Superintendent of Highways Mark Kolakowski and the Town of Geddes

Laurie Mercer

Mark Kolakowski is one of those people who radiates high energy. On the ever-present cell phone taking calls, meeting with his crew, and joking with office assistant Sue Smith, Mark, after just a few weeks as superintendent in the top spot, is clearly a man with a mission. While caring for the town’s 94 lane miles, Mark is a guy who relishes hard work.

Which is a good thing in a residential town that gets an average of 110 in. of snow each year and expects weekly pickup of debris. There are 4,200 homes in the Town of Geddes; he has lived there all his life. There is no open land left. The town’s main highway garage is a large, well-run facility built in 2002.

And when he’s not working, he still manages to keep up the pace on his Honda 1500CC Valkyrie motorcycle with his wife, Patti, on the back.

“We rented a Harley while on vacation in Cape Cod in 2000, and the joy of riding in my younger days came right back to me,” he said.

Mark consulted Patti before he chose to take the job as superintendent knowing that he would need her support when he runs for election in November 2007.

His children, Michael, 27, Christopher, 24, and Jaclyn, 22, when combined with his wife’s three children and four grandchildren, are something like the “Brady Bunch,” he said. Christopher is a four-year member of the crew who was hired by the previous superintendent.

“He came here with a license; now he drives,” Mark said with a balanced sense of pride. After all, Mark’s father, Albert, had 30 years working in the same highway department.

Staying on Good Terms

With the Town Board

Mark said it’s common for a new superintendent in Geddes to be immediately challenged by a big storm event. Mark’s predecessor, Dan Patalina’s test by fire was Labor Day 1998, a microburst storm that made Geddes look like tornado alley.

“I’ve never seen such devastation; people still talk about that storm,” he said. As for Mark, his first three weeks in the top spot also yielded 30 inches of snow. “Sometimes we plow for sixteen-hour days for a full week. You can’t let snow build up or you won’t get through.”

Weather being everything, the town’s highway department office worker, Sue Smith, has an audible trigger signal on her computer to warn of approaching storms. The department also relies on NOAH (a national weather site) and the local all-weather television channels.

“Most of our snow is lake effect from Lake Ontario. When it calls for easterly winds, we are in good shape, but southeast of Lake Ontario — that’s us,” he said.

By late February the town’s allotment of 1,213 tons of rock salt was rapidly diminishing. Mark struggled to match budget to working conditions. He cited the town board’s requirement for the best quality work for the lowest possible cost. He explained the dilemma every superintendent can sympathize with when the weather dictates what you can do. “I have $235,000 in the salt budget, and by late February we only have $18,000 in the budget left to run until January 1, 2008.”

“The Town Board controls the $2.8 million ($54,000 from CHIPS) budget and how it is spent,” said Mark. “You have to negotiate with them all of the time. You have to sell them on your ideas on how you want to run the department and keep things going efficiently. You have to keep them in the loop.”

The kind of thinking the town board likes is exemplified by the highway department’s purchase of a horizontal grinder, which reduced yard waste dispersal costs by more than $100,000 annually.

The town highway crew also cuts back on unnecessary travel with heavy equipment by having a second highway garage, and a skeletal crew, on the other end of town. Equipment storage and repairs, and a place to deposit snow are all right there.

From County Laborer to Town Superintendent

Despite being the place where the buck stops, Mark said, “I love being superintendent,” as he is interrupted by a stream of phone calls about leaf pick up, a plumbing problem, and compliance issues related to the mostly residential highways that make up Mark’s territory.

Formerly a driver with the Onondaga County Highway Department, he joined the Town of Geddes Highway Department in 1978 in the only position that was open at that time — laborer. Quickly climbing through the ranks, he became assistant superintendent to Daniel M. Patalina Jr., who encouraged him at every turn. Luck in timing and opportunity struck yet again early in 2007 when Patalina (superintendent since 1998), chose to retire a little early before he completed his full elected term.

“Dan sent me to the programs at Cornell. I really liked that part,” said Mark. “My old boss has a lot of faith in me,” he added. “And I benefited from lots of additional training when I was the assistant.”

Mark is hoping that his short time in the top position will help him run successfully for the office on Oct. 6, 2007.

“Before Patalina, Nunzio Susco had more than twenty-five years as superintendent. He still stops in to see us from time to time. Those guys are walking encyclopedias on these roads. I wouldn’t hesitate to ask them if we had a problem.”

In contrast, today’s new projects in the department are painstakingly mapped. As Mark commented on the transition of important highway information — from verbal tradition to hard copy — “We’ve come a long way.”

“I’ll go door to door to get elected. Thanks to Dan leaving just a few months before his full term, I have some critical months on the job to prove myself as superintendent so people know I’ve got the experience,” said Mark. “Municipal jobs can get mundane if you let them. I’ve done them all,” he added reflecting on his track record.

This background gives him the advantage when it comes to motivating other people.

“You can’t be a pushover. Superintendent, as I understand it, requires a little attitude about the job. You have to deal with the men, and you have to deal with the public, often when they are upset.”

On the other hand, Mark has a growing stack of complimentary letters that he keeps close by in his desk. Do residents know how lucky they are to have weekly pickups of bulk materials including mattresses, furniture, brush and leaves, bulk metal, appliances, and even construction debris from home remodeling projects, in addition to highway work? “I think they do,” said Mark. “The Town of Geddes absolutely appreciates what we do.”

Responsiveness — Always Take the Call

Mark said he will “always take the call,” even if an assistant follows up on a resident’s concern.

“The way I manage things is, if a resident calls, they are going to see me,” he said just as his cell phone brings news of a minor plumbing problem in a church-run soup kitchen. People in trouble tend to call the highway department, even though sewers are not part of its job.

The answer to the challenge, as Mark sees it, is to “let your people know that you care that they are doing a good job. We don’t have employee of the month or anything like that,” he added.

One obvious difference, under Mark is a new dress code of sorts — orange reflective shirts or vests — on workers at all times on the job. Despite a little bit of grumbling, his workers know that he is looking out for their welfare.

“The job is way different than when I came on board in 1978,” said Mark. He cited the level of service and the newer equipment as real tipping points toward providing services that the completely residential community has come to expect from the highway department.

In addition to office assistant Sue Smith, the department has 24 full-time people. “Their hearts are in the right place,” said Mark. “They are all good people to work with. It’s a totally service oriented job. And everybody in this field likes big equipment. That’s often the favorite part of their jobs.”

“If a resident has a sewer problem, we are the contact with the county to help get it resolved, but we are strictly highways and, without a town parks department, the highway Department maintains all of the parks,” he added.

One quality that Mark values in his team — in part because it helps him keep costs under control — is the crew’s willingness to tackle a problem.

“They have lots of basic, intuitive common sense. You’ll be out on a job, and something will go wrong, and somebody will say, “Well why don’t we try this, and it works!” he said.

Town of Geddes Unplugged

Mark pointed to a mega-size puddle project as putting his other favorite philosophy —Keep It Simple Stupid — to work.

“We had a ponding problem in a road, which is a fancy name for a puddle. A deep one. The catch basins, which we install, would not drain fast enough because an old clay pipe, built, who knows when, had collapsed. Next we find out that it’s very deep, and we don’t like to go deeper than four feet because of other considerations to meet OSHA standards. We figured the broken pipe was probably 7 to 8 feet down. So we figured hey, we’ll leave that pipe in for now, it drains slowly, but it drains. We put in a new pipe at the four-foot level, retrenched it, and laid it into the new drain to take to the catch basin down the road. It works great.”

Another big project, just being completed, is the result of two $1 million road bonds designated for 2005 and 2006. The costs were spread across two years to avoid any need to increase taxes.

“These were rebuilds with lots of drainage added, including storm sewer,” Mark said. “We work with our engineering firm [W-M Engineers, P.C.] to stay current and compliant with storm runoff. Newer systems have pipe in them so that water leaks out rather than surging.”

Mark’s father, Albert, also worked for the highway department for 30 years, rising to assistant superintendent.

“If his boss had retired out, like mine did, I think he would have liked the top job. So he was really pleased when I made superintendent.”

Because Mark respects the knowledge of those who worked before his term, he likes to take his dad out in his own pickup truck sometimes on weekends just to see if his dad can help him identify where problem pipes might be located.

“First thing Monday morning, I get to call the engineers and tell them I know exactly where the problem is. I’ve worked a long time to get here. It’s either sink or swim.”

About the Town of Geddes

The Town of Geddes is a western suburban of Syracuse. The town is on the west shore of Onondaga Lake. It is named for James Geddes, a prominent early setter who helped develop the salt industry around 1794. The town was organized in 1848.

Today the Town of Geddes still includes the Village of Solvay, which operates completely independently, and the hamlets of Westvale and Lakeland. Geddes is the youngest and smallest town in Onondaga County and currently has a population of about 17,700 residents.

Founding father James Geddes was born in 1763 in Carlisle, Pa., and was well educated for the time. He taught school until he was nearly 30 when, in 1793, the spreading fame of the Onondaga salt springs drew him to the area that would later take his name.

Geddes organized a company for the manufacture of salt in 1794, arriving with his kettles and tools by way of Seneca Lake. The salt works were located on the Onondaga lakeshore, which then overflowed into a large area of lowlands.

Geddes eventually moved on to the present town of Camillus and in time became a surveyor-general for the remainder of his career. He surveyed the Erie Canal, was appointed a justice of the peace, and was elected to the legislature. He became an associate justice, a judge, and was elected to congress. In 1821, he was sent to the legislature.

After what was termed “a life of great usefulness,” he died in 1838 at home.

Of James’s seven children, his son George may have most approximated his father’s interest as an engineer and a politician. He was twice elected to the State Senate and was superintendent of the Salt Springs for seven years.

George’s son, James, again perpetuated the family’s desire to combine civil engineering with serving the public trust. He was practicing engineering before he was 18. Elected to the assembly in 1882 and 1883, he was instrumental in the creation of the present game laws and became general manager of the State Experimental Station in Geneva by appointment of the governor of New York.

Syracuse is now a large city while Geddes has become just one of many of the city’s bedroom communities, so it’s hard to imagine a time, before Syracuse, when only the little center of civilization called Geddes existed. At the time of settlement, Judge Geddes found a rude road extending from Salina to Onondaga Hollow. This was the only way to travel between those two outposts, so Geddes and his associates realized they needed a better road.

Local history says, “By the aid of a fund then in the hands of the commissioner, and by large contributions, a good road was constructed from his settlement to the Salina and Onondaga Hollow road.”

“One of the earliest and greatest improvements about the Village of Geddes was the making of a road from that place to Salina. The ground over which the road was to pass was a perfect quagmire, filled with thick cedar timber and low brushwood. It was so miry, so thick with underbrush, and so much covered with water that it was completely impassable and could not be surveyed by the ordinary methods. In this case the surveyor set his compass at the house of Samuel R. Mathews, at Salina, and took the bearing of Mr. Hugh’s chimney, above the trees, and from this observation the route of the road was commenced by cutting brush and laying them crosswise on the line of the road and covering them with earth. The process was slow, but time and perseverance has accomplished the work, and an excellent road, perfectly straight between the two villages, is the result.”

The market for salt quickly outstripped production in the little town in spite of Indian claims to an exclusive privilege of the use of the salt springs at the head of the lake. Through the influence of Ephraim Webster, a council was called with the natives, and Judge Geddes was present. After due deliberation he was adopted into the tribe and given the name of “Don-da-dah-gwah,” which apparently settled the issue.

By 1807, Judge Geddes could draw the first map of the village showing pasture and marsh lots. The survey showing 20 lots on each side of what is now Genesee St. quickly grew to become a village with streets laid out 100-ft. wide. The salt produced in those times sometimes intended for horses and cattle, not the stuff we toss on the highways today.

Reading Geddes’s history is a little like watching “Deadwood,” the television show about the old west. Until the Erie Canal opened in 1825, which brought more prosperity to the area, the village of Geddes was primarily built on the manufacture of salt. With prosperity came the manufacture of Joseph M. Willey’s round wooden boxes for packed fine salt, potteries of “red ware” from clay found in Geddes, and railroad ties for a growing nation bent on transportation. Imported Holstein and other blooded cattle, Percheron and other select breeds of horses, as well as other farm stock, helped secure the area’s reputation for fine farms.

One colorful resident was Cyrus Thompson, who sometime around 1830 came to Geddes to manufacture remedies for his so called “Thompsonian” system of medicine. He created a sanitarium and accumulated wealth.

Following the Civil War, manufacturing in the village of Geddes took off. Many large manufacturers were founded including Onondaga Iron Company, the Onondaga Pottery Company, Sanderson Brothers Steel Company, the Syracuse Iron Works, and the Sterling Iron Ore Company. Nearly all of these passed into the city limits of Syracuse at the date of annexation 1886-87.

Today, life in town is more about coming home from a job, probably in Syracuse. Geddes, the town that predates Syracuse as an important manufacturing center, is now a suburban neighborhood with lots of snow in season, lots of freezing-thawing conditions on the roads, and weekly, all-encompassing debris removal that is probably the envy of their city neighbors nearby.

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