Superintendent of Highways Raymond Dlugokinski and the Town of Grand Island

Laurie Mercer

In 1963, the first disco opened, Alcatraz closed, and the 30-minute newscast was born. Hurricane Flora killed more than 7,000 people on the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and Beatlemania had young women screaming for more on both sides of the Atlantic. And on Nov. 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Also in 1963, Ray Dlugokinski joined the Town of Grand Island as a young laborer. Ray, now town Highway Superintendent, is still hard at work while closing in on 50 years of public service. He plans to retire at the end of 2009.

“Is there life after this? That’s the big question,” Ray said. “My wife and I bum around pretty good together. I have six grandchildren and two step granddaughters ages 4 to 22. The only thing I don’t plan on doing is coming here every morning. Of course, I’m always ready if they need my help.”

While talking about that first day on the job so many years ago he recalled, “It was July 1963 when I joined a special water and sewer department for the Town of Grand Island. The highway department needed extra help in the wintertime, and that’s how I got to know the superintendent at that time.”

“Somebody passed away, and I was asked if I would be interested in working for the highway department full-time. The timing could not have been more perfect. My first wife and I were looking to build a new home. I went to the bank, and they said I needed to make $7 more a month to qualify for an $81 a month mortgage.”

The pay at the highway garage was 10 cents more per hour. He added, “That meant I had $16 more a month that I could put my hands on, and that qualified me for the mortgage.” (Ray and his life lived in that home for more than 25 years, raising three sons — James, Stephen, and Mark.)

His home today, shared with his second wife, Ann, is almost brand new and located just across the yard and a lovely pond from the home of one of his sons, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. His sons have stayed in the area; Mark works for his dad.

Ray and Ann had attended the same school when they were youngsters. It was the only school on the island at that time. They met once again at a school reunion three decades later. He said, “After the divorce I got reacquainted with a girl I knew when we were little kids. Her husband had passed away. We had not seen each other in 33 years.” The couple married in 1992.

An Island Town

An aerial map reveals why Grand Island is completely different from any other upstate town. The island separates the east and the west branch of the Niagara River and shares a boundary with Canada. Ray has lived here his entire life and as he put it, “I think that our natural boundaries make this a unique little community.”

His highway crew is responsible for 150 lane miles of town roads and snow and ice removal for 66 miles of roads in Erie County. The annual operating budget is $2.6 million, with $95,000 coming from the CHIPS allocation. He has 17 people on his crew, plus three or four summer workers, mostly college students.

Grand Island is connected to the mainland by two bridges (one at each end) — the first one opened in 1936. The island itself is completely flat and measures about eight miles long and six miles wide. Ray and his deputy Jim Tompkins, who goes by “J.T.,” said the bridge represents a symbolic separation of the island from nearby Buffalo and Niagara Falls. It also represents fear. As J.T. explained, “My mother-in-law is one person who will not drive across the bridge. My son had to go pick her up to go to a basketball game. That’s not unusual here. People may live in Niagara Falls and work in Buffalo, but they will not drive themselves over the bridge.”

Ray and J.T. agree that the bridge seems to present a psychological hindrance to businesses developing on Grand Island. Most residents have to leave the island to go to work. One notable exception is a large biological/pharmaceutical company, which employs more than 500 people and runs three shifts.

Also unusual is Grand Island’s proximity to another country — Canada. Most people on Grand Island think of Canada as being in their backyards and a good place to shop. Lost Canadians are also frequent guests on Grand Island. J.T. explained, “They are usually looking for the mall.”

Almost 50 Years and Counting

the Days

“I started out as a laborer. You name it, I did it,” said Ray. “Work on the truck, cut down trees and brush, anything that involved the highway. My guys have it the same way today. While we do help other departments — it’s all taxpayer money — our business here is strictly highways.”

“When I started I was too young to be thinking about a career path,” he said. “You don’t begin thinking about retirement, but hopefully by the end of this year I will retire. From laborer I moved up to motor equipment operator. Then, in 1972, I got moved up to what was called the working foreman back then. I think that’s when it hit me. I’ve got a career! The pay was better. The benefits were excellent. You may not have been making as much as a guy at the GM assembly plant, but you enjoyed what you did. You did something different every day.”

He said the variety of the work and the camaraderie of his crew is what makes coming to work worthwhile, even after all these years. In fact, he may be enjoying the job even more.

“In 1966 when I joined the highway department I had to bring my own tool box. The tools that were here you could fit inside a paper bag. Equipment? It was basically junk. They didn’t even have an acetylene torch. And old trucks. In 1966 they got a 1966 Ford, but the 1947 Chevy was still there. It was the most mismatched bunch of equipment; everything ran with tire chains on it.”

Of course Grand Island in those days was traveled mostly by country roads. Ray remembered, “They didn’t plow snow until it was knee deep.”

Today there are many more residents and streets. There is no downtown or village square; the island consists of strip malls and homes. Architecture ranges from comfortable old cottages to extremely high-end, palatial mansions with river views and water rights for boat docks.

As interesting as the island itself is as a natural habitat, it’s also home to old missile silos that harkens back to the Cold War. “Back then the only roads of substance had been built in the 1940s by the government for two Nike installations on the island. To get the equipment to them, they had to widen and rebuild those roads.”

Now the missiles are gone, and the two bases have been granted to the public. At the west end of White Haven Road and the west end of Staley Road, an unusual collection of 1960s-era buildings that once were the home base for Nike missiles and their operations center have become a senior center, a grounds maintenance building for a school and a small nature preserve, among other more peaceful endeavors.

Funding Woes

Like Ray’s career path, the highway garage itself has been expanded over time. In 1999, when he became superintendent he said he was inheriting the job from a man who had been his mentor.

“When Norm Mrkall became superintendent, he first won the office by just one vote! He was about 37 years old at the time. The former superintendent was in his 70s. So Norm came in with lots of new ideas. He was a trendsetter and responsible for new equipment from 1978 onwards.”

“A lot of credit goes to him for the change toward modernization, higher productivity and better quality roads,” he said. “What made him a good boss? He had respect for people and was very community-minded. He is still a member of the Fire Company and has been for more than 50 years.”

Ray said that as soon as Mrkall decided he was going to retire, the seasoned superintendent began to teach his deputy the fiscal side of the business of running the highway operation.

“He said to manage the highway department the same way you manage your home accounts. Just because you may have an extra bit of money, you don’t spend it. Put it back in the fund balance.”

The challenge in these troubled times is rarely over a fund balance. The cost of everything to run the operations is soaring. Ray said, “Since last year everything has skyrocketed. Fuel, salt, treatment agents have all gone up. A simple cabin chassis for a truck, for the cab and chassis, nothing else, is $75,000!”

Ray can literally point to a spot in the road where they decided they had to stop hot patching because their funds for the job were all consumed. “We literally painted a line on the road to tell the guys to stop,” he said

Running for Office

Ray appreciates the central location of the highway department and explained its evolution on Grand Island. He said from the garage “you can be anywhere on the island in 10 minutes.”

The grounds of about six acres are very narrow with a designated trout stream running along one side.

“The first building on this ground was built in 1953,” he said. “The first addition was added on around 1961. A third part was added in 1968, along with real office space. Then in 1978 another addition was put on, and in 1978 more office space was added. In 1997, the last addition was added to the original structure, which has basically grown ‘railroad car style.’”

Ray said he was appointed interim highway superintendent in March of 1999 and had to run for election himself in November. What was it like? He said it was nerve-wracking. “It was no secret that Norm was going to retire. There was another guy who had run against him in the last election, and he wouldn’t go away.”

As Ray sums up the terror of running for office he said, “You are only one line on a big ballot.”

Canvassing families by going door-to-door is the only thing that works in a community the size of Grand Island.

“Norm actually suggested that I run for the job. He said, ‘You have all the qualifications and you have my support 100 percent.’ That was enough for me.”

With three elections behind him he said running for the office does get easier. He added, “You have nobody to answer to except the public. The public will tell you if you are doing a good job. If not, goodbye.”

The Best Crew

“About six years ago the state offered a retirement program, and we lost some people due to that. Others transferred, and I got to hire half of the crew I have right now. I either got very lucky or I am very smart at hiring people because this crew is the best one I’ve ever had. We all get along remarkably well.”

One indicator of employee satisfaction, he said, is that many of the crew comes to work early so they can joke around and talk. Pranks, like putting a fictitious time card out for a make believe employee are fairly typical of their fun times. The crew was even using Google on the computer to see who the new person was. Ray said that living in a small community helps him hire good people because there is “less chance of surprises.”

Besides the joking around he said his crew works hard at what they do.

“We have no extra people,” he said. “This year has been fortunate in that we have not yet spent all night here. Other years, we’ve always seemed to spend two or three nights here and not go home.”

Ray’s youngest son, Mark, also is a member of the crew. His dad said, “He is no different than anybody else. Let’s put it this way, he is the last person I expect any problems from.”

As for the natural successor to the top job, J.T., who was hired six years ago, certainly springs to mind.

“Before I hired him I called his dad and his dad said, ‘He is a dependable, good worker, and you won’t be disappointed.” J.T.’s ability to shadow him led him to say, “I have nothing but praise for the job he does here. He’s a good manager and he knows what needs to be done. I’d be very comfortable going out the door and not worrying about it at all.”

Not the Big Snows of Buffalo

While nearby Buffalo is famous for its monster snow storms, Ray said that while Grand Island gets lake effect snow from both lakes Erie and Ontario, the snowfall is less than areas south of them.

“We’ve had the south end of the island get hammered and the north end has green grass.” In spite of the volume he said that snow still has to be removed, plowed off the road and has salt applied.

“We plow and salt. We use regular salt that we treat ourselves with magnesium chloride when the temperature reaches 22 to 23 degrees.”

“We use the OGS contract for salt. You have to tell them in the beginning of the year how much salt you are going to buy under their contract. This year I put down 6,000 tons. The contract said that if you order it, they guarantee delivery a certain number of days later.”

He said as the winter draws on there seems to develop a glitch in the delivery schedule. Grand Island has never run out of salt, but late deliveries have had them making other choices. Certain streets may get less salt beyond intersections while some lightly traveled suburban roads may get none.

Roadside Work

More sophisticated engineering jobs on Grand Island, such as the big culverts on Harvey Road get jobbed out. The town has its own in-house engineering expertise.

“We generally use all plastic now for culverts, but this job was too large for plastic pipe. If we waited until spring we knew there would be a delay because of fish spawning. During that time the water is protected from culvert work by DEC regulations.

“We were fortunate because one of our suppliers had the proper size metal pipes in stock. We got the town engineer to revise the old specs from the last time the pipe was replaced about 30 years ago. Then we were good to go.”

Smaller tasks in roadside drainage are taken care of by the highway crew. Ray said an active pursuit of roadside drainage has been going on in town for about 35 years.

“We do roadside drainage, and off-road drainage is handled by the engineering department.”

Typical roadside work might involve cleaning ditches. When funds permit he said they will address a piece of road and maybe lay down tile for about 2,000 feet. He said they pipe it and bury it and throw some “cheap grass seed” on top.

In a place known for well-kept homes, he said homeowners generally mow the roadside drainage grass as if it were their own lawn. Thanks to them, he added, “we don’t have to clear out the ditch every year. It’s done.”

“We also do our own hot patching here,” he said. “About three years ago we bought a new Bobcat milling machine from Buffalo Bobcat with a snowblower and broom attachment.”

The town also has distinctive lime green vehicles after owning a veritable rainbow of options in years past. Some former superintendents favored green, some liked red. Ray’s mentor chose lime green, and it’s been that way ever since. The highway garage even has its own paint booth to ensure uniformity on older equipment.

From Fruit Farms

to Suburbia

Like many other parts of America, the prime real estate on Grand Island was once reserved for farms and fruit trees. Today the island of about 19,000 residents is primarily a bedroom community, and Ray, who once enjoyed pheasant hunting in the fields as a young man, said, “Subdivisions have begun to encroach on everything.” And so his territory expands.

“We just accepted a new street a couple of week ago,” he said. “Basically, the process involves the developer submitting a plan to the town engineer; there is a host of legal processes. They have to use the town’s specifications for the road itself including the depth of material, width of the pavement, curves and drainage concerns. It is quite an involved process putting in a new street today.”

Of the existing roads Ray said, “The maximum speed limit is 45 throughout the island, so we don’t get high-speed traffic. Before the Thruway was built, Route 324, which runs parallel to the Thruway, was the only way across Grand Island.”

During his nearly 50 years on the job, he has learned to live with the changes.

Advice to the Next Superintendent

“My deputy, J.T., would like to run for this office, and I don’t think he really needs any advice,” Ray said. “You only have so much money and so many employees. You have to be realistic about what can be done.”

“A lot of this job is common sense,” he continued. “The most important thing about being a superintendent or any other elected official is to listen to your public. They are the people you are working for.”

Praise for the way Grand Island’s highway department is run is easy to find. Brad Rowles, highway superintendent of the Town of Tonawanda, for one, points to Ray’s innate sense of helpfulness and the ability to think ahead of the storm as two characteristics Brad admires about the man.

Brad pointed to the October Surprise of 2007 as an example, when Tonawanda was at the epicenter of an epic storm, while Grand Island was not as hard hit. “The minute Ray had his roads in pretty good shape he offered us machinery and crews to help us clean up. We didn’t have to ask. That’s the kind of guy he is,” Brad said.

“Ray Dlugokinski has always been a great highway guy, a helpful neighbor and a caring friend.”

So what happens when a long-time highway man retires? In addition to their visiting family, his wife may have tipped his hand, pointing out a brand new pickup truck with the plow attached, parked in their driveway. She said people have already asked about his plans for the plow.

“I can imagine him plowing a few driveways for people, just to keep busy, and they know he’ll do a good job,” she said.

About the Town of Grand Island

Grand Island was named by the French explorers, “La Grande Ile,” because it was the largest “grand” island in the Niagara River. Grand Island is surrounded by several smaller islands. In 1936 the first bridge was built to link the island to the mainland. Ferry service disappeared after that.

Today a bridge on either end of the island connects Grand Island to Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Grand Island also shares a water boundary with Canada.

It is possible for the bridges to be shut down during serious storms and for residents and visitors to be stranded on either side of the bridge — for up to three days. The crew in the highway department seems to agree that the island’s relative isolation from the rest of the mainland and the rest of the state makes it a very special place to live.

Beginning in the 16th century, French explorers found the Neutral Indians living on what is now Grand Island. Fishing and hunting in a somewhat protected environment proved attractive. By 1651, the Senecas destroyed the Neutrals and adopted some of its survivors.

British colonization came next, in 1764 as part of the Treaty of Cession following the French and Indian War.

In 1815, New York State purchased Grand Island and other small islands in the Niagara River from the Iroquois Nation for $1,000 up front and $500 annually — which is still paid today every June. The Senecas reserved the right to hunt fowl and to fish on the islands, which speaks to the bounty of its day. A few names of the Indians in attendance at that real estate sale sound like a rough crowd. They included Chief Red Jacket, Falling Boards, Twenty Canoes, Ship Skin and Man Killer.

By 1852, the Town of Grand Island was formally organized as part of the Town of Tonawanda. Among the notables is Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th President of the United States who owned a home at Beaver Island, one of the smaller islands nearby.

The rights of Native Americans to their native land are caught up in the due process in various legislatures all over America. On Aug. 25, 1993, the Seneca Nation commenced an action to reclaim land that allegedly was taken from the nation with the approval of the United States in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York.

The Senecas cited the 1815 transaction with New York State violated the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790, which said no Native American land could be sold without the consent of the federal government.

Grand Island’s 2,000 property owners must have felt the earth move backwards in history a little bit.

In 2002, the trial court held that the subject lands were ceded to Great Britain in the 1764 treaties of peace. The subject lands were not owned by the Seneca at the time of the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, which stated that New York State’s purchase of the land in 1815 “was intended to avoid conflict with the Seneca over land it already owned.”

Appeals on behalf of the Seneca have thus far failed to reach the Supreme Court of the United States. P

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