Superintendent of Highways Bernie Ellsworth and the Town of Saugerties

Fran Foran

“Many hands make light work” was a standard for the early settlers in the Saugerties area of New York State. They worked together building homes and establishing communities, villages and towns. Today, that same spirit is alive and well in the Town of Saugerties.

Bernie Ellsworth, superintendent of the Highway Department of the Town of Saugerties, said that the town has enacted the New York State Legislative Commission on Rural Resource’s shared services contract in 1998 and again renewed it in 2003.

Under the contract, the town has been sharing services with neighboring townships, Ulster County and the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) in giving and receiving services. The sharing of services has saved money and has improved service for taxpayers.

“We have a very good working relationship with all of the neighboring towns, the Village of Saugerties, Ulster County Department of Highways and Bridges, New York State Department of Transportation and Saugerties Central School District in shared services,” Bernie said. “And an example of community helping community was evident in the recent paving of Stoll Road.”

For this project, the Town of Saugerties Highway Department paved Stoll Road, located in the western end of town and links between Pine Lane and Goat Hill Road, which was paved with the cooperation of other highway departments utilizing the shared services agreement. Trucks supplied to the Town of Saugerties were from the Town of Woodstock Highway Department with the cooperation of Superintendent Stan Longyear and Deputy Mike Reynolds; the Town of Hurley Highway Department Superintendent Linda Cook and Deputy Rudy Mauro; Ulster County Highway Department Commissioner Dave Sheeley and Section Supervisor Henry Rua; the Town of Ulster Highway Department Superintendent Mac Tinnie and Deputy Bill Willams; and the Village of Saugerties Department of Public Works (DPW) Superintendent Bob Ciarlanti and Assistant Joe Staccio.

“On larger paving jobs, we will have 19 to 20 trucks hauling the paver and in return, we send equipment and manpower to those same municipalities whenever needed. This shared service is a savings to the municipality,” explained Bernie.

Teaming Up to Face Hurricane Floyd’s Aftermath

Dealing with a natural disaster is challenging, but not insurmountable if people come together to share the workload to get things up and running, which is exactly what happened in the Town of Saugerties while Bernie was serving as deputy supervisor.

At the end of Hurricane Floyd, Saugerties had 28 roads closed. They needed to be cleared so the utility company could do its work. “Many hands” certainly “made light work.”

“We have a very special and unique relationship with our utility company, Central Hudson. When a disaster strikes our town, employees work in very close cooperation with the utility company. We need them to be able to utilize their manpower as best as they possibly can,” said Bernie.

“Our crew will respond to a site along with their crew. In this case, our people took care of cutting up the trees, clearing the roads, and making it possible for Central Hudson’s people to reach the damaged power line. All they had to worry about was handling the hot wires,” Bernie explained

“Obviously, we go out of our way to make sure that our people are never put in harm’s way, but working together during this catastrophe within 14 hours after the storm, traffic in the Town of Saugerties was moving again.”

A Sense of Community

The Town of Saugerties currently is responsible for maintaining 120 mi. of roads. Each year, however, this number increases by 3 to 5 mi. due to strong growth in the area. Because of this, Bernie is constantly working with the Town Board to increase equipment needs and staffing to adjust to the added workload.

Bernie’s goal is to have all of Saugerties’ roads paved. By reducing wear and tear because roads are holding up better, improving snow removal and reducing snow heaving, Bernie has saved money in the long run so that he can ultimately reach his goal of having no dirt roads (currently, there are only six gravel roads.)

Bernie and his staff keep the Highway Department humming. In 2002, Bernie appointed Bob Kleemann Jr. as deputy superintendent, a 29-year highway department employee. During these nearly three decades, Bob has worked his way up from laborer to leadman, a role he filled for 14 years prior to becoming deputy.

“I appointed Bob as my deputy because he had extensive knowledge of highway work. He has been a very faithful deputy to me. At the present time, Bob and our leadman, Al Snyder, have been attending informational meetings and training on the MLS4 Storm Water Regulations,” said Bernie.

In addition to Bob and Al, the highway department includes Mary Lou Dengler, secretary; Paul Whitker, dispatcher; three heavy equipment operators, two mechanics; eight MEO drivers; seven laborers; eight part-time employees to assist with plowing and driving; and three part-time employees for summer work.

“In the spring, summer and fall, we do our own road maintenance, construction, reconstruction, drainage and blacktop paving. We sweep the roads and bring the stone dust sweepings back to the garage and mix it with stone to make our own item. In the summer, we employ college students and laborers as needed,” said Bernie. (Motor paving and oil/chip sealing, Bernie added, is done under Ulster County bid with Peckman Materials. Reclamation also is under county bid with reclamation of Kingston.)

“During the winter, we still continue road maintenance, brush cutting ditches, etc. In a storm, the Highway Department utilizes 21 highway vehicles for snow and ice removal operations, plus two vehicles from the Parks and Recreation Department and 32 employees, plus office staff and mechanic.

“In the winter during storms, we employ part-time help to work on wing trucks and as drivers,” he explained. “It takes three and a half to four hours to make a loop of all the routes.”

And, in the spirit of community and people helping people, Bernie added, “During a snow emergency, it’s not at all unusual to have residents pop in with coffee and donuts for our employees.”

Bernie is just as proud of his department’s close relationship with the Saugerties residents as he is with how his department handles truck assignments. “Every driver is assigned to his own truck, and each one details it to reflect his own personality or interest,” he said.

“We have been amazed how this arrangement has benefited us. Knowing that they are going to drive the same truck every day, our drivers take a great deal of pride in these vehicles, resulting in longer truck life. Recently, we had a truck make it all the way to 400,000 miles,” Bernie said.

In addition to road reconstruction, maintenance and snow removal, the highway department is responsible for one bridge.

Jobs on the Horizon

Most of what the Town of Saugerties Highway Department has planned for the near future is “pretty routine,” Bernie confessed, with the exception of one project. “We had a section of highway that split and dropped down as a result of flooding. We have a funny soil condition there, a hard clay on top of a shale base that actually shifted and split. We have to dig down to the shale base and along about 600 feet of road and build an all-new base. We were able to work with FEMA and get funds for the repair, which cost in excess of $50,000,” he said.

“We have our own shale bank and right now we are in the process, with our engineers, for a renewal of the mining permit,” he said.

Extending a Helping Hand

The Highway Department also assists the Water and Sewer Department and the Department of Parks and Recreation, as well as the five Fire Departments.

“We work very closely with the Department of Parks and Recreation and assist them in any way possible,” Bernie said. “We did all the site work and blacktop work for our new skating rink. The town has built a state-of-the-art indoor ice arena that has really been quite an asset to the community. This year the high school held its graduation inside of it and several times a year the facility is rented out for small trade shows and festivals.

“We also work with all fire departments and police agencies that work off our radio frequencies. This works well for improving communication when, for example, the fire department needs assistance from the highway department. Any town employee who is a member of any our volunteer emergency services is cleared to respond to any emergency call any time, day or night,” he explained.

Working on a Tight Budget

Bernie’s operating budget is $2.4 million with a CHIPS allocation of $138,000.

“Our CHIPS allocation for 2005 has enabled us to move forward on repairs as a result of the heavy rains,” Bernie said, “But we had no raise in our budget this year. Over the past eight years, the budget has only increased by about $60,000.

“We are able to work with this budget by being very thrifty and being very proactive in looking for grants and making good use of our CHIPS money. I spend a lot of time letter writing and looking for new sources of money and that seems to be time well spent. But there are times when we do run into unforeseen circumstances. For instance, this year, unexpected increases in the cost of fuel and the cost of steel, used heavily for drainage and culvert work, could not be offset,” explained Bernie.

Bursting From the Seams

This year, the Highway Department Complex is fully operational on a 24/7 basis with a new Generac 65KW 120/240 three-phase generator that was supplied and installed with a $20,000 grant from New York State Sen. John Bonacic. This generator ensures fuel for all emergencies in the town at all times.

The facility supplies fuel for its own equipment as well as the town’s police vehicles, DIAZ ambulance vehicles, which is subsidized by the town and neighboring fire districts.

However, the highway department facility is suffering from growing pains.

“The town barn for the Saugerties Highway Department has been at its present location for more than 100 years. During the past century, the area has shown growth and nearly every square inch of space in the current facility is being used, and then some,” Bernie explained.

“One major problem is that we don’t have enough room or the proper size salt/washed stone dust shed needed and we have to haul stone dust and salt all winter long. Our salt storage capacity is 2,000 tons of salt and sand mix.

“Last year, we had to haul from Callanan in Ravena because local suppliers were out of washed stone dust. At times, because of the frequent storms, we had to hire local trailer dumps to haul for us,” Bernie said.

“At the present time, the Town Board is preparing to move forward on a piece of property and a new highway complex. The process has started, which will hopefully allow for the construction of a whole new facility in the foreseeable future. The cost of the new facility could exceed $3 million,” he said.

Wish List

The Highway Department has a fleet of equipment but rents a blacktop paver and excavator on a bare rental basis. At times, the department rents a water truck, second sweeper or a replacement when a piece of equipment goes down. However, the department uses its own operators on the rental units.

Bernie does not have any specific replacement plans, but if he had a “wish list” it would include an excavator.

“I really would like to purchase an excavator. We have enough applications for it now to justify the purchase. We use a JCB backhoe with a Wain-Roy quick-coupling system to clean our ditches. I really feel that the backhoe gives us more versatility and mobility than rubber-tired excavators, but we do have applications for a crawler excavator,” said Bernie.

“We replace our equipment as needed. Our fleet is pretty up to date. Currently, we don’t have any haul trucks older than 1990.”

However, when he needs to replace equipment Bernie said, “ I always like to look at the state contract first. Not only is it usually the least expensive, but also it’s a quick option that saves me a lot of time. However, this year OGS [Office of General Services] was running very late in awarding state contracts.

“In the case of two trucks that we wanted to purchase this year, we were unable to because it would take 10 to 11 months for delivery due to problems at OGS. Therefore, we bid those two trucks out locally.”

Bernie’s Key to Success

Bernie believes that the key to his success as superintendent is communication.

“Advance communication and no surprises is the key,” he said. “Let members of the board be aware of your needs or changing plans as soon as you are aware of them. Nobody likes surprises and when presenting information to the board, come fully prepared. There’s nothing that will make you look worse than being unable to answer the board’s questions.”

Reaching out to the community is vital, too, he added. “As any public servant must have, we have an open door policy. Any time — day or night — people feel free to come into my office and voice their concerns. Our relationship with the citizens of Saugerties is really very strong.”

Bernie also stays actively involved in the Ulster County Association of Town Superintendents of Highways and finds them to be a tremendous resource for information.

“These meetings are a great source of information. It helps me stay on top of every changing DOT regulation and it is certainly always a benefit to learn from my fellow highway superintendents. Through the association, we do our drug testing on a countywide basis, which is a tremendous help with the cost.”

Bernie also has attended forums held by the NYS Asphalt Association and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy.

A Look Back and a Look Ahead

Although Bernie grew up in Kingston, NY, he has lived in Saugerties for approximately 40 years. He has worked and supervised all phases of highway maintenance and construction since 1961 when he started working for the Ulster County Highway Department.

“I started as a laborer and worked my way up to foremen. My favorite job was paving and my least favorite job was dealing with the snow. Then I passed the Civil Service exams for section supervisor followed by the exam for field operations manager,” Bernie explained.

He held the competitive position of field operations manager until December 1984.

“At that time, I became the assistant highway superintendent of the Town of Saugerties Highway Department. I held this position until 2001 when Superintendent Al Ferrara retired and I ran for office,” Bernie said.

He was elected and has served two-year terms since 2002.

“My best day was the day I got elected superintendent. It felt so good to get the support from my friends and neighbors and all the members of our crew. It really made me feel welcome,” he said.

Bernie ran unopposed for 2004-2005 and is again running unopposed for re-election. He would like to serve one more two-year term in office before retiring.

“I plan on serving one more term in office. For retirement, I’m sure I’ll enjoy some fishing and time with my kids, and grandchildren,” said Bernie. He and his wife Charlotte have three children: Melinda, 37; Brian, 29; and Jason 26.

“One of my real passions in life is work with the local volunteer fire department and that I have no plans of ever retiring from.”

The Town of Saugerties

On April 27, 1677, New York’s Gov. Andros signed an agreement with the Esopus Indian Kaelop, chief of the Amorgarickakan Family, to purchase the land, which is now Saugerties. The price was a blanket, a piece of cloth, a shirt, a loaf of bread, and some coarse fiber.

A stream called Sawyer’s Kill is where Barent Cornelis Volge operated a sawmill between 1652-1663, which is roughly identified as the northern boundary. The Indians call Volge “The Little Sawyer” and the area became associated with the Dutch words for this title — Zager’s Killetjte, which eventually came to be pronounced Saugerties.

In 1710, 300 families from the Palatine region of Germany settled in the area and many descendants of the Palantine families live in the area today.

Prior to 1712, the main business of Saugerties was the Hudson River landings. John Woods (1717) and John Persen (1712) were two early mill owners. Mills proliferated along the banks of the Esopus Creek. As some settlers began to prosper, they began to build stone houses in Saugerties.

During the Revolutionary War, a British Squadron lay at anchor Oct. 18 to 22, 1777 and burned some homes. When the British here learned of its defeat at Saratoga, the fleet departed.

As late as 1811 the hamlet of Saugerties contained only 21 houses. In the early 1820s, Henry Barclay sparked the expansion of the community by establishing the Ulster Iron Works and a paper mill. The village grew quickly and in 1831 it was incorporated under the name of Ulster, changing the name to Saugerties in 1855.

The Hudson River was a major water route from New York City to Albany. Saugerties shared in the benefits offered by the river and the Esopus Creek by providing docking facilities for passenger and commercial boats. By 1830, the village warranted a steamboat line, a night boat for freight and a boat for passengers to New York City. The steamboat Ansonia — later called the Robert A. Snyder — began its services in 1865 and remained on the Hudson for 65 years.

The village population stabilized around 1870 and remained almost unchanged for 100 years. However, its location on the Hudson made Saugerties ideal for harvesting ice from the river as well as the Upper Esopus and Sawyerkil.

In the 1880s the brick industry grew and the Martin Cantine Paper Company of Saugerties perfected the process of manufacturing coated papers whose qualities were recognized the world over.

Railroad transportation came to the area in 1883 with the opening of the West Shore Railroad of the New York Central Railroad, which served people traveling between Albany and New York City. And on Feb. 7, 1891 the Electric Light and Power Company of Saugerties turned on electricity for the first time.

The Martin Cantine Paper Company took over the Ulster Iron Works and from 1888 to 1968 the Cantine Company was one of the major industries of Saugerties.

Today, this quaint community located between the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River, 90 mi. north of New York City and 40 mi. south of Albany has become known as “Festival Town.” Saugerties festivals include: Spring Festival; a Jazz and Art Festival; an annual Hudson Valley Garlic Festival; and Mum Festival.

The town boasts a municipal indoor regulation ice hockey rink; ball fields; Hits on the Hudson, which hosts a World Class horse jumping competition; a 19th century village with a restored carousel and museum; and the Saugerties lighthouse. P

(This information was obtained from the Saugerties Web site.)

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