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Highway Superintendent Gary Cole and the Town of Cato

Lori Lovely – PROFILE CORRESPONDENT - December 2022

Gary joked that a family hobby is expensive and “that’s why I’m still working.” He enjoys cars in general and drag racing in particular. The town garage was expanded in 1983 and additional bays were added in 2001 when it was remodeled. In the sweeper, Amed Perrotta gets ready to pave VanHorn Road. The town of Cato paves VanHorn Road with help from the towns of Ira, Sterling Victory.  John St. Andrews rolls asphalt on VanHorn Road. In the background is one of the one-room schoolhouses in the town of Cato. The town of Cato highway department’s new John Deere tractor and mower. Cindy Stephenson is the deputy town clerk in Cato. Walter Joshanski (L) and John St. Andrews work in the cemetery. Charmanine Cole’s two street rods. She is Gary Cole’s wife.

Gary Cole, third-generation highway superintendent of the town of Cato in Cayuga County, has been in office since 2008. He laughingly says, "I'll be remembered as the superintendent who spent the most money."

Gary said his father, grandfather and Walter Joshanski, his most recent predecessor (who still plows snow and mows the cemeteries and who talked him into running for the position), didn't spend a lot of money. Thus, when he took charge, the equipment was old and needed updating. "I was pro-active. I modernized."

As Walter observed, "Gary has been blessed with a great town board, which has allowed him to keep the fleet up to date."

"I've replaced everything since 2009," Gary said. His current equipment lineup includes:

  • three International dump trucks;
  • ten wheelers with plows and sanders;
  • one International six-wheeler;
  • two mowing tractors;
  • a Cat grader;
  • a broom and mower;
  • a 1970 four-wheel-drive Oshkosh;
  • two pickup trucks; and
  • one backhoe.

He's got a ten-wheel dump truck on order, but "everything with chips or sensors is on back-order," he grumbled, so it's 18 to 24 months out. He can't even order a new Ford pickup. When he tried to in January, he was told he can't order until January 2023, so he's been forced to keep equipment longer than planned.

"I like to roll out equipment at eight to nine years, but it takes so long to get a new one, I have to adjust the schedule," he said.

Holding on to equipment too long diminishes resale value.

"We got $6,000 for the first truck we sold — with a plow and a wing," he said. "The last one was $32,000."

Currently, the 2013 is the department's oldest truck, but Gary said it's going to auction next. Meanwhile, because a new one costs $200,000, they've kept it going by putting $11,000 into it.

Inventory is down, but prices are up. Last year, when Gary ordered the new truck, the price was $20,000 more than pre-pandemic prices. Because the town of Cato doesn't finance purchases, Gary sets aside a certain amount in the budget for equipment — but it takes time on an annual budget of $496,194 ($76,300 of which is CHIPS money).

Bridging the Funding Gap

That's not to say Gary is a spendthrift. For example, when a paving machine went through a double culvert, which gave out under the weight, he led his crew in fixing it at a cost of just $40,000.

But there's another pending project he said is too big for them to take on. They're currently in the planning stages of repairing Ditmar Road Bridge.

"The steel beams are going bad," Gary said.

The town is sending the job out for bid, with engineering firm Barton & Loguidice hoping to repair it soon.

Although they're hiring out for the bridge work, Gary is still saving money. The price for a new bridge is $450,000 — beyond their budget. So, he applied for BRIDGE NY help but was told it's too small of a project. The bridge is just 28 ft. long.

The BRIDGE NY initiative supports projects that reduce the risk of flooding, improve the resiliency of structures and facilitate regional economic competitiveness by granting part of its $216.2 million war chest to 88 local governments seeking help in rehabilitating or replacing bridges and culverts. This money is in addition to the nearly $500 million previously awarded

According to Gov. Kathy Hochul, "The BRIDGE NY program provides essential funding to enhance the safety, resiliency and reliability of critical municipally owned infrastructure."

Awards are based on criteria including structural condition and susceptibility of the bridge or culvert to flooding, significance based on detour considerations and the number and type of businesses impacted, overall impact on the movement of commerce and benefits of the corridor on Environmental Justice Communities.

According to Gary, the Ditmar Road Bridge is "fairly heavily traveled" and, if closed, "ambulances will have to go way around, and school buses will have to be rerouted."

Without the state grant, he'll rely on federal money to fund the work.

Paving the Way

When he uses the town budget, Gary does so judiciously. Since he took office, he has paved all but two of the town's 33.1 mi. of roads, one mile-and-a-half at a time, the last one in 1998. They last 25 years on average because he puts down a good base and because he uses mix pave, not hot mix.

"Mix pave is oil and stone that runs through the paver to the base," he said.

Applied 3 in. deep, after rolling, it's still about 2.5 in., as opposed to 1 in. of hot mix. It's also forgiving, unlike hot mix.

"It moves a little without breaking," Gary said.

Hot mix is smoother but doesn't last as long.

"Seven years out of hot mix is considered good," he added.

Gary has only had to reapply chip over the top of the mix pave two or three times in 20-plus years. And, he said, "The price is not a lot more."

For a region that typically sees 120 to 150 in. of snow — and wind that blows it across freshly plowed roads — having paved roads makes plowing a bit easier. The crew of three full-time people plus Walter Joshanski divvies up town roads and 14.18 of county roads into three plow routes, each of which takes approximately three hours to complete.

Situated between Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes, Cato can be buffeted by lake-effect snow, although Gary observes that, "We've had more ice than snow the past two or three years. That's far worse."

Scenic drumlins created long ago by glaciers dragging rock, sand and gravel divide the numerous lakes, ponds and streams dotting the area. Known for its hills and waterways that attract nature lovers, fishermen, hunters, hikers and snowmobilers, Cato can be a challenge in the winter. Gary said the crew often has to plow three times a day when storms hit — and if it's really cold (or icy), he has to put down sand because salt won't work at extreme temperatures. Even then, he's had a problem with sand freezing. "Once, we had to use the dozer to break up chunks," he said.

The town goes through approximately 2,500 tons of sand and 900 to 1,000 tons of salt each winter. A new 60 by 80 salt shed built in 2016 holds 3,700 tons of a salt/sand mix, which he mixes at a ratio of 3:1, and the old building holds 400 tons of straight salt.

It's one of several buildings used by the highway department. The first town garage was built in 1947. It was expanded in 1983 and additional bays were added in 2001 when it was remodeled.

"We don't use a liquid brine," Gary said. "If the forecast calls for an ice storm, I put down a sand/salt mix first. It's safer because it adds grip."

He admitted he hates getting up at 2 a.m. in the winter and having to go back down a road to put down sand. He confessed to sliding off the road approximately two years ago while going 5 mph. It's safe to say that ice storms are his least favorite aspect of the job.

Big Solutions for Small Town Problems

Whether or not any particular duty is his favorite, Gary tackles them all with the same professional dedication and attention. He serves as vice president of Cayuga County Highway Association and attends highway school and the annual superintendent convention, even though "most of the talk is about big towns." He said he has to "pick out what works for us. We don't have challenges like big towns do."

For example, one of the town's roads passes through a swamp, home to several beavers, whose dams plug the water, which then runs onto Turner Road, where it creates a safety hazard and causes structural damage.

Gary sidestepped a couple possible solutions, such as raising the 1,000-ft. road 5 ft. off the ground or killing the beavers. "I'm not into killing them if I don't have to," he said. "I don't hunt."

Instead, he obtained a nuisance permit from the DEC that allowed his crew to live-trap and relocate the beavers, and he installed a grate in front of the pipe to prevent them from blocking it. His humane plan is working. Three beaver huts have been reduced to just one. "We can see a big beaver hut in the swamp, but we can't get to it. We just deal with it," he said.

Job Genealogy

That may be an example of the ingenuity Gary picked up from the example set by his grandfather, Henry Cole, who served as highway superintendent of Cato from the early 1950s to 1965; or his father, Robert Cole, who was highway superintendent from 1978 to 1992. Perhaps it's knowledge gleaned from his early years working on the family dairy farm.

"I was born and raised on a farm, so I got a lot of mechanical experience," he said.

Farming has been an important part of Cato's history since the town was formed in 1802 from parts of Aurelius. Because it was in the Central New York Military Tract created by the Continental Congress, which reserved 100 acres for veterans of the Revolutionary War who served at least three years, settlers began arriving in the early 19th century, with more coming after the War of 1812 once the dense forests were cleared, the marshes were drained, and malaria and the Native Americans beaten into submission — and because the State of New York increased the allotment to 600 acres, which it began distributing to veterans in 1790.

The state allocated 1.8 million acres for veterans, despite the fact that previous laws assigned the land to the Cayuga and Onondaga people. Nevertheless, New York proceeded to survey the land and divide it into 600-acre lots, one of which became Cato.

In the early days, Cato's major crop was tobacco, but most of the farms these days raise dairy and beef cattle, alpacas or cash crops such as soy and corn.

Just out of high school, at age 17, Gary managed a dairy farm that included 250 acres and 85 cows. Five years later, he broke his elbow "into pieces." When his doctors told him not to use it, he decided to sell the farm and follow another career that would let him keep working with big equipment but be easier on his body.

For the next 35 years, Gary drove a tractor trailer. Ironically, he also worked on his elbow by carrying around a 20-lb. barbell to straighten it. Today, he reports, he has "no issues" with it. "It won't straighten or twist all the way, but it works."

A New Beginning

When Walter Joshanski was ready to retire from the superintendent position, he urged Gary to run. Elected in 2007, Gary brought his knowledge of trucks, rebuilding tractors on the farm and his training in water service to the job.

"We change oil and grease twice a year, but send out anything major," he said. For example, he believes his crew can't safely change transmissions. "My nephew is in the truck business. We ask him first and send it out if he can't do it."

He keeps his crew busy with other projects. Full-time MEOs include John St. Andrews, Amed Perrotta and Kevin Bratt. "Kevin is new," Gary said. "He's a young guy who worked at a school and did mechanic work on the side."

"The deputy superintendent has been here 29 years," Gary added. "He has one more year until retirement. It will be hard to find somebody who wants the job."

When hiring employees, Gary said he looks for "someone with better knowledge of mechanics that I have."

Along with part-time employees Walter Joshanski, Jody Snyder and Donald Bratt, they work a 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. schedule. They also share services with towns of Conquest, Ira, Sterling, Victory and Hannibal.

"I have an excellent crew," Gary said, acknowledging that a superintendent's success lies in being able to rely on the crew. He leads by example, working alongside his crew on significant projects. "It's the only way you can be responsible for what goes on."

Among the projects they've completed under Gary's leadership are the new salt shed and a new 120 by 30 garbage building. Cato has no curbside pickup. Instead, residents purchase a permit to bring their garbage to the town's garbage building, which acts a little like a transfer station. When it's full, Gary calls a company to pick up the garbage.

"Curbside pickup is three times the cost of a permit, and they only pick up what they want." There's no additional charge for recycling, he added.

A Second Retirement in the Offing

Gary's two-year term expires in 2023. The Cato native who has lived on the same road for 72 years plans to run "one more time." It's not that he has unfinished business. He has largely met his goals to keep the roads and equipment updated. He joked that a family hobby is expensive and "that's why I'm still working."

Gary and his wife of 52 years, Charmaine, enjoy cars in general and drag racing in particular. He has three cars, including a 1966 Chevy II Superstreet with a 358-cu.-in. Chevy small block engine. Charmaine has two show cars and races a 1972 Pro Street Camara with a 350-cu.-in. engine.

Now, one of his sons and a grandson each have a car, too. They all go to Pennsylvania a couple times a year, and to Rochester, but mostly they hit the local tracks, such as Cicero, approximately 40 minutes away.

While others may be fishing in Otter Lake, which the DEC keeps stocked, swimming in Cross Lake, boyhood home of Hiawatha, kayaking and canoeing in Parker Pond or sight-seeing by visiting Brick Church Schoolhouse, the only functioning one-room schoolhouse in New York, now a museum, Gary anticipates returning to his roots in the still predominantly agricultural area when he retires.

"My nephew owns my uncle's dairy farm where I spent all my summer vacations," he said. "I will be back over there, driving equipment, after I retire — plowing, baling hay — if he'll have me." P