtained a patent for the fire hydrant in 1869.
Dave and Ginny were high school sweethearts — even though they went to different high schools.
"She lived two miles away in a different county and went to a different school," he said. They met at a corner store when he was about 15 … and dating her sister. Things changed quickly once they met. "I married young at 19," he said.
The couple had three children of their own: David, Rachel and Brian. Their kids grown and gone, they thought they were done raising children, but they took in Ginny's great-niece and -nephew, Sherri-Lynn, and the late Beau about 17 years ago. They acquired legal custody of the two, saving them from a life in foster care.
Grandfather to six, Dave survived a heart attack two years ago. It hasn't slowed him down, but he is thinking about cutting down to just one job soon.
Before he does, he has some goals to accomplish, like completing the new pond and athletic field at Day Road Park, adding more trails, updating the playground equipment and continuing maintenance.
"I want to leave it better than [it was] when I got here," he said, adding that he hopes to be remembered as a superintendent who "did a lot of building and saved a lot of money."
It's safe to say that this hometown hero will be remembered for a lot more than that. P