The American Dream means different things to different people. For some it means freedom, while others see it representing a way of life that rewards hard work with opportunity. In many ways, Thomas P. Tiernan, highway superintendent of the Town of North Hempstead, exemplifies the latter.
The Early Years
Tom, as he prefers to be called, started with the Town of North Hempstead highway department as an 18-year-old laborer in 1980. After that, all he really wanted was just one promotion.
“It’s funny … basically all I wanted to do was drive equipment and work construction, so I elevated myself to equipment operator,” Tom said. “And I was happy just being in my payloader every day. The goal for most of us in the department was to either drive a sweeper or a payloader — the two best jobs in town because you could sweep or operate all by yourself, all day long, with no one bothering you … you’d get an area to take care of, and you’d go out and do it.”
The promotions came steady after that. He worked his way up to operator 2; then an opportunity arose for assistant foreman.
“I was doing well in Westbury, which is what we call “East Garage” in the Town of North Hempstead highway department, and they moved me back to New Hyde Park, which is where I started, and made me an assistant foreman in 1989,” he said.
Tom did that for two years, but when the town purchased its first tree maintenance vehicle, a 57-ft. aerial tree truck, he was asked to lead the crew whose responsibility it was to trim and maintain the town’s myriad trees. He was elevated to maintenance supervisor.
“At that time, everything was just falling into place … I was in the right place at the right time,” Tom said.
It was during this time when Tom worked for a man who would become his mentor. He would eventually influence just about every decision he would make, then and in the future.
“Jesse Salerno … he was my immediate boss at the time,” Tom said. “He was a tough guy; he didn’t let you get away with much because he always knew you could do better. But he was tough in a nice way, and that’s how I run the department today.”
Tom explained that Jesse always looked out for him.
“I never had any aspirations to be anything other than a foreman,” he said. “That was the most I ever thought I’d ever be. But I think Jesse saw more in me.”
Tom explained that he created his current team by coming up through the ranks.
“I started as a laborer with most of these guys that are on my immediate staff and I trust in them,” he said. “They have trust in me, and they know I have days where I have to be tougher than normal. I like a good joke just like everybody else.
“But there are day’s when [it’s] really coming down on me and I have to come down on them. I consider myself hard-nose, but I am very easy to get along with, and I guess I can be a good boss or a bad boss some days. But I learned a lot from Jesse – he was hard, but I’m not as hard as he was. As long as you do your job, I will never have a problem.”
Tom noted that he has a lot of fun on the job, and he’s not one to simply run things from his desk.
“I plow every time it snows,” he said. “I’m never here in the office. I’ll take a truck and go out and give one of our guys a break.”
Moving On Up
Tom explained that when Jesse retired, there were a lot of administrative changes in the office. He was asked to be superintendent in 1999, but felt he wasn’t ready for the position.
“I knew the job, but I didn’t know the office,” he explained. “So they made me deputy superintendent.”
When the superintendent retired, Tom also served as deputy to his replacement, but things didn’t work out very well.
“We had a new administration in the town hall, and he wasn’t working out for them,” he said. “They would come to me a lot. I didn’t know the operations of the office as far as the billing and stuff like that. I wasn’t involved in any of that coming up in the ranks — you don’t get really involved in that until you are actually in this office.”
When he had served as deputy for less than a year, the administration decided to move Tom into the superintendent position. At that time, he thought he could do a good job, and accepted the move.
“I took that position in 2000,” he said. “I’ve been here ever since; they’re happy with me. That’s what they keep telling me anyway. And we’ve been trying to make a difference ever since.”
Working With the Town Supervisor
Tom credits much of his success in the Town of North Hempstead highway department to his very good working relationship with the town supervisor, Jon Kaiman.
“He’s in his second term now, and he is absolutely, in my opinion after being here 25 years, probably the best supervisor we’ve had — for the residents and for me here in my department,” Tom said. “Jon was here as a park safety commissioner before I was highway superintendent, and he eventually became town supervisor. I worked very closely with him when he was a commissioner, and when he was elected supervisor and I was highway superintendent … he knew about me and he knew … what I’m about.”
Tom noted that he told Jon that he couldn’t do his job without equipment.
“My job is equipment,” he said. “Parks and playgrounds, you can buy a swing, but I need a truck to do the proper job. So he basically realized after not that long of being in office that parks and highways are a big thing — this is where you get your votes. So he focused on those two departments and helped us. And by helping us, he’s really helping our residents, because we can do our job that much easier with the right equipment.”
Tom explained that Jon pushed for equipment for the first two years, and purchased at least 13 dump trucks, which was a big help.
According to Tom, the highway department in the Town of North Hempstead strictly deals with various highways. However, when the parks department needs construction work done, they go in and help out. This includes adding slabs of concrete for dugouts, paving the parks, and adding walkways, asphalt, brick, or cement.
“If it’s on a small scale, they don’t contract it out,” Tom explained. “If it’s on a larger scale where they need to rip out the playgrounds, and put in new playgrounds, a contractor will do that. Any kind of demolition work, we do for them.”
Other work may include sweeping, cleaning, paving, tree removal, and signage.
“I’m friends with a lot of superintendents — we’re like a network,” Tom said. “We all help each other out.”
However, Tom noted that this type of work is done after hours. He concentrates on town business from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Also included on the duty list is the upkeep of abandoned cemeteries.
“By some crazy law [in North Hempstead], any abandoned cemetery belongs to us,” he said. “We don’t go in and do any maintenance, per se, except in the three that are within our town. We cut the grass, trim the trees, clean up the leaves … If there’s a tree fallen in a cemetery that’s in the village, we go in and clean up the tree. We don’t do any other maintenance in the village cemeteries other than if something tragically happens to them. We do rake them and maintain them. They’re not cemeteries that anybody visits. I think some of the stones … are from the 1800s — it’s just a historical thing.”
Road-wise, Tom’s crews handle 22 lane mi. of repairs a year. They have a five-year capital plan, and each year a certain number of roads are included in the plan, which is then reviewed by the councilmen.
“Basically, they go with what we say, because we are actually the ones assessing the roads, and if we feel this road needs to be done, it needs to be done, and we can handle it,” Tom said. “We only pick roads that we know … we can go in and repave. If I get money from CHIPS for that particular road, I have to guarantee that it’s going to last at least 10 years. So I can’t go back to that road and use CHIPS funds to do another resurfacing job.”
Tom explained that any jobs that they feel they can’t handle are placed in the other portion of their five-year plan, which is reconstruction, and falls under public works. A separate engineering department checks those roads, then accepts bids from contractors for the work. Approximately 60 percent of roadwork in North Hempstead is actually contracted out.
Sweeping, Sand, and Salt
Tom noted that his department runs a sweeper program each April, which they have designated as Earth Month.
“We take two weeks of the month and we sweep the south side and the north side — totally,” he said. “We put all 13 sweepers on this side and we split them up. We do sweeps the whole week, and go back until everything’s picked up for that week. The following week, we go to the south side and do the same thing. There’s not a lot of sand on the ground so far this year. But in past years, we’ve had tons and tons of sand out on the roads, and it took us a tough two weeks because there was a lot of dirt out there, but we got it up. The guys did a great job cleaning up, and made our boss [Kaiman] look good, and that’s good for us.”
Tom noted that they are trying to get away from using sand as much as possible. One reason is the difficult clean-up, and another is that new water regulations require less sand going down into the stone basins.
“We try to use sand on a very small basis now,” Tom said. “The benefit of sand for my residents is that they can see it. They cannot see salt, so they don’t know it’s there, but if they see the sand, then they know we did our job.”
Another benefit of sand is that it works well to pair with salt in icy conditions, since it helps with traction.
A new system for salting roads was implemented in January 2005. Made by Sprayer Solutions of Canada and purchased from the Long Island Sanitation Department, the system involves four salt-brine spreaders. Salt is added to the hopper, and then mixes with salt-brine liquid from tanks on either side. The salt and brine are spread together, forming a paste when it hits the ground. The paste immediately sticks to the ground, rather than salt bouncing across the road.
“What the salt-brine does is basically activate the salt as it hits,” Tom explained. “Typically, if you have salt with a conventional salt spreader, the salt will go down, and then you need friction [to activate it]. This obviously is activated when it is hitting, and is melting right away.”
Another option with the system is to spread a layer of salt-brine before a storm hits. This acts as a chemical barrier to the snow as it comes down, and, up to a certain temperature, will melt it as it hits.
“It gives us a chance to get out and do the hills and any heavily traveled roads that we have,” Tom said. “It helps on the weekends when we are called into work, and it helps when it snows longer and deeper. It helps as a barrier between road, snow and ice, keeping it loose enough to plow.”
Another duty of the department includes recycling of trees, for which they use two tree trucks. Most of the trees are chipped, and some of the material is given to the Parks Department for use on their nature trails. They also use some of the chips themselves, and are working on purchasing a tub grinder to create mulch for the residents.
“We’re in the talking stages of that right now, because tree removal is a very large part of the department,” Tom said. “And obviously, it is a very large number that we spend on disposal of that material. We do every aspect of tree work here in the right-of-way of the town.
“What I mean by right of way is every curb 10-feet in, is our responsibility. If any trees are within that area, they call or we get a request and we go out and take care of it — we do everything. There’s the final stage of it where we go out and grind up the stump, break it, topsoil it, seed it, and if the person wants to replace the tree, we give them a replacement tree. We do that twice a year — spring and fall. Last year we planted about 550.”
Tom explained that they are currently in the process of attaining Tree City status.
“A lot of my budget is for trees,” he said. “This year, my budget is $98,000 for trees — even if I need an outside contractor to come in and remove the trees. A lot of the trees in my township are bigger than 75 feet, and we will bring an outside contractor in for a climber to go up 120 feet. We have a lot of tall trees on the North side.”
Signs also are handled by the department — approximately 35,000 signs in the Town of North Hempstead. Besides the 7,500 stop signs, there are street name signs, parking signs, park signs, and town hall signs.
The Saint Patrick’s Day Incident
A lot of highway superintendents and public works commissioners recount their best and worst days on the job, Tom confesses to never having a “worst day,” but there was one moment when, if nothing else, he considered his most embarrassing.
During Tom’s first year as superintendent (2000), a landslide on Saint Patrick’s Day presented a bit of a challenge for him. The incident occurred at Harbor Links, which is a golf course that was built through the public works department.
“At the course, there are bluffs or slopes, and each slope has a road,” Tom explained. “A piece of slope slid, and we were out there trying to stabilize this hill. It had been raining virtually ever other day for quite awhile, and I was in mud up to my knees … every day trying to clear the roads. It was another rainy day, and there was another small movement in one of the hills. The supervisor of the town at the time called me and told me that one of our streets … had collapsed. I said, ‘Well, I can’t get there right now because I’m up to my knees in mud on 15.’ She said, ‘15 where?’ I said, ‘I’m on 15 on your golf course and it’s covered in mud.’”
Tom remembers that they successfully made 344 uneventful trips up and down the slope. However, the 345th trip was a different story.
“The wheels caught, and the truck flipped two-and-a-half times from the top slope to the second slope and down to the road,” Tom said. “I got out of the truck and walked down the hill. They took me to the hospital — I cut my hand and hit my head, but I was okay. I was in the hospital, laughing.”
A new 311 System was activated in October 2005. When a call comes in to the Town Hall call center, it is prioritized, and a work order is created and sent to Tom’s department.
“Eventually, this system will help the entire town, because we can monitor the total number of calls that come in and determine whether or not there are enough employees to handle the call volume — the work orders coming in and the work load,” Tom said. “I think it’s going to be a great tool.”
About the Town of North Hempstead
The Town of North Hempstead was created in 1784 by a special act of the New York State Legislature. Originally, North Hempstead was part of the Town of Hempstead being purchased and settled by a group of 30 settlers in 1643. This tract of land spanned from the Sound to the Sea.
In the 1770s residents in the northern part of the Town predominantly sympathized with the forces for independence. When the British occupied the Town, residents from the northern part of the Town did not fare as well as residents from the south who were more supportive of the Tories. Therefore, after the War in 1783, the division was made and the legislature approved a separate North Hempstead township.
In the 19th century North Hempstead became the seat of Queens County, which included the three towns of North Hempstead, Hempstead, and Oyster Bay. In 1899, these three eastern most towns incorporated and became the County of Nassau.
The Town of North Hempstead occupies 58 sq. mi. Its western border is roughly 14.5 mi. from Manhattan. It is bounded on the north by the Long Island Sound, to the south by the Town of Hempstead, to the west by the borough of Queens, and to the east by the Town of Oyster Bay. Its northern land boundaries are extensively arranged along the Little Neck and Manhasset Bays, and Hempstead Harbor.
This suburban community has a population of 212,063. There are 74,587 year round households. Estimated average household size is 2.78. The median house value is $291,600. The median family income is estimated to be $85,212. The average commute is 31 minutes.
The governing body is headed by the Town Supervisor, Jon Kaiman and six Town Board members: Anthony D’Urso, Fred Pollack, Wayne H. Wink, Thomas K. Dwyer, Robert Troiano, Angelo Ferrara and Lee Seeman.
(The information in this section, “About the Town of North Hempstead,” was provided by the town’s Web site at http://www.northhempstead.com/) P