Superintendent of Highways James J. Dean and the Town of Orangetown

Jennifer Hetrick

Many people can say they’ve watched their hometown grow and change over the years. Few people can say they’ve had a hand in the growth and change in their hometown for nearly their entire lives. James J. Dean, superintendent of highways in Orangetown, N.Y., is one of those few.

Orangetown and the contributions he has made to it over the years are a significant source of pride for Jim.

“I think communities certainly are judged by the way they look when people go through them. I think the local residents judge themselves — how good they feel about where they live,” said Jim.

His interest in keeping his town looking good began in the summer of 1957, when he was just 17 years old.

“I started as summer help in a summer employment program with the highway department, so I just finished 50 years. It was my first job and I liked it. I wound up finding a place to stay. I found that I really liked being outside. The thing that attracted me was the change in seasons and the change in the type of jobs that you were doing. It wasn’t always the same thing. I think that was the thing that made me decide that this is where I wanted to stay,” said Jim.

After graduating from high school, Jim returned to the highway department and began work as a laborer. In 1964 Jim advanced from a laborer to a motor equipment operator.

Jim continued to work his way through the department, becoming a road foreman in 1969 and assistant general foreman in 1982, “I ran the oil crew. We called it oil in those days. We’ve modified it now. We call it surface treatment so we don’t scare everybody.”

In 1986 Jim became the general foreman in charge of operations, a position he held until 1997.

His next career move was to become superintendent of highways, a position with a political history that had just taken a turn in his favor. Jim explained that during his first years in the department, the position of superintendent of highways was an elected position. But in 1968, it became an appointed position and stayed that way for almost 30 years. In 1997, that changed.

“In ‘97 the people voted to go back to an elected position, which was important for me because I was the highest civil service position in the department. That then gave me an opportunity to run for superintendent of highways, because I would never take it as an appointed position. You get three people on the town board mad at you, you’re done,” said Jim. “In ‘97 I ran for the position of highway superintendent and I was elected. I’m now running for my sixth term. There’s no opposition this time, so it looks good.”

Keeping the Town Clean and Green

In his position as highway superintendent, Jim takes pride in working to keep his town looking its best and being environmentally sensitive.

“I have the opportunity to be the advocate for the highways and that’s all I really argue about. I let the town board worry about everything else,” said Jim. “I went from a career in operations through a completely different career in administration. It kind of rejuvenated me. We do a number of different tasks under the umbrella of the highway department. We’re not broken into divisions, but we pick up most everything except maintenance of the parks. And we don’t do the sewage.”

Leaf Pickup

Leaf pickup has become a part of the highway department’s responsibilities, evolving from the early, rural days when it was simply a matter of keeping the ditches clear to the present-day task of helping the ever-growing population get rid of their leaves and brush, following a burning ban in Rockland County.

“It’s become a major function for us now. We call it our ‘green waste removal’ program. We pick up brush nine months of the year and pick up leaves three months out of the year. The highway department has about a $9 million budget, which covers all of our operations, and close to a million of that goes for the green waste removal program,” said Jim.

“We’re on a five-week cycle and that was one of the programs that we were able to get into place, because before that, we used to just go street to street. Put out brush, we’d pick it up. But it was constant issues [because] we’d go through cleaning the street up, then somebody would put stuff out right behind it and it would take five or six weeks for us to get back there. It seems like a no-brainer, but it took me three years to get the town board to go along with a regular schedule,” Jim said with a laugh.

Communicating With the Public

Organizing the green waste removal program moved Jim along in reaching for another goal he had for his department — establishing better communication with the public.

“We put [the green waste program] together, but we had to get town board approval, because we were setting up regulations that people had to meet as far as not being able to put it out unless it was their scheduled time. We have a brochure that we put out that gives a lot of information about our green waste. And that’s really been helpful,” said Jim. “ [Another example is] the snow winter safety program that we send out. [It’s about] the highway department as a team working together with the local residents to provide safety during the winter and then we give them a layout on how we’re going to do it, what we ask them to do.”

The winter safety program has earned the Orangetown Highway Department the recognition from the public that Jim craved.

“And with ‘the theme of team,’ we’re all working together to help our residents. I have people coming to me at town board meetings now and saying something about ‘your team.’ I never heard that before. Nobody ever considered a highway department a team. It was the gang or the crew or something like that,” said Jim.

In addition to gaining new appreciation from the town, the winter safety program was praised by New York State as a model of communication and has been incorporated into the state local roads program training manual.

Jim also created a “face to face” event that has gone a long way in furthering his public relations goals. In 1997, Jim established The Open House, which is held on the Saturday of The National Public Works Week every May. It has become a huge success.

Equipment displays are set up in the Highway Department yard. Employees volunteer their time welcoming the public and giving demonstrations on how the equipment is used. The original attendance of 90 families has grown to close to 500 people at the 11th Annual Open House last May.

Cleaning up the Hot Spots

With this new recognition from the state and the townspeople, Jim and his team have made progress with the “clean streets, clean streams’ promotion.

“We’re trying to get people to work with us to beautify the place. That’s all part of adopt-a-spot, adopt-a-road and the Litter Marshall. The Litter Marshall, however, we haven’t really had the success I hoped, but we’re still working on that.”

The problem with Litter Marshall, Jim feels, is that people don’t want to take the time or don’t want to be a rat.

“But it’s not like you’re ratting on your neighbors,” Jim maintains. “If some strip mall is throwing crap all over and making the town look terrible, somebody should say something about it. Sometimes it’s overwhelming for the building department. It wouldn’t come under highway jurisdiction, but what we told them was we’ll be the clearing house. You tell it to us and we’ll follow up to make sure hopefully that we’re getting something done,” said Jim.

“We have 42 spots within our town that we call our hot spots that we actually clean up on a regular basis. It takes us about six weeks, but even doing it every six weeks it’s a mess when you come back, so that’s why we’re trying to encourage the public with these programs. It’s kind of like protecting your back when you’re highway superintendent, to be involved with this, because it’s much better if the public is working with you and understands.”

Staying Close to Home

The pride that Jim takes in his community is something that he likes his department to share. One way he has achieved this is by bucking a longtime trend and putting motor equipment operators into their own neighborhoods to work.

“Years ago,” Jim said, “you never put a motor equipment operator in the run that he lived in. It was just like, well the guy would be home all day and why would you have him do that? So now, if I can, I try to put the guy where he lives. In the highway department we still have over 85 percent of our people live in Orangetown, which is pretty good. Our crew cares about their community. By putting them in their own neighborhoods, it puts a little pressure on them because their neighbors see what they do, so it’s worked in reverse of the way the old feeling was. I think that’s what we try to build within our department, take some pride in what you’re doing.”

Education and Training

Jim is a former president of the American Public Works Association (APWA) and is still very active in the organization. He currently serves as the chairman of the education committee for the N.Y. Metropolitan chapter.

“One of the things I’m very much involved in is the education [of the people in my department],” Jim said. “True to APWA, that’s something we do a lot of in the highway department — we’re constantly training.”

Jim also worked with the APWA to develop an agency award for local departments. At the time, awards were given out primarily for large projects involving millions of dollars and hiring contractors. Jim designed an award that acknowledged in-house work because, as he put it, “I knew our guys were doing a lot of good stuff and that’s part of my philosophy that it makes people feel good.”

Salt Storage Award

Orangetown built its first barn to cover its salt supply in 1968.

“We didn’t do it because of the environment,” said Jim. “Nobody was talking about the environment in 1968. We did it because we found out that when you left the piles outside, you lost 10 percent of the stock.”

In 1986 the department improved its salt storage facility and won the Salt Institute’s salt storage award for that year. For several years thereafter, Jim did not apply for the award, but then he realized that the Salt Institute “was giving these awards if you maintained the building but [they] also had a policy to reduce the use of salt [and] prevent pollution.”

Jim is proud to report that Orangetown has won the Salt Institute award every year since 1997. It’s important for the community to know about this award and what it means, he says, because salt usage has to be balanced between the environmental issues it can cause and the very real need to keep the roads clear during winter storms.

“Two years ago we had issues because some portions of Rockland [County] are still on wells and there was some issue about wells with a high saline content. Of course, rock salt became one of the first things they identified. I put together a presentation about how, by using salt brine, we’re actually reducing the amount of granular salt.” Still, there is a small group of citizens who want to stop the use of salt altogether, “which in our area,” Jim said, “would be absolutely horrendous.”

Moving Into the Computer Age

“When I started, we had two or three computers [and] a couple of them hadn’t been taken out of the box. They were used as glorified typing machines,” said Jim. “[But now] our county of Rockland is very probably one of the leaders in the country as far as geographic information systems (GIS). [The] county’s been flown over [and we’ve] computerized all that – put it into a GIS program that we have in our department so whenever we’re dealing with the public, we can bring that up almost instantaneously on these. When one of our supervisors goes to talk to somebody about an issue, they have a picture, which helps us a great deal in just explaining to people what we can do and what we can’t do. We’ve been in the GIS system for about five years.”

Incorporating computers into the department also has helped with meeting governmental standards that have been laid out over the past few years.

Jim said, “Storm water phase 2 came from the feds and it’s part of the clean water act. By 2008 there are six control measures that each municipality has to show that they’re involved in. It took us a while to get going, but we’ve been pretty well along the curve in getting these things accomplished. [For example some municipalities are required] to supply the DEC with a map that says at point X there is a 15-inch drain that belongs to the town of Orangetown and then we have to be able to track that stream back to where it originates, so if we start to see pollution there, we can track back to where the pollution is coming from. One of the best ways of doing that is by using a global positioning system. ”

Keeping Track of Public Services

The sanitation in Orangetown is private and bulk items are picked up once a month. Seeing a need for residents to get rid of large items or brush in between monthly pickups, the highway department “established a drop-off center and people come in and if they’re an Orangetown resident and can prove it, they can put whatever debris they want in there,” said Jim. “It gets a tremendous amount of use and what was happening was, it’s free, but you have to be an Orangetown resident, so we were really running into some situations with making sure that it was just Orangetown residents and we were doing it by paper which was, as you can imagine, a monster.”

Bar coding became the answer to the problem of keeping track of vehicles entering the drop-off center. Orangetown established the bar coding system three years ago. Stickers on windshields are linked to a particular address. Employees at the drop-off center swipe the bar code to gain access to the complete history of the visits made to the center from that address. This was necessary because not only were non-residents coming in, but also people were running small drop-off businesses that made use of the free service.

“When we get the junk, it eventually goes to a landfill, but we pay $74 a ton to dump it, so when we’re getting illegal stuff or the thing is being misused, the town is paying a lot more money than we should. Bar coding has worked really well. Just the fact that people know we have it I think helps them be a little more honest.”

A plan to use bar coding on street signs also is in the plans for Orangetown’s highway department.

“We can bar code the sign when we put it up and then it’ll go into our computer program with replacements and any work that’s done on it [and] we’ll be able to keep track of all that. We do that by paper now. We know that the bar coding works and that it works in all kinds of weather. We know that part works. It’s just a matter of getting our 5,000 signs with little stickers on them,” said Jim.

Locating Vehicles on the Road

Keeping track of a fleet of vehicles moving throughout the town also has become easier with the use of computers. Orangetown started using an automated vehicle locater (AVL) seven years ago. It is used on all the snowplows, sweepers and green waste removal vehicles so the foreman can easily see where the equipment has been and where it’s going. The AVL has become indispensable during snowstorms or functions or when the public calls in with questions about when the vehicles will be in their neighborhoods.

But, Jim said, “The AVL is always there. The operator has no control over that. It’s just reporting back. What we’re trying to perfect now is a reporting system where these vehicles that are out on the road all the time have a canned message board. [The driver] will be able to push a button and it’ll report back to the computer that at such and such an address there’s a stop sign down or there’s a pothole or there’s something that needs attention so that we can record it and then develop a work order from that.”

The department also is able to keep track of how much fuel is used by each piece of equipment via a computerized system.

“Each vehicle is fitted with a ring around the fueling port whether it’s a diesel truck or a gas vehicle and when you put the pump in, there’s a mechanism on our fuel-dispensing nozzles that reads that ring and it identifies the vehicle and then keeps track of everything that’s going into it, so it gives a mileage breakdown and how many gallons it’s taken and the date and time it’s taken. If by mistake somebody tries to put gasoline into a diesel or diesel into a gasoline, it won’t work,” Jim said.

Use of this system also helps the department to determine maintenance schedules on their vehicles and total bills for the other departments, such as the ambulance corps and the fire department, for whom they supply fuel.

Future Plans

After 50 years of watching the town, the department and the technology change, Jim has no plans to slow down.

“It’s common knowledge, I love what I do. I like the idea of working in the community that I live in. You know, you feel like you have some impact. Some of it is just routine things, but I get to build a new culvert or put a sidewalk program into an area that hasn’t had it or pave roads within a community to make improvements, it’s just nice to see something concrete or something durable happen and know that you’ve been identified with that,” Jim said.

“How long do I want to do it?” he continued. “As long as my health holds up, I don’t have any interest in retiring any time soon. I’m 67. I could see working into my 70s. There isn’t anything right now that makes me feel that retirement would be better than what I’m doing. My wife Dottie still works and she really likes her job. She’s not ready to retire, so we’re both very fortunate to be doing something we like in a place we like.”

“I’ve been married for forty-six and a half years,” Jim said. “The only thing I’ve done longer than being married is work for the town of Orangetown. We have three married daughters and 13 grandchildren, and great for us they all live in Orangetown. That’s pretty special. I actually have five grandchildren that can vote for me now and the other ones are coming along. They’re going to keep me here. It’s one of the local political jokes. I’m developing my own constituency here.”

About the Town of Orangetown

The town of Orangetown is located in Rockland County, N.Y. It is a triangular shaped area of about 25 square miles and is in the southernmost part of New York State on the west side of the Hudson River. It is bordered on the south by the state of New Jersey. The easternmost boundary of the town is the Hudson River from the New Jersey line to the north edge of the village of Nyack. The third leg of this triangle runs from Nyack to Pearl River and borders the towns of Clarkstown and Ramapo to the north.

Orangetown has within its borders the villages of Nyack, South Nyack, Piermont and Grandview-on-Hudson, and the hamlets of Pearl River, Nauraushaun, Orangeburg, Blauvelt, Tappan, Sparkill, Upper Grandview and Palisades.

In 1683, the county of Orange, named for William of Orange (King William III), which included present-day Rockland County, was formed. In 1686 the town of Orangetown was created by a royal grant in the Tappan Patent. Shortly after 1686, the few inhabitants in lands northward were united with it for the purpose of assessment and court jurisdiction.

In 1719, some of about 100 residents of Haverstraw, in the northern part of the town, successfully petitioned the governor and council for separation from Orangetown because of the difficulties in getting to the seat of government in Tappan. From the resulting precinct of Haverstraw, a name retained until after the American Revolution when Haverstraw became a town, the remainder of Rockland County’s towns; Stony Point, Clarkstown and Ramapo, were formed.

Orangetown had its official beginning under the government of the United States in 1788, and is one of the original towns established by the state of New York in that year. Before 1788, Orangetown, as a unit of government, had existed for more than a century. In fact, the Orangetown Resolutions of 1774 are considered a precursor to the Declaration of Independence. Orangetown is the mother of all the towns in Orange and Rockland counties.

It is a matter of interest that Orangetown was first considered to be in New Jersey because of the uncertainty of boundaries in the early days. Except for losing considerable territory when the boundary between New York and New Jersey was finally established, its territorial limits have continued little changed since that time.

The Dutch established the original settlement in the town. The Dutch names for localities such as Blauvelt (Blue fields), Sparkill (Spar Creek) and Tappan Zee (Tappan Sea), as well as Dutch names among many of its inhabitants, testify to its early beginnings. P

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