You can tell a lot about a person by their work area. Take town of Ghent Highway Superintendent Mike Losa, for instance. Although he exhibits a pensive demeanor as he is quizzed about his background and his role as highway superintendent, his surroundings show a lighter side.
Hanging behind his desk is a sign that reads, “It is what it is.” Another claims, “You can’t fix stupid.” Positioned atop a bookshelf is Mike’s 250-plus model truck collection. Soon it becomes obvious that Mike doesn’t take life — or himself — too seriously. When it comes to his work, however, it’s a different story.
A lifelong resident of Ghent, Mike and his brother grew up on their adoptive parents’ chicken farm during the 1960s.
“We had 10,000 chickens, which were considered a lot back then. The farm came first with my dad. I was never allowed to play sports. When school was out, you got home and got working,” he recalled. “My favorite part was working in the field and driving the tractor. I enjoyed being outside. I still do.”
Following his graduation from Cobleskill College’s animal husbandry program Mike was offered a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“During my interview I asked what I would be doing. I was told I’d be spending 80 percent of my time in the office and the rest out in the field. I said, ‘Have a nice day.’ I’m not an indoor person and I knew I wouldn’t be happy.”
That’s when he decided to hit the road.
“I drove a tractor trailer throughout the eastern states for 24 years. I worked for Mobil Oil out of the Port of Albany and hauled cement out of the plants in Hudson before starting my own dump truck business — M. Losa Trucking — in 1986.”
So how did he end up behind the super’s desk?
“Eddie Gibbons was getting ready to retire after 21 years and he encouraged me to run for the job. He felt my previous experience with the material used in rebuilding and maintaining roads would make me a good fit. I was hesitant at first, but the more I thought about it and talked to the guys here and some contractors, I decided to do it. Betsy, my significant other, wasn’t sure I should give up my trucking business, but I knew she would be supportive no matter what my decision. After I was on the job a short time, Betsy knew I had made the right choice. She felt I had the passion to do the job in a way that would make a better highway department for the town.
“Now, here I am in my 10th year. I have two years left in my current four-year term. I don’t know what’s going to happen after that. I just turned 69. I’ll finish my term, but I’m not sure if I’ll run again. I’ll see how I feel then. Right now I feel good and enjoy what I do. I’m healthy and I get out and work every day.”
The proud father of Michael Jr. and Ellen, Mike is a member of the Columbia County Highway Superintendents Association and the Columbia County Highway Safety Board. He has been a member of the Ghent Volunteer Fire Company for 47 years.
“I served four terms as chief and worked my way up to lieutenant and captain. I also served as president for one year and was on the board of directors several times. I’m not 100 percent active anymore because when you turn 65 the doctor won’t give you the physical OK for interior firefighting.”
In his spare time, Mike enjoys ice fishing and hunting. In recent years, he discovered he had a green thumb.
“I started growing garlic in 2007. I find it to be a lot of fun. This year I put in 325 plants.”
As for retirement Mike says, “I don’t want to sit home and look out the window. That’s why I haven’t retired. I like what I’m doing so as long as I feel good I’d just as soon be working.”
When he finally does hang up his hat Mike wants to be remembered “for doing a great job, that whatever I did looked good when it was finished and that I didn’t waste money. Whatever was spent was used to make improvements on and off the roads, in the complex or the parks.”
They say behind every successful man is a great woman. For Mike Losa that woman is Betsy Kneller and she is eager to speak about her man and his love for the town.
“Mike takes his job seriously. He always tries to keep everybody happy but as the saying goes, ‘You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.’ He certainly has received many compliments, which, in my opinion, sum up the kind of job he’s been doing. As with many jobs, a snowstorm on Christmas or wind and rain storms on holidays are probably the most negative part of this position. Mike is always grateful for the great guys he has working for him. That is worth so much when you are working 24 hours or more in a storm or crisis situation. In spite of the many exhausting days and nights he puts in he really loves his job and takes great pride in what the highway department has accomplished for the town of Ghent.”
About the Job
As the highway department’s “top dog,” Mike is responsible for maintaining the town’s 149 lane miles of road; 10 of which are gravel and the rest are paved or stone and oil. That translates into eight plowing routes that take about three to four hours to complete.
An eight-man crew helps Mike serve the town’s 5,402 residents. His staff includes Foreman and Heavy Equipment Operator Bill Ordway, Senior Mechanic Ben Perry, Mechanic and MEO Frank Pflegl, Heavy Equipment Operator Bob McComb and MEOs Peter Everett, Mike Radley, Vince Gerber and George Pulver.
“In the winter, we also employ six part-timers for wingmen on our plow routes and two during the summer to serve as flagmen when we are paving or chip sealing. Most are retired and enjoy helping us out.”
The highway department also is responsible for the town’s four bridges. Over the past year, two of those bridges received facelifts.
“We tore down a little one-lane bridge, installed new culverts and made a two-lane road at the sit. The road was constantly getting washed out so we moved the creek back a bit and put stone down. After Hurricane Irene, we also put in a box culvert on the Orchard Road Bridge. That was a tough job because there wasn’t a bottom, which made it difficult to get a base for the culvert to sit on. There’s a culvert several hundred feet away from the arch where the water comes off the hill. The place where it’s supposed to pass through gets plugged and it goes underneath the 30-foot high railroad bed. It’s all a result of the flooding. The water comes down and washes out the road. About two feet of the base of the road was ripped out. The water was about three feet up on the arch when it went through. It was a nightmare.”
The town doesn’t have a “cast in stone” number of road miles to pave each year.
“We don’t really know what we’re going to do with the roads until the spring when we see how much damage the winter has caused. Since I’ve been here our annual goal has been to eliminate one dirt road by hard topping it with stone and oil. There are less than 10 miles of dirt road left.”
The town of Ghent’s highway department runs on a total operating budget of $998,150 that includes salaries, employee benefits and an annual CHIPS allocation of $140,000.
When it comes to purchasing new equipment, the town of Ghent depends on its preventative maintenance program to be a step above normal. Money is put into reserves every year, regardless of whether a new truck is needed.
“It is critical that we are on top of our equipment so when we need it, it’s ready to go to work,” Mike said. “With over 40 pieces on hand it takes a lot of time to make sure everything is operational. We go as far as checking over every vehicle annually in an effort to prevent unnecessary breakdowns. We are always trying different things to keep our equipment in the best working shape possible. The new shop and mechanic allow us to do more work in-house. Now we are only limited by electrical computer problems.
“Our maintenance has been brought to a new level. We can proudly say that over the past several years during the winter storms, there were only two occasions where we weren’t able to get our machines back out on the road within hours of calling our mechanic in off his route. Taking the extra time to perform the necessary preventative maintenance has truly paid off for the town. All our equipment — even the 1991 trucks — are up-to-date regarding safety regulations and ready to be put in service at a moment’s notice.”
While Mike agrees that today’s vehicles are better made, he doesn’t care much for many of the new models.
“They’re too complicated. Everything is computerized and there are a million things that can go wrong that the average mechanic can’t fix or doesn’t know how to fix and it’s getting worse.”
Looking back, the most memorable — and rewarding — part of the job thus far for Mike was seeing the new highway garage come to fruition.
“My guys did all the work. We tore down the three old garages in 2009 and got the site ready by doing all the excavation work and digging the footings. The facility has five bays that measure 25 feet wide by 80 feet long. There also is an office area and the drivers’ room [which is the same size], complete with kitchen. Knowing everything was going to be torn down, we bought an old mobile home from the county fairgrounds for $100 and used it as an office while the garage was being built.”
The shop bay also houses a 275-gallon bulk motor oil tank, a 275-gallon hydraulic oil tank, a 50-ton press and a hydraulic hose machine. The second building — also built in 2010 — is a pole-type structure that holds fuel for all the department’s trucks, a 2,000-gallon diesel tank and a 1,000-gallon gas tank. A third building — built in 1994 — measures 70 feet by 25 feet; has five 25 feet by 14 feet unheated bays; and is used to store trucks and equipment.
“At one point they were talking about a $1.4 million price tag and we did it for close to $900,000. That gave all of us a great sense of accomplishment. Residents were impressed with the cost savings and we were heroes to the town supervisor and the board.”
The highway department shares its salt shed with the county.
“Fifty-five percent of the building is ours,” said Mike. “We have a lean-to on our side and the county has one on theirs for outside storage. The shed is an outpost for the county. It holds 3,500 tons of salt/sand mix and another 500 tons of salt in the town’s section.
One of Mike’s favorite things is spending time out on the road working with his crew.
“That is the best way to stay in touch with the residents. They see us making improvements, so they believe the town has a great highway department. Most of them tell me I don’t have to go door to door at election time because they see me every day and know what kind of job we do.”
Is there a downside?
“Paperwork, especially when it involves FEMA and SEMO. You can spend hours and hours putting it all together. I don’t have a secretary so that means I have to come in on the weekends to catch up. I would rather be out on the road with the guys than be in the office during the week when we’re trying to accomplish things.”
About the Town
The town of Ghent occupies a central position among the towns of Columbia County. It was erected from Kinderhook, Chatham and Claverack on April 3, 1818, and received its name from Ghent in Holland. Before this division, the territory comprised within its bounds was known locally as Squampamock and Kline Kill. The town has an irregular shape and was reduced to its present area — 27,649 acres — in 1833, when a part of Stockport was taken from its western border.
The surface is somewhat hilly in the east but becomes pleasantly undulating toward the west with long belts of level land intervening. The largest of these are the Squampamock flats along Claverack Creek. It is said that a portion of these lands were cultivated by the natives and that several Native American orchards were found in this locality by the early settlers. The soil in Ghent is gravelly loam, except in the western part, where it is clay.
Along the water courses is some alluvial land. The whole generally is productive and the town holds a prominent position on account of its agricultural resources. The Kline Kill is the principal stream, which enters the town from the east, near the northeast corner and after flowing southwest several miles turns abruptly toward the northwest, passing out between Kinderhook and Chatham. Claverack Creek has a generally southerly course, east of the center of the town. In the western part there is a brook of considerable size that empties into the Claverack at Stockport. The former has high, rocky banks in the eastern part of the town, affording limited water power, which is well utilized.
The western part of the town was covered by the Kinderhook and other patents of that town. East of these extended the lands of the proprietor of Claverack, whose claims were generally respected.