Superintendent of Highways Steve Matthews and the Town of Clinton

Mary S. Yamin-Garone

It’s true what they say. One man can make a difference. Just ask the residents of the town of Clinton.

Ever since Steve Matthews became its highway superintendent it has been all about change — change for the town, change for the highway department and change for the residents.

Whether Steve was building a new town garage and salt shed, deciding to run two highway crews during the winter or purchasing the department’s first new piece of equipment in nearly 30 years, it was all done in the name of change and for the greater good.

Steve was born and bred in the town of Clinton. “I am the oldest of six siblings. We were brought up on a dairy farm in Churubusco about 45 miles north of Plattsburgh along the Canadian border,” he recalled. “We were responsible for all the farm work — milking cows, baling hay. After I attended Northern Adirondack school I went to work on a potato farm for several years. Then I made butter at a milk plant for a few months right before the plant closed down.”

Steve began working for the town of Clinton Highway Department in 1977 as a truck mechanic. All of his experience for the job, he claimed, came from “always being around equipment on the farm.” Steve was appointed highway superintendent in April 1985, following the death of his predecessor.

“I had not served any time as deputy prior to my appointment,” he explained. “I was just one of the workers. I had to run [in the election] that first year. I have been unopposed every year since then. Initially it was a two-year term, but it changed to four years several terms ago. Most of the surrounding highway superintendents were serving four-year terms so the [town] board put it up for a resident vote and it passed.”

Steve is a member of the NYS Association of Town Superintendents of Highways Inc. When Steve eventually hangs up his highway superintendent’s hat he hopes to be remembered as someone who did the best he could for everyone in the town.

Steve’s wife, Marion, believes he already has been that person time and time again.

“Steve always has been very dedicated to his job and the duties required to keep the town roads, buildings and equipment in good shape. He always tries to help the town people with special requests for a load of landfill, a little extra salt where needed, a ditch dug or a driveway plowed. He tries to treat everyone equally, not barring anyone from a helping hand. I mostly respect Steve for helping the elderly or sick, like plowing driveways when they need to get to a doctor’s appointment, when there was a death in the family or other emergency. Yes, this dedication has interfered with many a holiday or family gathering, but there is great pride in a job well done!” Marion said.

Steve and Marion have been married for 31 years. Marion is employed by the local hardware store. Their son, Scott, 20, is a junior at Plattsburgh State University, where he is studying to become a teacher.

Steve and Marion’s son, Jerry, passed away on Feb. 14, 2000. “Our son, Jerry, hit the back of our town snowplow with his snowmobile and died. It was a stormy day. You couldn’t see your hand in front of you. There was no school and Jerry was on his way to a friend’s house when it happened. He didn’t see the back of the plow.

“I had the state police check his snowmobile twice because I thought it had malfunctioned. I would have bet on it because Jerry wasn’t a kid to speed. He was so careful. He went to all the safety classes but everything was working properly. I was off from work for nearly two months. I stayed home thinking it would change but it didn’t. The first two to three years were the worst, although you never really get over it. It still affects me today. It’s always on my mind. It was an accident but still … ”

Steve and his family enjoy spending time together at the local campgrounds in Chateaugay, a few miles outside of town. “We have a camper set up in Hyde Falls Park where we spend many weekends and nights. Once a year we head off to Hampton Beach for a week’s vacation. After I retire, Marion and I hope to travel, mostly through the United States.”

The Job

Steve is, however, a long way from retirement and plans to do a lot more for the town until that day comes. He has already accomplished a great deal during his tenure. One of the things Steve is most proud of is the highway department’s 50 by 160 ft. six-bay garage that Steve and his crew built in 1989.

“That year the board decided it was time for a new highway garage,” Steve recalled. “Until then, we worked out of one of the town’s old milk plants. It was unreal. It was difficult to heat during the winter. The floors were gone, so in the spring the water would come up through. Trucks were parked on top of each other so that you were barely able to close the door once they were inside.”

But like everything else, getting a new garage was a matter of money.

“The board knew we needed the garage. They also knew there was no way we could save that kind of money in a small town like Clinton. Instead, we bonded the garage for three years. We hired a contractor to put up the outer shell. Then my crew and I did all the indoor work, except for the electrical, which was contracted out because of the fire and building codes. It took us two years to complete by working on it during our free time. It not only was a big accomplishment for us, but we also saved the town a considerable amount of money. It took a little longer doing it ourselves, but that was the only way we were going to get a new garage.”

As another cost saving measure, Steve installed waste oil heaters in the department’s new garage.

“We have two heaters that operate on the waste oil mainly from when we change the oil in our vehicles. The heaters easily pay for themselves today,” Steve boasted. “Several other area highway departments heat the same way. The town of Chateaugay was the first and we were second.”

The highway department also built its current salt shed.

“We put it up about 10 years ago. It holds up to 60 tons of salt. Constructed in four days, we used telephone poles courtesy of NYS Gas and Electric and leftover tin and planks from when we built our garage. Very little money was involved. Before that we didn’t have anything. We buried the salt in the sand.”

As superintendent, it is Steve’s job to maintain the town’s 40 miles of road, 28 of which are paved and 12 of which are gravel. Those miles translate into three plowing routes that take about two and one-half hours to complete. “Most of our gravel roads are seasonal. They aren’t plowed during the winter because no one lives on them. They are only traveled in the summer.”

Steve depends on his crew of three full-time employees and one part-timer to serve the town’s 700 residents. His staff includes Mike Perreault, Scott Filion and Randy Labombard, all full-time truck drivers/mechanics; and Ronald Santamore, who helps out as a driver/mechanic/laborer from December through April each year.

Steve is quick to commend his men on their hard work and dedication, especially during the grueling winters.

“All my crew live in town and have been with me for a while. I started running two crews during the winter three years ago. The second shift is from 4 p.m. to midnight. I get up at around 2 a.m. to check the roads before my men report to work. The guys are going all the time working 24/7 whenever there is a storm.”

For Steve, those long winters are the most difficult part of the job.

“We put in a lot of hours. This past winter we had nearly 100 inches of snow and considerable ice and freezing rain,” Steve said. “We are always glad to see spring. We welcome the break. This year spring was slow in coming.”

Under Steve’s direction, the town of Clinton’s highway department functions on a total operating budget of $523,500, which includes employees’ salaries and benefits and an annual CHIPS allocation of $58,000.

To help get the job done, the department uses a modest fleet of equipment that includes:

• 1977 Oshkosh snow blower (equipped with a blower removed from a 1944 truck)

• 1993 and 1997 Ford L9000 plow-dump truck-sanders

• 1999 Ford Sterling plow-dump truck-sander

• 2007 International 7600 plow-dump truck-sander

• 1967 Gallion grader

• 1998 and 2008 Chevy pickups

• 2002 New Holland tractor with loader

• 2002 brush-bank mower

• 1993 sander box

• 1965 Buffalo roller, paving box, broom

• 1987 York rake

• 1990 John Deere loader

• 1987 6-660-C Gradall

• 1997 riding lawn mower-push mower

• 1993, 1997, 1999, 2007 Emeril one-way plows (4 wings)

• 1990, 2006 clean burn furnace

• 1990, 2005 air compressor

• 1995 8,500-watt generator

• 2005 steam jenny

Not a bad armada considering Steve didn’t buy his first piece of new equipment until 1993.

“The first few years I was highway superintendent I attended numerous [New York] state auctions. That is how I purchased my vehicles — everything from trucks to Gradalls and graders. I bought used all of the time. The town was trying to keep the taxes down for its elderly residents — more than 50 percent are over the age of 65 — but that made it almost impossible to purchase equipment.”

That all changed in 1993.

“I [finally] went to the [town] board and told them we had to start updating our equipment. Once they understood that new vehicles would actually save the town money on repairs and whatnot they came around. I bought the highway department’s first new truck that year.”

Today Steve replaces one truck every five years.

“We are on a five-year plan, which is the only way you can really do it here with such a small population. We are due to purchase another vehicle this fall, which will be a new loader with a snow blower.”

What is different about the new vehicles? “Operators sit higher up so visibility is greater, especially in the winter. With the plowing equipment, all the levers that run the wings and plow are right beside you. That’s good because I have one-man plows. The only time we’ve had to send a vehicle out for repair was in 2007. A wire broke behind the battery box and it shut the truck off during a snowstorm. We didn’t know what to look for so I called the truck company — on a Sunday — and they were there within a few hours to pick it up. They repaired the vehicle and brought it right back.”

Technology also has improved the department’s communication.

“We know what’s going on a lot sooner,” Steve said. “Now we are right on top of most everything from approaching bad weather to downed trees. Situations are reported within hours instead of days.”

Not bad for a highway department that doesn’t own a computer.

Like everything else, Steve’s job also evolved. “I always thought the job would get easier but actually the longer I’m here the more I see what has to be done. I also said someday we will get caught up and won’t have anything to do but that’s not the case either. I’m constantly finding more to do. I try to keep improving things.”

It’s not all roadwork for the highway department. This year Steve and his crew are doing considerable ditching.

“We are also putting in new sidewalks and blacktopping our village. A machine will grind down the blacktop and we will put a new layer over that. We grind the blacktop to save the town money. The current blacktop also is the height of the sidewalk. If a new layer was added to that it would be too high.”

Following a recent heavy rainstorm the department restored the dirt roads and culverts that were washed out. “We also are replacing about 200 feet of drainage pipe in the village. It has been there for years and the bottom’s rotted out.”

Steve has other plans to keep the town moving forward as well.

“I still would like to see a new salt shed built near the garage. It’s about one mile away right now. I also would like a storage building for our equipment, especially since we are purchasing new vehicles. I’m not one to leave anything out. I like it all inside during the winter.”

More good things are on the horizon for the town and the highway department as the area welcomes a wind farm within the next several years. Steve already has caught a glimpse of things to come.

“Noble Environmental Power [headquartered in Essex, Conn.] built 67 turbines in the town last year. Marble Wind Farm, Ellenburg, N.Y., is expected to put up another 88 by the end of 2009. When they first started, money was given to the town in lieu of taxes. That reduced our taxes by 45 percent. Within the next year, taxes should be eliminated completely, allowing us to update all our equipment. Over the next five years we should have everything we ever dreamed of, including steady employment for the town’s people.”

About the Town of Clinton

The town of Clinton (Churubusco) was settled before 1820 near the community of Frontier. It was set apart from the town of Ellenburg in 1845. It is the northwest corner town of Clinton County. The town’s northern line is the border of Quebec, Canada, and the western town line is the border of the town of Chateaugay in Franklin County. During the town’s early years its population grew to 2,450.

According to the 2002 census, the population now is 727. Most of the town’s early inhabitants emigrated from Canada and Vermont and were of French and Irish descent. There is no industry in the town, thereby forcing residents to travel outside for employment.

(History courtesy of Town Historian Diane Lagree.) P

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