Superintendent of Highways Mike Smart and the Village of Attica

Laurie Mercer

It is almost laughable what Mike Smart inherited when he first assumed the position of superintendent for the village of Attica in 1990.

“There was no office really. The water lines were mapped on cardboard. The equipment was old and shot,” he recalled. “Everything was thrown in my lap from the get-go.”

Mike is an easygoing guy with a great laugh, even when the demands of the job are showing. He has his own perspective. The framed photograph on his desk is his beloved cocker spaniel, “Baby.” He doesn’t seem to ever wear a jacket, even on the coldest winter days. His baseball cap, he said, is rarely off his head. He rides a Harley Davidson motorcycle, skis downhill and loves snowmobiles. He likes what he does.

Mike was just 30 years old when he became the first person to be simultaneously assigned to two lead positions in the Attica highway department.

“When I started, I started from nothing. There was previously a superintendent and a working foreman, and the town board wanted one person to do both jobs. Having that dual role is why I’m out on the streets working with the guys every day,” he explained.

His full-time crew is Brad Lapp, Bob Willard and Justin Lane. Adam Vanson is on part time. A fourth crew member is about to be appointed by the village board to replace a retired employee.

Mike’s position is appointed; he doesn’t have to run for office, which is a relief to him.

“It’s a challenge sometimes, but I love being out,” Mike said. “I wouldn’t ask the crew to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.”

One thing that Mike’s crew, who must live in the village in order to work there, doesn’t like is overtime.

“I worked for the City of Batavia for 10 years and they fought over overtime. I asked them here if they wanted an equalization of overtime sheet here, and they said, no, they didn’t want any overtime. They want to put in their eight hours and go home. I can’t figure it out,” he said.

Mike’s budget of $200,000 to $215,000 for this year does not include salaries, just annual operations. Of that, $29,500 is from CHIPS.

“When I put a budget together and I put in to pave a street or several streets, I make sure that the amount needed is the same or under the amount we get for CHIPS. That way we get reimbursed, and I’m not asking taxpayers to pay for the new street work,” he said.

“There is a guy in charge of water and a guy in charge of sewer. We at the highway department don’t have anything to do with treatment, but we are at the end of maintenance for both facilities.”

In addition to repairing breaks in the lines, Mike’s crew takes care of the twice-yearly flushing of things like fire hydrants (as well as painting all 105 hydrants in several different color combinations) and unplugging faulty sewers, which often are the result of aging technology.

Growing Up to Be a Superintendent

Mike, like many others in the field, has highway work in his DNA. Hid dad, Robert, was highway superintendent for the City of Batavia from 1963 to 1998.

Robert was written up in Superintendent’s Profile in the 1980s.

While Mike was growing up, discussions about highway work were frequently a part of their family dinner conversation and Mike and his brother thought riding the heavy equipment was “really cool.” But both boys were less enthusiastic about their dad’s other chores for them.

“We’d have to go pick up papers at the landfill and in the ditches. It wasn’t fun, but he made us do it,” Mike said. “We were not paid, because he thought it was good for us to learn how to work.”

Mike’s brother today is the senior person on the highway crew for the City of Batavia.

“I’ve got 21 years in and he has 29,” Mike said of their individual tenures in public service.

His trajectory to superintendent began as laborer for the City of Batavia, where he was primarily connected to projects in parks, streets and sewers.

“They put you where they needed you, so my background was well rounded when I came here.”

What brought him to the superintendent job in Attica?

“I kind of wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps,” he said. “ But I had to start with baby steps, because there wasn’t much to work with. For example, there were no working maps. If you had a water line break, the maps were all on cardboard and mostly weathered. I called the village engineers and said, ‘This is what I’ve got.’ They sent me a bunch of pages, and I had everything copied and laminated. Now when we get a water line break we’ve got something to work with.”

Other challenges were presented by the boneyard of ancient equipment, all of it in rough shape.

“The age of everything was the biggest problem. When I came here we were using stuff from the 1960s, like a drain cleaning machine. I hadn’t yet been born when that machine was purchased. The pump they used on water breaks was from the 1980s, and they were beat. Our dump truck was from 1986, and that was the newest thing in the barn.

“I ended up putting together a replacement plan for the town board to alert them when we need new equipment,” he continued. “I made them an equipment list with the condition, the desired replacement year in the future and any necessary comments about each piece.”

His plan of action has paid off and he said the board is a joy to work with. For example, “When we spec’d our new truck, I had to talk to the board about going with metal brine tanks on the back. Part of it was educating them on why we use brine. In the end they agreed to this customization even though it added to the cost.”

How Times — and Equipment — Have Changed

“We got a new 2008 Mack truck to replace a 1991 Ford plow truck and a 2009 Hyundai loader to replace a 1999 Samsung loader,” Mike said.

Next in line for replacement is the 1988 street sweeper, but Mike said, “It’s still in really good shape.”

To resell machinery Attica uses a company called Auctions International, which is run by an Attica native.

“It started out with him when the sewer plant got rid of a 1985 dump truck. There are some real advantages to using him rather than having two workers drive to an auction in some town like Palmyra, which is many miles away. With the company we use for reselling equipment, the buyer has to come here. It has worked out well for us.”

Repairs on equipment are done outside the garage at places like George & Swede in Pavilion, because the department has no mechanic on site.

Water, Water Everywhere

The Village of Attica draws water from three spring-fed, enormously large reservoirs. Supply is never a problem. Challenges come to Mike and his crew in the form of broken water mains.

“If we have a main break on an eight-inch line, that’s our biggest problem,” he explained. “It’s a race to get the line shut down before you can drain the tank at the water plant. The tank holds 200,000 gallons. It will take us about four hours to fix a water main break. Most breaks are caused by the ground heaving during below-freezing conditions.”

For the town’s 2,200 residents, the department reads water meters by hand and replaces about 60 faulty water meters every year. The Attica prison is the village’s largest water and sewer customer.

As for sewer malfunctions, he said the culprit is often something called “Orangeburg Pipe,” which was installed around World War II to prevent using metal needed for the war. Orangeburg is actually a kind of tarpaper, which sometimes collapses, causing people’s sewers to get backed up.

Because of the shortage of iron during the war, the demand for the fiber conduit rose higher, but now, more than 60 years later, the replacement is made with schedule 40 PVC pipe.

Mike said, “In a village as old as Attica, you don’t always know what’s down there. You begin to dig and it gets your curiosity up. We’ve got some lines from the 1940s that are still in use.”

Small, Big Budget Operation

As Mike begins to list the many other things his four-man department does all year long, even he begins to look a little surprised at the complexity of the tasks. They even stripe their own sidewalks with their striping machine.

“We salt and brine 7.1 miles of village streets. Of that, 5.1 miles is village, 1 mile is county road, and 1 mile is state. Each plow run takes about three hours,” he said.

Getting out before the school buses in winter means a 3:00 a.m. wake-up call from the Attica Police Department, which shares the highway building, once a dry milk plant. Crews of two people who tend to work well together are assigned to this beat from something called “The Salt Call-Out List” once every three weeks.

Because the village is full of dead-end roads, much of the snow removal is done using pickup trucks.

“We treat our salt with brine and use a spray bar on the back of the truck off the back of the spreader,” Mike said.

And although the brine is provided free of charge (it’s a waste product from mining operations), the village pays for delivery. Because the highway tank is 2,000 gallons and the delivery is 6,000 gallons, the village and town of Attica share the bill.

“Brine,” Mike said, “is a byproduct of well digging for natural gas. They need to get rid of it.”

Mike’s crew also mows a five-acre park, built to honor all war veterans. Those acres are the heartland for many village recreation programs and energetic residents. The crew tends to two swimming pools, including chlorination, which was funded by a local person who became successful elsewhere. One pool ranges in depth from 3 to 11 ft., and the other little dipper is used for wading. They also take care of the public bathrooms, five pavilions, playgrounds, tennis courts, volleyball courts and a hockey rink.

“One of the biggest things around here is the park,” said Mike. “When recreation starts, it gets real busy.”

The crew is responsible for keeping 235 catch basins running smoothly and they pick up metal every April and brush once a month. They also pick up Christmas trees, which begin to appear curbside on Dec. 26.

With lots of trees, the village’s leaf pick up requires 110 loads on a 10-yard machine.

Attica village streets are swept every other Friday, and it’s the new sidewalk brooming operation that has brought the department its biggest compliments.

Mike explained, “We just started using a broom on our sidewalks. We V-plow them and then groom them right down to the concrete. The Village of Alexander heard about it and they sent their highway guy over here to check it out. Residents just love it.” Mike said. “It’s not just the lack of icy spots that they love, but because most residents don’t edge their sidewalks or their driveways, using the plow alone can badly nick and carve up their lawns. The brooming operation makes everything look just fine and we’ve eliminated the lawn damage and the complaints that went with it.”

Life in the Transfer Station

The 16-by-80-ft. recycling center and transfer station behind the highway garage is another busy place where two employees keep track of residents’ recycling efforts.

“We have recycling for glass, tin cans, cardboard and plastic. The paper goes to the Wyoming Correctional Facility. They shred it and sell it for bedding to farmers. When the facility had a working farm [until the Paterson administration cut it out of the state budget] they used it themselves on the farm,” Mike said. “We have an open top container for items that cannot be recycled, like couches. There is some money for metal and tin cans, but I don’t see that end of the operation.”

Once a month from April to October the village does brush pick up. The resulting chips are used by the sewer plant for composting.

Big Changes on the Horizon

Although shopping malls near the village have almost removed the commercial business from the village’s historic downtown area, Mike said there is a lot of work going on to improve the village’s infrastructure and is hopeful the downtown will experience an upswing as a result.

Development of a new pump station and new water tank started in the fall and will resume this spring.

Because the state is about to rehabilitate the major thoroughfares of Rt. 98, 238 and Main Street, the village obtained a $1.6 million loan to have a new water system installed before road work begins. Mike said that the gas company already has upgraded all its gas lines in the project area.

Sergi Construction won the bid for the water line work on 10,500 ft. of water main.

Mike said, “This project was supposed to be done in 1998. DOT already has over a million dollars in engineering fees and studies. Basically they will do a mill and fill on the roads and put in new storm drains. It is estimated to be an 18-month-long project, and we are looking forward to it.”

Sharing the Joy

Mike thoroughly enjoys his shared services experiences.

“We’ve got a new superintendent in the town and another new one nearby. We do a lot of favors for each other now, and it didn’t used to be that way.”

For example, one town loans him a skid steer with a milling head and stump grinder to use. In turn he may loan them the village’s street sweeper and help them unplug water lines with their “jetter.”

“Between us and the county, before this, we had no relationship and now we do. We all save money and get the work done a lot more quickly.”

The towns of Bennington and Sheldon are often in on these efforts as well. For example Mike explained, “We don’t have a truck that is suitable to haul blacktop, but they do. And they may ask us when they need help with a flagman, or to use our sweeper and jetter. It works out great.”

Nothing Lovelier Than a Tree

Searching for ways to save the village money also was at the root of Mike’s interest in the local energy provider’s program called 10,000 Trees. In short, any village tree needing replacement that is growing under a power line will be reimbursed for $50, which is about half of the cost of a new tree. Generally speaking they replace about 10 trees a year.

“This was a free program, so it saves the village money,” he said.

Residents are very concerned about the removal of any trees in the historic town.

“The 10,000 Tree people want a map of every tree they help replace,” he said.

Newer varieties include Malus spring snow, cherry, pin oak and linden.

Doing More With Less

Many small villages have a superintendent who is backed by a once-a-week clerical worker. Mike has something better — a volunteer — his wife Janet. He’s a guy with a working knowledge of computers, but he is in awe of his wife’s abilities and speed on the keyboard. Janet works for the Attica prison’s captain as a secretary, after many years of doing clerical work for the village police, augmented by part-time work as the village judge’s clerk.

Showing off his pristine filing system where all the folders have clearly typed identification he said, “Officially I have no clerical, but she is so fast. She just loves that computer, and I really appreciate the help.”

The couple was married at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas—a city they still visit once a year in summer. Their son Riley was born on Sept. 11, 2001, almost at the same time as the attacks on the World Trade Center. Riley’s interests are many, and his dad calls him “a great kid.”

Winter visits to Florida include checking in with Janet’s folks. Mike said that the irony of his father, the former superintendent in Batavia, is that as soon as his parents moved to the relatively mild climate enjoyed in the Brownsville region in Texas, they began to get big snows.

Remembering Attica

Why do people remember the riot in Attica prison in 1971 so well? Because the riot occurred in part due to prisoners’ demands for better living conditions, where one roll of toilet paper a month and one shower per week were examples of the way prisoners were treated.

Approximately 1,000 prisoners rioted and seized control of the prison, taking 33 correction officers hostage. During the following four days of negotiations, authorities agreed to 28 of the prisoners’ demands. Under order of then Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, state police took back control of the prison. By the time the facility was retaken, nearly 40 people were killed, including hostages, inmates and correction officers, civilian employees and prisoners who were not resisting—many of whom were killed by their would-be rescuers.

The New York State Special Commission on Attica wrote, “With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”

Inmates and families of inmates killed in the prison riot sued the State of New York for civil rights violations. After 27 years in the courts, in 2000, the state agreed to settle the case. The state recognized the families of the slain prison employees in the autumn of 2004 with a $12 million financial settlement.

The aftermath of the riot called for prison reform, especially in the treatment of minority inmates.

In addition to the historical significance of riot, references to Attica also appear frequently in popular culture. Al Pacino’s character in the movie Dog Day Afternoon starts a chant of “Attica! Attica!” evoking an image of the police force used in response to the Attica riot.

In the 1977 movie, Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta’s character repeats Pacino’s attention-getting “Attica! Attica!” line. Several TV movies have used the infamous prison riot for a plot line. And popular songs by John Lennon, Paul Simon and Tom Paxton, as well as several jazz tunes (including “Attica Blues,” an album by jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp) reference the incident.

In an ironic turn, Mark David Chapman, the man who shot and killed John Lennon, is serving time in Attica prison.

A Brief History of the Village of Attica

Named for a region in Greece, the Village of Attica is on the northern border of Wyoming County. The northern part of the village is within the adjacent town of Alexander in Genesee County.

The first landowner, Zerah Phelps, arrived in 1802. Phelps also established the first business, a gristmill. By 1810 the settlement grew to become a town, but malaria and plague drove the early pioneers to higher ground.

The population grew during the War of 1812 when many people arrived fleeing the strife-ridden area around Buffalo. In 1837 the settlement was incorporated as the Village of Attica.

One early entrepreneur who brought fame to Attica was Dr. Davis, who in 1854 established a well-known health institute. Another leader was Eugene Norton who in 1883 created a cheese factory that became known as The Pineapple Cheese Factory. In 1918 the molds and patents were sold to the Kraft Cheese Company.

Another important influence from Attica on the rest of North America came in 1880 when Frederick C. Stevens imported Holstein Friesian cattle from Holland to his 1,000 acre spread known as Maplewood Farm. Almost all Holsteins in North America today can be tracked back to the Maplewood enterprise.

But the village’s largest employer came to town in March 1929 when 700 acres were acquired for the construction of the Attica Correctional Facility. The first inmates were transferred just two years later. Attica is a maximum security prison. Wyoming Correctional, which stands in Attica’s shadow, is for prisoners under less restrictive conditions. Work in corrections continues to influence nearly every family in town.

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