Superintendent of Public Works Peter Burke and the Village of East Hills

Craig Mongeau

Peter Burke was proud to be a New York City police officer. For him, patrolling midtown Manhattan, which he did for seven years, was both an honor and a privilege. When he speaks of his experiences, though, one gets the sense that helping to keep the streets safe is like fighting in the trenches on the front line of a war in which there never will be a ceasefire.

“I always had to be aware of my surroundings as a police officer,” Peter said. “On any given day, I could be running after a suspect with a gun; he runs into a building and I run in, too. He could be standing right there behind the door. You just never know what’s going to happen next … you have to be tough in the city.”

Then there was the call he received to go to the 16th floor at Waterside Plaza.

“The sheriff was serving a warrant for eviction and they went to the wrong floor, though it was the same apartment number. He knocked on the door and the guy inside looked through the peephole. We entered and then he jumped out the window into the bay. But the wind blew him in and he hit the wall and he fell to his death. It ended up that the guy was dealing drugs and he thought we were there for him!”

Surviving physically as a member of the NYPD is only half the battle; the other component is to survive emotionally and for Peter, as well as for countless other former and current officers, he surmounted the latter because he felt that he was making a positive difference in people’s lives, taking charge to make the city he loved safer – even if the money didn’t seem to correspond with the life he and other officers put on the line every day.

“Money didn’t matter, though,” he confessed. “When I started out as an officer in the city, I was only making $29,000; I was bringing home $600 every two weeks. But I made it work. You made it work because you loved the job. The police officers in the city are so underpaid. It’s unbelievable. Most of them have second jobs. I did. I was doing security work on Long Island for the Deer Park golf complex. I did that for two-and-a-half years. I made more money doing that than I did as a police officer.”

Then in 2000, he and his wife sought out warmer climes and moved to Florida where Peter also planned to work as a police officer. But that didn’t go as expected.

“My wife is a twin and she discovered that she didn’t want to be away from her sister, so we moved back to Long Island,” Peter said. “I had gone through the whole process of being a police officer in Florida; I was placed and then suddenly I had to leave. It was horrible. My plan was to come back here and get back with the police department. If you leave the police department, however, you’re not going to be able to go back to the same job, so it was kind of hard because I’d probably have to go on midnights and rotating shifts and so on … start from scratch.”

Starting over, Peter began looking in the paper and saw an opportunity to be become a general foreman for a village on Long Island. “I stayed there for about a year and after that, I worked for two years with the New York State Department of Transportation on the bridge crew repairing all of Long Island’s bridges from Nassau County all the way out to the Hamptons in Suffolk County,” he said.

But then a new assignment arose on the Island. Appointed by Mayor Michael Koblenz and Village Clerk Donna Gooch, Peter Burke on July 7, 2003, began “patrolling” the Village of East Hills as its new superintendent of public works – a job he now loves more than any other job he has ever had.

Taking Charge in East Hills

One of the first things Peter set out to do as East Hills’ superintendent was to save the village money. And in his case, the old saying of “time is money” should have said “money is time.”

“When I first started here, I was working 124 hours every two weeks because I wanted to change things so much, particularly in the way we were spending money,” Peter said. “For example, the village had a leaf program in which we were having a nearby town come and pick up the leaves and take them to sanitation; from there they would take them out to the mulching yards. The village was paying $160,000 to this town for this. Now we have a private contractor take the leaves out to the mulching yards and avoid the town entirely; that saves $100,000 right off the bat.”

Peter then took stock of what his department has and what companies such as the village’s tree removal company don’t have.

“We work very well with the tree crews as far as getting tree work done in the village because we help the tree removal company out. They don’t have a payloader so when they’re in the area to pick up the big logs, we’ll pick them up instead. Doing this has been able to save roughly $30,000 in tree work because we’d have to pay that to the tree company. And we have a lot of trees here and they’re very old,” Peter said.

As superintendent of public works, Peter is in charge of sanitation, highway and parks, and relies heavily on John Cornfield, who runs sanitation, and Angel Gomez, who is highway foreman. The department’s total operating budget is $1,570,000.

In East Hills, garbage pickup is backdoor service.

“We have three men to a truck, and a total of four trucks,” Peter said. “Three of the trucks go out, and one is a spare. These trucks move six days a week, every week. We do recycling pickup on Thursdays and Fridays. We make special pickups, too. These pickups cover large items, such as TVs, refrigerators, and other appliances that might be tough to pick up in a normal run. Everyone gets one free special pickup a year; they have to pay for any more after that.”

All the garbage that’s collected winds up in the Town of North Hempstead. Peter’s crews haul it there, then dump and separate it. Their hours are 6 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., six days a week and can leave when the job’s done.

Snow removal is never easy, but it was even harder when Peter first took over. “When I came here, I had to redo all the plows and sanders because the equipment wasn’t kept well,” he said. “We had to sand and repaint them. I’m into working with heavy equipment; I don’t like to see anything go down.”

East Hills’ crews use seven dump trucks and five pickups with plows to remove snow with a normal route taking one truck two-and-a-half hours to do a section, depending on how heavy the snow is.

“They have to hit all these side streets and dead ends,” Peter said. “We always put a layer of sand salt down as soon as the snow falls so there’s grip when we’re plowing. We have to put more salt on the hills than on the flat lands. We try to stay ahead. These hills are the worst.”

East Hills is named so for a reason. Within the village is the second highest point on Long Island. “The roads are very steep, and they seem steeper during the snow season; we have to have everything four-wheel drive. We went through 725 tons of salt last year because of all the hills,” Peter said.

The Village has 37 mi. of paved road, with no bridges. Peter and his crew are primarily responsible for filling potholes and repairing curbing and sidewalks. “North Hempstead does our roadwork,” Peter said. “They do all the heavy highway paving. We do big patches, but they’ll do a whole block.

“We do a lot of cement and repair work on the curbing here because it’s so old,” Peter continued. “It’s all Belgian block. We’ve had to replace or repair a lot of that, and I had to rebuild most of the storm basins in the village. I trained people to rebuild them, because they were collapsing. They were something like 70 years old. We’ve done about 35 so far and we could probably end up doing another 10 to 15 before we’re done.”

The Village of East Hills’ public works department also is responsible for maintaining the parks. “We do a lot of grass-cutting, maintenance, trimming the trees,” he said. “We work at the malls, we set up the flowers, the trees. We do the service work on the expressway. We usually go out every day to cut grass in summer.”

Finally, Peter’s department maintains the village’s streetlights and creates the signage.

Making Priorities

The Village of East Hills has 7,200 residents. And they expect work to be done.

“We work in a high-class area where residents expect a lot to get done,” Peter said. “We used to get like 10 to 15 complaints just before I started, and now we’ve cut it down to maybe one a day … sometimes none for two or three days.

“We decided that these complaints were a priority,” he continued. “I’d take guys off a job, have them drop what they were doing to take care of the complaints. If they were doing something like rebuilding a basin, I’d take guys from another job, but the important thing was, we were taking care of things. It’s changed people in this village; they feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. And they are.”

And East Hills Mayor Michael Koblenz has taken notice. “He pushes us to get things done, but he appreciates everybody that works here,” Peter said. “He’ll compliment us. Some people won’t say a word to you, but this man comes out and tells our crew that they did a great job. That helps me do my job because there’s proof that hard work can and will be noticed and appreciated.”

Peter also praises Village Clerk Donna Gooch. “She always has our backs; she has our department’s best interests in mind. If we need something, she helps us get it. And we also have a great board of trustees.”

The Big Park

A major project under way in the Village of East Hills is taking place right on the grounds of Peter’s DPW facilities — a sprawling 55-acre park that will include basketball and tennis courts, a country club, an Olympic-size swimming pool, a weight room, health club, two baseball fields, an amphitheater, jogging trail and even a dog run.

Peter gives Koblenz much of the credit for having the vision to transform what was a National Guard base with 17 buildings including many offices and barracks into what will most definitely be a central gathering place for the village’s 7,200 residents.

“He [Koblenz] started 10 years ago, he’s really turning things around here, not just for us in the DPW but for everyone. He lives in the village and really cares about this place.”

Peter gets a little (make that large) something out of this park project — a new salt shed that will hold 400 tons, compared with his old shed, which only holds 100 tons.

The massive park project began approximately three and a half months ago, and it’s slated to wrap up in about a year. Although outside contractors are working on the project, Peter still feels like the point person sometimes, especially since the park is being constructed around his facilities and he’s pretty easy to find when questions arise.

“I’m still the superintendent,” he said. “People still come to me with questions. They need to get into this building or that building; they need to know what wires are running underneath something. There’s a project manager making sure the jobs get done, but he’ll come to me, too.

“Everything is going very well with the project, which was originally planned to last 14 months; now we’re shooting for 12. The pool will be done sooner, though. They want that done before the winter. This way, we can do all the inside work all winter,” Peter said.

Indefatigable Work Ethic

The days of being a New York City police officer seem far away to Peter now, as if a second love came along to make him forget about the first one that got away. “I love being a superintendent. I love making sure that everything gets done,” he said. “When something happens, I like to be there to take care of it. When there’s a problem in the village, I’ll stay until the job gets done. I love the responsibility.”

The job is demanding, though, Peter confessed. “I put in just 60 hours a week now because I have a daughter who is about seven months old. Her name is Brooke Margaret and she’s the best thing that ever happened to me, I cut my hours down to 60 for her. I’d still be working 70.”

Despite the long work hours, Peter has a strong support system at home. “My wife, Linda, knew when I met her how much I love to work. She knows that when I’m not doing something, I get antsy. She supports me in everything that I do and I’m very lucky for that.”

When asked where this work ethic come from, Peter responds quickly. “My father. He was a butcher for 43 years, his whole life. He was a workaholic. I’d see my father leaving for work at 6 a.m.; he didn’t have to be there until 8 a.m. It was only two miles away. A long time ago when I worked for the city and tried to call out, he’d always ask me ‘why? Why can’t you do whatever it is you have to do after work?’ He loved to work, and now I do, too.

“He taught me that responsibility will pay off,” he continued. “When I started here, I was the assistant superintendent — at the time the village was in transition and they didn’t have a full-fledged superintendent, yet. They told me that they’d make me superintendent if I showed them I could really work. Within four months, I was the superintendent. My father was right, it paid off.”

Working hard under Peter at the East Hills DPW will pay off, too. It has, particularly, for Angel Gomez, who, after only two years on the job, was promoted to highway foreman. “I saw the way he worked, how he hustled,” Peter said. “If I told him to trim a tree, the tree was down. He would go out of his way to do everything. And he’d help other guys, too. If they didn’t know how to operate a piece of equipment, he’d show them. He’d go all the way, and that was what I wanted for a foreman. I understand seniority, but if a guy’s been here for seven or eight years and he’s just moping around, I’d rather have a guy that showed me a faster pace and dedication.”

Nothing is ever perfect and even Peter confesses that some aspects of the job are frustrating. “The garbage complaints get to me sometimes,” Peter confessed “The residents know the garbage has to be out by 6 a.m. and they’ll put it out at 8 a.m. and say come back and get it. Naturally, I have to tell them that garbage crews are done for the day and tell them they’ll be back for it another day. But they’ll be annoyed even though it’s their fault and that will annoy me sometimes.”

To work out some of this frustration, Peter (and his crew, if they’re interested) exercises in his makeshift gym in the maintenance garage. (The weight lifting equipment has come mostly from garbage pickups where residents have thrown away, in Peter’s opinion, “perfectly good machines.”)

“I love to work out, and I built my own gym here, so I can do that and not be away from work,” he said.

Peter hopes to continue working for East Hills for many years to come. Though the NYPD helped shape him into a man who relishes responsibility, Peter now, in a way, sees his old job as a stepping stone to the one thing he was cut out for – being the proud superintendent of the Village of East Hills.

About East Hills

The Village of East Hills was incorporated on June 24, 1931, and held its first election on July 8 that same year. But even before it was incorporated, East Hills had been a part of the recorded history of the United States since 1643. In that year, the Rev. Robert Fordham and John Carman sailed across Long Island Sound from Stamford, CT, and purchased the townships of Hempstead and North Hempstead from the Rockoway, Mericock, Marsappeaque and Matinecock Indians.

Settlers came the following year and named the area Hempstead, in honor of their home city, Hemel-Hempstead in Great Britain. The area fell in relative obscurity for about a century after that.

East Hills cannot boast that George Washington ever slept there, but his diary does refer to an Oyster Bay visit, and of his breakfast at what is now known as the George Washington Manor on Old Northern Boulevard in Roslyn. Records also reveal that President Washington inspected the paper mill in Roslyn park.

Perhaps the one thing in East Hills that has been in existence longer than any other man-made object is Harbor Hill Road in East Hills. “A path alongside Harboure Hill” is mentioned in records dating back to 1661.

For many years, much of what now is East Hills was the home of a few wealthy families. The neighborhood now known as Fairfield Park was once a polo field. The Country Estates neighborhood was the home of the Clarence Mackay family for 30 years, starting in 1898. The Prince of Wales, who later abdicated the throne of England to marry Mrs. Simpson, was entertained at the Mackay estate in 1924. And Charles A. Lindberg rested at the Mackay estate after his return to the United States following his historic solo flight to France in 1927.

On June 24, 1931, representatives of the 269 people living in the village-to-be met in the home of Robert H. Willets, whose family lived in the area for eight generations. The Willets family then lived in the house where Stephen Taber, one of the great names in Roslyn’s early history, resided in 1839. The house still stands at 50 Andover Road, off the Long Island Expressway’s South Service Road near the entrance to the Norgate neighborhood. The name “East Hills” was adopted at the suggestion of H. Stewart McKnight, who was then the Nassau County Attorney.

Two weeks after the incorporation, an election was held in barns on the Mackay estate, and Willets was elected mayor. John Mackay, Ellen A. Hennessy, Stephen Willets and Catherine Hechler were elected Trustees. Charles Hechler, Catherine Hechler’s husband, was designated village clerk.

Robert Willets served as mayor until he retired in 1945. William W. Murray Jr. succeeded him, until his resignation (due to ill health) in 1952. Raymond E. Dolar subsequently served as mayor until 1966, when he relocated to Florida. William R. Fleischer succeeded him and became East Hills’ fourth mayor in 1967.

When East Hills was incorporated in 1931, the land area of East Hills was 98 percent farm and estate holdings, with 65 homes occupying the remaining two percent. Today, the percentage is reversed; with 98 percent of the land area occupied by homes, and less than two percent remains undeveloped. There are approximately 2,300 homes today in East Hills.

(The information in this section, “About East Hills,” was provided by the Village’s Web site at www.villageofeasthills.org). P

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