Highway Superintendent Thomas Best and the Town of Hamburg

Laurie Mercer

You can talk about the condition of the roads (which is excellent by the way) all you want to with Tom Best, the town’s highway superintendent, but don’t even hint that the hamburger probably wasn’t invented there. He won’t hear of it.

He readily admits to his tendency towards out-of-the-box-thinking. “I am very different. You can put that in there.”

The crew here also does a great job at keeping citizens involved and informed by using the Internet. Concerns about which roads are about to be paved or brush pick up schedules are easily addressed, which saves telephone time. It’s all about doing a better job with improved efficiency and purpose.

Hamburg has 61 full-time employees and as many as 50 part-time people for both its highway and building and grounds operations. There is little overlap except for an occasional borrowed piece of equipment.

Before coming to the highway garage Tom said he had no idea what it cost to pave a road. The town has 305 lane miles; all but one is paved. The total operating budget for both departments is $8 million. The CHIPS allocation this year was $214,000.

“We’ve done approximately eight miles of asphalt roads this year. We do some overlays. Normally we mill it right down,” he said. “We used our CHIPS money; $100,000 came from a federal grant, and the rest from the town.

“I am the overseer and the budget man. I control the purse strings,” said Tom, who has a certain air of authority about him that probably comes from many years in law enforcement (He is a former chief of detectives with 32 years serving law enforcement.)

A Highway Superintendent and a Concerned Citizen

He is not always a happy camper. One of the largest real estate holdings in town — the Fairgrounds — hosts a racetrack, casino, restaurant, party house, several homes and a trailer park, all clearly to make a profit, and yet none of them has ever paid property taxes to the town since the inception of the Hamburg Fairgrounds as an agricultural center in the mid-1850s. So Tom is writing a letter to Gov. Cuomo about it because “every piece of property over there pays no taxes.”

“When I was a town councilman, I petitioned every congressman, every senator. I took it to Albany. It got to the floor and was shot down. It’s a business, not a non profit.”

His solution, he said, could be something goofy — like barring the entrance to the 10-day-long Hamburg Fair with 14 snowplows and then swallowing the keys.

This suburb of Buffalo, once a hub in automobile manufacturing, has 57,000 residents. Ford Motor, once a principal employer, still has a stamping plant in Hamburg and is, in fact, currently hiring 600 new employees.

This town of roughly 50 square miles commands an area larger than Buffalo, approximately 6 miles away. The town roads see a lot of use.

“Routes 5 and 20 and the Thruway run through town,” said Tom. “Even though we don’t take care of them, those major arteries do affect the traffic in town.”

Hamburg also is on the route of the national effort called Scenic Highways.

What Hamburg has as a town, besides 200 years of history celebrated throughout this year, is a virtual country club of town-owned and run facilities for people of all ages to enjoy, including an Olympic-size ice rink; nine miles of sandy beaches in two locations on Lake Erie; several pavilions that can be rented; a new dog park; an 18-hole golf course; 30 parks and playgrounds; several landmark properties including an old red schoolhouse, a log cabin, and two libraries; a BMX track; playing fields for softball and soccer; and more.

It would be hard to come up with another town of its size with as many things for people to enjoy the outdoors, including organized sports. The grounds and highways are both Tom’s responsibilities. They are run completely separately, although they may share heavy equipment from time to time. The town is attractive because his department is very proactive about making the community look good, he said.

Only one of the town’s roads is oil and gravel. Even this road, which runs adjacent to a small airport and has only four homes on it, represents customer service on the part of the highway crew. Following a resurfacing operation, residents immediately complained about loose stone. The crew came back quickly and vacuumed it up.

“People just don’t put up with stones,” Tom said. “We had to take them off the top due to complaints.”

Small problems like this one can create great expense. He pointed to a neighboring town that recently took an $83,000 loss when the superintendent tried to save some money by using oil and stone to treat a road. The town board made them go back and tear the whole thing up. Tom concluded sympathetically, “He tried to save some money, and it didn’t work.”

Tom estimated that it costs approximately $1 million to thoroughly upgrade and resurface one mile of road.

He said, “I’d like to get all of the roads paved in my tenure, but that’s impossible because I am not going to be here another 20 years.

“This year we had a fortunate situation. We had $100,000 over our budget. We had CHIPS money, and I obtained $100,000 from a federal grant for highway improvement that had to be dedicated to low-income areas. So, even though it is mid-September, we are still paving when we are usually done by now.”

A Town That’s Like a Country Club

Not many highway supervisors have two beaches (Lake Erie), an admirable 18-hole golf course, an Olympic-size ice skating rink, outdoor ball fields for virtually every sport, and, the latest deal — a dog park with separate fenced in areas for small and larger sized canines. Tom also has successfully used the skills of low-risk prison labor to get even more bang for the public’s tax-paying buck while creating productivity for an idle population. Carefully assigning these non-violent workers from a nearby Shock Camp to clear brush in areas that blocked the motorists’ view of Lake Erie, Tom was clearly pleased with the results. He also received at least one letter from a woman objecting to the use of prisoners, even though the work was done when the park was closed to the public at the time and discipline is very strict.

“Sometimes,” he said with a sigh, “people amaze me.”

Tom is a man who routinely acknowledges his staff’s performance with lunches he pays for himself. He also made sure that the prisoners were fed lunch from a snack bar usually closed for the season. He hosts a barbecue for his staff and crew once a year.

No surprise that Tom and his associate, Linda Rogers, marketing/public relations consultant for Hamburg, have sponsor’s plaques on the fence at the newly built dog park, which was created without taxpayer expense. Sponsor signs are hung at many town activities and on all of the various playing fields. In this community, it’s the thing to do and for all the right reasons.

For example, the new dog park with separate fenced in areas based on the dog’s size is named for a nice beagle who once belonged to a troubled young man who passed away too soon. Honoring the young man’s best four-legged friend, they call the park Rootie’s Run. Soon a Boy Scout troop will be building some shelter areas for shade while working toward their merit badges.

Aided by sponsorships and advertising, Hamburg is well used by its residents and appears to be a great place to live a healthy lifestyle, within a convenient commute to a better-than-average paying job in nearby Buffalo.

Hamburg is a town with two villages — Hamburg and Blasdell — within its boundaries. While Hamburg encompasses lots of farmland, the number of building permits is rising. Another new subdivision just opened causing Tom to comment, “We get more roads but not more employees.”

From Law Enforcement to

Road Work

The highway superintendent’s job in Hamburg came to Tom in a most unusual way. His entire career path begins and ends in Hamburg.

“I was born and raised in Buffalo,” he said. “At age 21, I had married, had one baby and another one on the way, and so I applied for a police job in the village of Blasdell. He said he left a more lucrative position at the Chevrolet plant in Tonawanda because of the added job security police work offered and a desire to help the public. He remembered his starting salary in l967 as a patrolman as $5,200, annually.

In time, Tom continually rose in rank from patrolman to lieutenant, to chief of detectives, to captain. At this point in 2001 the trauma of the job, including seeing a baby who had been shot in the head by its father, was beginning to get to him. He thought he was going to retire, but like a lot of folks he found out he didn’t have the retirement genes in him just yet.

“I thought I was going to retire. I stayed home about a month. I couldn’t stand it.”

What followed next were two-part time jobs.

“I worked as security director at McKinley Mall and chief of police in Blasdell.”

While at the mall he contemplated a new career path in politics, and he was elected to councilman on the town board. He said he ran for that position while holding his two part-time jobs but soon found out that he was not truly enthusiastic about politics. Like a lot of things about Tom, his election may have been a little over the top compared to other council members. He said simply, “If I want something I go after it.”

Linda Rogers, a facilitator on many town projects, pointed to Tom’s energy to go door-to-door, give campaign talks, distribute literature. He even had billboards. No surprise; he received the largest number of votes.

He said, while reflecting on that time noted in his lengthy resume, “I quit my part-time positions and went on the town council at $18,000 annually. I did that for 2 1/2 years.

“While I was councilman, our former highway superintendent left office unexpectedly, which created a vacancy.”

So he chose to fill the remaining year and a half in the highway barn in a position he knew very little about, but he knew the people. He said that even though he once drove police cars at 120 miles per hour, his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the State University at Buffalo does not make him more comfortable in the cab of a Peterbilt. He is still a little bit in awe of what powerful pieces of equipment these are. What he brings to the job is people skills and modern managerial know-how. He said the members of the Erie County Association of Highway Superintendents were key to showing him the ropes.

He started the job by immediately making his office over into a modern working environment by tearing out an old kitchen, removing a wall, adding a freshwater fish tank (a gift from his co-workers at McKinley Mall), a nice conference area, and enough memorabilia to still let you know that, while you are in a highway/building-and-grounds superintendent’s office, he is also the proud grandfather of seven.

“I bought the fish, the fireplace and the second hand furniture,” he was quick to point out. The rumor mill, he was happy to report, said he had added a Jacuzzi.

He described Hamburg as very diversified town with many hardworking people living in homes ranging from low income to $6 million — the highest amount ever paid for a place in town. No surprise that homes along the Lake Erie shore heavily support much of the rest of the tax base.

“Hamburg is very well run,” he said. “Steve Walters, our supervisor, has a keen understanding about the town and the highways. We’ve seen no tax increases in the past eight years.

“I found I enjoyed the work,” he said. “I enjoy the people. It is still public service, which I have done my entire life, so I decided to run for another four-year term. I ran unopposed so it wasn’t a hard campaign at all!”

He described himself as the “inside” man while his deputy runs the operations.

He said he let his staff know where he stood the very first day he came on board when he told them he only expected them to perform eight full hours for eight hours of pay.

So does highway work benefit from a background in police work?

“It’s all about public service,” he said. “I really don’t know anything else. You are dealing with people all of the time.”

Then he jokes that he now receives more complaints about the roads than he did about criminal activity when he was a police officer.

Tom and his wife of 46 years, Barbara, have four children — including a police officer, a registered nurse, and two x-ray technicians.

“Every one of my children lives within 15 miles of our home,” he said of his close-knit family. If he did retire, Tom plans on spending more time with his grandchildren, who just keep on arriving.

He likes to golf, but when questioned about his score, he pretends not to hear you. As the oldest member of the Erie County Highway Superintendent’s Association, he admitted that nine holes is enough exercise for now, not 18.

His staff takes care of mowing, fertilizing, insect control, brush trimming, hole cutting, flag planting, beautification, tree planting and pruning, and the condition of the golf cart pathways.

He said the greens are in better condition than some of the private courses nearby. Running a golf course is part of the town’s ability to support an enterprise account, which means it is self-sufficient. None of the town monies go toward paying for the golf course.

Tom even planted a new row of trees to help contain any errant golf balls that might be lobbed into the nearby highway. He said the existing plastic netting installed to do the same thing is just not attractive.

Tom said he is backed up by the best, long-term deputy in the history of this well-run department — Rick Krautsack — of whom he said, “understands everything.” The entire crew has been on the job longer than Tom so he has learned from them.

Rick has been with the department for 34 years. His father also worked there, joining after Rick did. When asked what has changed in the condition of the roads during that time he said, “The number of roads. When I started they had only two subdivisions. Since then so many have come in.”

Also the number of dead ends has decreased, which is a blessing to the driver who has to turn around in narrow driveways and avoid the mailboxes. Hamburg has a high number of new building permits, so maybe the economy is turning around.

Tom is quick to point out that Hamburg is one of the only municipalities in Erie County that will replace your mailbox if it is destroyed by town equipment. The crew makes mailboxes during the winter, but Tom said no to one man who insisted his stone-surrounded mailbox was worth $3,000 to $4,000.

“When I first took over I thought we’d pay $75 to replace a mailbox, but then I saw that we knocked down 300 to 400 each year, so we put up a standard mailbox and build them here during the winter.”

“There is more to this job, Tom said, “than paving roads. Before I got here I had no idea how much it costs to pave roads. Or to take care of the parks.”

His budget of $8 million is evenly split between highway and grounds. Both operations are unionized, so that the budget for pay raises increases every year and yet, he said, “I have never gone over budget on any of my line items.” This year he has a surplus in his salt fund because of the mild conditions last year.

The town uses straight salt and stores 1,300 tons at the barn plus 2 tons off site to save trucking salt to the roads in Blasdell. He thinks they will be in the market for a new salt barn soon.

The Winter of 1977

There are big storms that lodge in the town’s consciousness. In Hamburg the winter of 1977 is one such event. Located just one mile from Lake Erie, the town took a pounding so hard that Tom remembered climbing onto a forklift to clear a traffic signal from a snowdrift. Then a police officer, Tom said they also found three people who had died in their cars. The average snowfall is about 90 inches.

There framed on the wall of his newly redecorated office is a Buffalo newspaper’s front page coverage of the event.

Big snow is occasional, but drainage is an ongoing problem.

“There are a lot of ditches in front of houses, and sometimes they plug up. That’s a daily thing for Rick to stay on top of.”

When a Tree Falls on Town Property

“One of our concerns in Hamburg is trees. Many are mature, and any that fall on the highway are our problem; anything that falls in a playground; on the hundreds of acres of building and grounds that we maintain, and so forth. I have a line item in the budget for tree removal, which gets larger every year because the trees are getting older too.”

He said a full-time arborist makes the call on which trees need to come down before they fall down due to natural consequences. Tom has also received grant money to replant trees and has re-applied this year for more funds.

“With all of the parks and playgrounds and athletic areas here, we are constantly buying trees.”

The Town of Hamburg

The town of Hamburg has had its own private beach and boat launch on Lake Erie for many years — restricted to residents only. One must a special sticker to get in there.

Then just about two years ago the state granted the town Woodlawn State Park with one mile of beach along the water, a nicely built indoor pavilion that can be rented, and outdoor amenities.

“They weren’t maintaining the state park, which is time consuming,” Tom said. He insisted on getting a $50,000 sand raking machine to maintain daily grooming. He said he hires all the park employees with the exception of life guards, and he tries to keep the expense down by using part-time labor whenever possible. In its second year of operation by the town the Woodlawn Beach State Park brought in $260,000 due to the fee of $7 per car and many scheduled events in the pavilion.

The Hamburg rink has just been painted white and is ready to be used. Being located near Buffalo, a city known for its ice hockey hysteria, this Olympic-size rink also holds indoor activities in summer. The ice rink is next door to the highway facility, surrounded by soccer fields, a baseball diamond, and a sports complex complete with BMX trails.

Oddly enough, the entire highway garage, office and sports complex is perched on a former Nike missile site. A few military-type reminders are still around, including the drab kind of architecture in the circa 1950s highway headquarters and garage, which was originally an army barracks. Somehow the painted snowplow representing the highway department and the building and grounds department, surrounded by marigolds on the front lawn makes, a more welcoming statement. Both plow and marigolds were Tom’s ideas.

“When discussing the Rootie’s Run dog park, Tom said, “We are the first community in Erie County to do so. I didn’t realize how big a deal dogs are to people today. Any time of day you will see people there.”

Paid for entirely by sponsorships, the park also has a money box for donations that is emptied daily. Use of the dog park is free. An attractive, decommissioned fire hydrant provides an attractive centerpiece.

He explained how it happened. “A friend called and said ‘why not put in a dog park? The City of Buffalo has one.’ We started a campaign to see if we could get funds to help out. Building and grounds did an enormous amount of work on the site.” He said months of investigation for the best place for the park preceded everything. “We looked all over,” he said. “We had plenty of land to consider.”

With all of the activity in the town, available open space has become prime real estate. The town donated the land to the dog park. For $150 sponsors get their colorful faces on the fence. Tom still marvels at how quickly the community enthusiastically backed the idea that began with a simple, well-meaning phone call from a friend.

Along the line of adopting public projects, Tom also instituted “Adopt a Playground,” where private individuals, groups, or families can take it upon themselves to make a public space cleaner and more appealing for public use.

“That idea is taking off as well. In one playground a shelter was painted by volunteers. We supplied the paint. We give them whatever they need in terms of tools.”

Probably few people in town noticed, but new town equipment is painted in a darker shade of green. Tom said the previous town color, lime green, shows rust. He also likes to build the equipment roster, including a plan to buy one new snowplow every year.

“We take one to the auction house whenever we buy a new one, so eventually we will be on a ten-year cycle.” He said the impetus for this idea came several years ago when the town got caught in a bind with immediate heavy equipment needs resulting in floating a $1 million bond to get a new snowplow.

The snowplow fleet numbers a dozen with two to three backup plows as needed.

“Our oldest truck is a 2004. The newest one is a 2010 Peterbilt. All the trucks now are Peterbilt. They seem to be getting the low bid for us. We are going out to get bids on a new one this year. It will be interesting to see if they come in at low bid again. I hope they do because of the standardization issues.”

When Tom first took the job it bothered him that valuable equipment was forced to stay outdoors all year long because of a lack of space. Plans to extend the existing building, which would accomplish this task, had been on the books for about 18 years by then. Tom found in the Highway Code a section of the law that addresses the need for indoor storage.

The nudge directed at the town board resulted in a new extension to the existing garage that, at 100 x 160 feet, doubled their inside storage. He calls this major improvement probably his “number one accomplishment.”

Many highway superintendents come from agricultural backgrounds, but Tom does not. He said, “I came into this job very open minded. I love the challenges. I do think we have the best highway and building and grounds departments in Erie County. We also do most of our own repairs with two great mechanics on staff. We are also big on training, including safety issues.”

Tom said he is committed to initiatives to save money while moving forward to become an even more productive department. He said progress requires advanced training. For example, the town has always out-sourced traffic light maintenance. While the 14 signal lights in town are not a big investment in the overall line items, Tom knows that at $400 to $500 per maintenance call, he can beat the budget by using his own multi-talented people. He sent one mechanic to another town to work with their signal department for three months.

He said on-site training in topics as varied as flagging to tips on heavy lifting come from a menu of 50 different, critical, job-related areas.

“I made a comment the first day on the job that I will send you to training if it is relevant to your job.” One woman went to landscaping/horticulture school while another person trained in pesticides. “I said it’s not up to Tom Best to find a school for you. It’s up to you to tell me what you want to do and how it relates to your career here.”

In a now typical positive response to a potentially negative issue, Tom created a program to deal with hearing-related issues in the workplace, including annual hearing tests for all employees.

“We had two people who retired and put in for claims for loss of hearing, so we invited OSHA to come in and do the testing on employees and equipment right here.”

He is pretty sure the numbers are up on the number of ear plugs they hand out so employees must be listening.

Tom is a firm believer in always working to improve morale and reward excellence. For example, when the workers sealed the parking lot in the ice rink they managed to save enough material to do a secondary parking lot for the new dog park. Tom noticed. The crew of six had their lunch dropped off one day, courtesy of Tom. The annual Chicken barbecue for his employees is at his own expense. For him there is a free lunch; he knows it all matters because a person’s attitude while on the job is everything.

His one regret is the idea of giving a $20 Lotto ticket to each employee on his and her birthdays. When nobody won anything, the PR value of the idea took a dive as well.

“One guy won $20, and I didn’t even get a thank you card,” he joked. “So I ended it.

“To me morale and loyalty are the two forces that create camaraderie in the workface. Those are the two biggest things you can have.”

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