Highway Superintendent David Gunner and the Town of Aurora

Laurie Mercer

Not every highway superintendent gets involved in a media bash in the Buffalo newspapers because he oiled and stoned the 1.5-mile boulevard in Crestwood, home of many Buffalo Bills (the real ones, not the fans). Crestwood is probably the most prestigious community in the Buffalo area. Several Buffalo Bills live in Crestwood, including the ever-popular Jim Kelly.

David Gunner, highway superintendent, town of Aurora, for the past five years was fairly new on the job when all hell broke loose in the media after he oiled and chipped the road.

“Crestwood is probably the most taxable property in all of Erie County,” said Dave, who has been a guest at Kelly’s home and has an autographed photograph of them both on his office wall. “They are very nice people, with Bentleys and Ferraris and chauffeur-driven automobiles. Their cars are worth more than my house.”

But the Crestwood residents complained that they didn’t like the squiggly lines in the pavement. “It was the cracked seal on the road,” Dave said. “There was nothing wrong with the road itself. They kept complaining.”

The department’s total budget is $1.9 million, with $52,000 coming from CHIPS.

Dave handles 60 lane miles and 50 more miles of plowing and mowing for Erie County. The town has the enviable position of being the epicenter of a design movement as strong today as when it took off around 1895. Called the arts and crafts movement. The style, originating in England, quickly gained in popularity here after founder Elbert Hubbard visited William Morris, who became his mentor, while in England. East Aurora became the Mecca to the movement. Roycroft was founded by the mercurial presence of Hubbard, a marketing genius, spiritual seeker, and writer who gained worldwide fame. The objects made in the arts and crafts style continue to please people.

Roycroft furniture, accessories, books, jewelry, ceramics, and printed materials continue as collectable antiques, even after the first items were struck in leather, metal, paper, ink, paint, clay, and wood more than a century ago. Due to restrictive zoning, even the Mobil station is somewhat arts and crafts in spirit. This may be a first for them. The idea of having a Wal-Mart come to town was defeated; the former Pizza Hut (now defunct) was the only one in the country with brown roof, rather than its corporate red. Dave said franchises traditionally don’t do well here, while locally owned businesses thrive and prosper, often passing from one generation to the next.

The town outlawed drive-through fast food restaurants rather than create traffic disruptions. East Aurora has parlayed the arts and crafts movement into an incredible, prosperous brand for people who still love style. Even the trash barrels here are inspired by arts and crafts. All signs are in the arts and crafts style, too.

Elbert Hubbard built the Roycroft Inn to shelter followers and trend seekers. You can still stay there today. The inn is now operated as a nonprofit with a for-profit restaurant. The Roycroft campus includes the inn, chapel, print shop, blacksmith and copper shop, power house, foundry, guest house, furniture shop and bindery, table and laundry and the Appian Way — a brisk walkway through the entire campus channeling the original Appian Way, which connected Rome to the rest of the Italian peninsula.

As his mentor did, Hubbard created a community of like-minded people with creative spirits. History is beautifully displayed here; the campus is a National Historic Landmark. You can still watch craftspeople doing their thing, even on the original Royroft letterpress that Hubbard used for his printed materials — all of which brought him wealth and influence. But rather than books, the printer was making coasters. As Roycroft founder Elbert Hubbard liked to say, “East Aurora is not a place but a state of mind.”

Visitors by the busload come throughout summer and fall, while skiers headed for nearby Kissing Bridge keep the winters warmer. Within one square mile there are at least 25 places where the food and ambience are highly recommended.

In the early 1960s, the Buffalo Bills actually rented the entire Roycroft Inn for training camp and played on the polo fields at the Knox mansion and farm. Aurora’s connection to the Bills team runs very deep here; the team is revered. David’s aunt married a Bill. Former Bills often become local schoolteachers and businessmen. Anyway, the dozen homes on Crestwood look like something from a Lotto commercial about living the dream. Dave estimated the overlay the residents were asking for would cost $120,000. Instead he oiled and chipped the road, and then, “All hell broke loose.” His friends still kid him about it.

“The entire budget for the town for roads is about $120,000,” he said. “I can’t give them the entire town budget.”

In time he said tempers cooled, and once the loose stone was swept up the neighbors were happier, but they have their eye on the ball at this point in the game.

“When all is said and done they said you were right,” he said. “They have gotten behind me. Jim Kelly gives us the thumbs up signal when he drives by. However, they did make me promise that someday the road would become blacktop!”

Local Boy

Makes Good

It wasn’t easy becoming superintendent of his now 11 full-time member department, in addition to parks and recreation, which numbers about 50 in season, because Dave, a genial fellow, came from the “outside.” His extensive background in road construction has served him well. He even stopped a subdivision road from going in and had the road dug up and replaced because he recognized that the materials being used were not to code.

“The minute the developer hands over the keys to the road he constructed to the town, it becomes our road,” he said. “Problems may take 10 years or more to develop.”

In this instance the developer was using crushed concrete substituted for stone. Dave said that in some cases that might not be a bad thing, but Aurora is built on soil silty enough to cause problems when people dig basements because the earth tends to fall in.

“I stopped the whole subdivision, and they had to stop and tear it all out. I have the authority to do that.”

He said problems in roads may take 10 or 14 years to develop, which is why they need to be built to certain specs.

“I am so proud of our town,” he said. “I believe we deserve the best. Wouldn’t it be a shame to have million-dollar houses on a road that in 10 years from now is falling apart? Why would residents be willing to pay $50,000 a year in taxes for living on a road with potholes?”

Being a long-time self-employed person, he also was used to calling the shots. Learning that the entire town board was his boss involved a learning curve. He said it took him awhile to appreciate how to work within government.

Dave is a history buff, and suddenly the care of a Revolutionary War cemetery was on his to-do list. He found it both exciting and overwhelming as many of the old stones are listing and need help.

He quickly became known as the go-to guy for just about everything. The board added dog control to his roster this year in addition to highways, parks and recreation, and water. His Parks and Recreation Department is always taking on new challenges and provides year-round services to the community, including equestrian, swimming, soccer, baseball, XC skiing, bird watching, and much more.

The highway department also cares for two town libraries, inside and out.

Horses have been central to East Aurora since the horse and buggy days. The town once even had a completely enclosed, mile-long racetrack for training trotters on the Jewett Farm. The town’s popular annual Competitive Carriage Driving Event is in its 49th year, organized by Liz O’Donnell and many volunteers (three people to each entry said Liz). The event is self-sustaining, including reining in volunteer-run fundraisers.

In the early 1800s, Aurora was known as a horse-breeding center for the country. Many years ago, they raced standardbreds with carriages down Gerard Avenue in the village. It was called Race Day, but as the drivers got older, they had fewer entries, and finally, reluctantly discontinued the sport. Next were Bed Races, but it’s hard to replace galloping hooves with box springs.

The popularity of horse sports continues here on polo fields, maintained by the highway crew, and an annual two-day event devoted to the fine art of carriage driving. The carriages no longer drive down Main Street, but they do use 10 miles of state park land for their marathon phase of the popular event. Dave said even the turf of a polo field needs to be treated differently.

“A polo field is exactly 3 football fields, just so you know,” Dave said.

He uses a special gang mower to take it down like a golf course, “super thin.” He said they also fertilize a lot to keep the turf super strong. Polo, he added, is a big deal when it happens.

“I was an outsider. I came from a different world,” Dave said. But in running for office he managed to knock on every single door in the town.

“This is the most challenging job I have ever had. It is tough, sometimes, to bring about change. Our board right now is excellent and very supportive.”

“In my first year in 2009 we had four feet of snow hit in an hour. I thought to myself, ‘Welcome to the Highway Department.’”

Aurora is in the famous Buffalo snow belt. There are actually four highway garages in the small town representing the town, the village, the county, and the state.

Dave grew up in the nearby town of Holland, 10 miles south of where he lives today. His father, who came from East Aurora, was a machinist working in Buffalo, and his mother worked in receiving for Fisher Price, where toys were made, historically by farm women sewing for money at home in the wintertime. Fisher Price, more than a century old, is still headquartered in East Aurora, but the toy manufacturing itself has moved offshore.

Dave’s roots run deep here because his grandfather and grandmother once homesteaded in the hamlet of Griffins Mills, which is part of the town of Aurora. He and Laura, his wife, then in Holland, visited and shopped in East Aurora. While visiting the local Toyfest, he said, “We always loved it, so we decided to move here.”

He attended school in Holland where he met his childhood sweetheart when he was 17 and she was 15. They were married when the groom was 22, and they have two children — Steven, in college, and their daughter Sydney, who Dave said is the best little girl in the world. Laura is a concierge in the town’s nursing home, just a short walk from their home. He said, “She loves helping the people there.”

From grades one through four the town’s grade school has an outreach program for the kids called Community Days that helps educate youth about the people who support their lives every day. This year Dave’s eight-year-old daughter will no longer get to see her dad making a presentation about the highway department, water, and Parks and Recreation Department. “She is just so proud of me,” he said. “She is thrilled that her dad is the town’s highway superintendent.”

Outgoing and engaging, Dave and his department helpers use a turbine leaf blower to amaze the kids. The blower is so powerful that it can keep a basketball in the air for 30 minutes above the spellbound audience, just hovering there. The kids have come to expect modest treats from the highway department’s visits, including kid-size, plastic hard hats and pencils with “I am a highway worker” on them.

After high school Dave worked for UPS for 10 years.

“It was a good job, but I started at 18, and by 28 I knew I wanted to do something else. Plus my ankles started giving out from getting in and out of the truck all day long. I answered an advertisement for a truck company and moved up from dispatcher to general manager.”

He said he learned how to estimate jobs and bring work into the company, critical to his later success running a small business, and now a highway department. One career highlight he remembers from those times was landing the contract to repave Route 400, a major through road in these parts.

“I did real well and started my own company. My wife helped. I ended up with five dump trucks and seven employees. Our shop was out here in West Falls, a more rural environment. Mostly we did road work and home building.”

Dave said his business was doing well, but he sensed a serious stagnation in the economy around 2008 and he bailed on it. Instead, he responded to a posting for highway superintendent, an elected position. He said in the back of his mind he used to imagine becoming a highway person towards the end of his career, but he also realized that once elected, a good super can hang onto the job for half a century, so he reframed his expectations and applied.

“When 60 percent of what we did was home building, and when you whip that market out, you have nothing. Instead, I thought I’d better knock on every door in this town and work my butt off. I asked them to tell me what they wanted, and told them I would try and do it. I just put myself out there with that promise, and I think that experience has made me the superintendent I am today. I am very humble that my community has chosen me for the job.”

He said, “We are more than a highway department. We help make the town of Aurora a wonderful place to live.”

He still thinks of Tannery Road, the first road he worked on when he took the job, with a sentiment that is touching.

“It’s really a pretty road with quite the ravine,” he said.

The town’s topography changes rapidly in a small area from tourist-pleasing, mansion-making, arts and crafts-inspired lifestyles to large rural patches with modest homes including a few trailers. The country part of town, which he said is far more conservative, helped vote him into office in a close election. Nearly everybody voted for him here.

Aurora is actually a combination of tiny hamlets that once, in their day, were vibrant commercial centers of activity. Now it’s Blakley, West Branch, Griffins Mills, Jewettville, South Wales, and West Falls that join with the village of East Aurora to make up the town of Aurora. The village has its own highway department.

“In the village the spirit is more liberal with tree boards and an open space committee, but around here in the rural parts it is all about taxes and gun shops,” he said. “It’s like two different worlds.”

He said he works hard at being fair in treating rural residents just like the villagers, the high-flying professional athletes, and the horse people.

Safer, Cheaper, Easier on Everybody

On his third day on the job, Dave went to one-man plowing operations, which saved the town money and improved efficiency.

“No more 15-hour days,” he said. “Everybody works a straight shift. We have the capability to plow our whole town clear eight times a day. That’s pretty impressive to me. I’m not saying we do that all the time, but we can when we need too.”

He understands why they evolved from a two-person operation. He said plows used to be more complicated to run.

“On my third day I said, ‘why not one-man plows,’ and they said, ‘you can’t do that.’ Once I got them used to it. It was peer pressure that helped win them over.”

He said even the most vocal opponents to one-man plow shifts will probably admit it made his life better by pre-determined times rather than being on call. He said with the change, the town saved about $40,000 a year that they formerly paid in overtime.

Dave never lacks for good equipment. “We went to better plows with automatic salt/sand spreader controls. Everything is precision measured. We have a one-to-one blend when it hits 25 degrees or below. At 25 degrees and above we use straight salt. When it goes below 20 we inject the salt with Magic,” a product he can’t say enough good things about. Aurora observes a “bare roads” policy in a heavily trafficked snow belt that averages 160 inches of snow each year.

Local police officers can be counted on to observe the crazy weather patterns that hit the town. Dave said computer models are untrustworthy because “lake effect will show up, but it won’t tell you if it will set up, meaning it won’t move.”

The town’s four snowplow routes of a total of 110 miles can be cleared every 2.5 hours.

“We actually enjoy big storms here because they make you look so good to the residents,” he said. “The people wake up and there are mountains of freshly plowed snow on either side of open roads. How did that happen?” In big storms they go into what he calls, “Code Blue,” which adds two more routes.

“We are ready for that. We are fortunate in that our board has seen fit to outfit us with the equipment we need. We have a full road snow blower, plows, high lifts, and all the tools for a town of this size. We are also fortunate in that we have the manpower, which is something not all highway departments have these days. That’s why I keep them busy with the parks.”

He said that initially when the highway department became heavily involved with new initiatives in the parks there was some chatter and grumbling about it (a dog show!) among the troops. He said he explained to the crew that getting ready for a Frisbee tournament, stocking the creek with trout, or making a mini sled jump with a backhoe was all in a day’s work for all of them now.

“Events like these bring people here and help support the local economy,” he said.

Some things seem to take on a life of their own. Dave, an enthusiastic fisherman, keeps asking the DEC for any overstocked trout. At the time, Peggy Cooke, recreation director, was working on a new park that encompasses Cazenovia Creek, a major waterway in Aurora. The creek was the site of many early mill operations. Now they have an annual fishing derby.

It began with 300 10- to 12-inch brown trout supplied by the DEC to encourage people to enjoy this natural resource surrounded by public land. The parks are all handicapped accessible. Now, Dave said, when workers are mowing the park they are delighted to see youngsters going to the creek with fishing gear in hand like a Norman Rockwell illustration. Erie County has added the place to its list of hot spots for fishing.

“Nothing makes me prouder of my job than the unique things we do. I just think it’s great.”

Dave is one of the youngest members of the crew, which had a lot of family members represented, not uncommon in a small town. He observed that growing up with highway work in the family often leads to a better understanding of the job. “They know when you are on call you don’t drink a beer at night. There is zero tolerance for that.”

Out of the Limelight

In the television show Parks and Recreation, actress Amy Poehler is a constant volcano for new ideas for parks and recreation to put into practice in her television town of Pawnee. Meet Peggy Cooke, who works for Dave and heads up the Parks and Recreation Department. When they are in a meeting together the good ideas just keep on coming. Together they have instituted the following embellishments in the lovely town: a trout-stocked creek and annual fishing derby, a dog show, a sledding hill, a boardwalk-covered wetland along a nature trail, planting trees, making free mulch available, and more. Aurora is an American Tree City with an ambitious program for taking down potentially dangerous trees and planting nearly twice as many in their place.

Dave said he can keep the crew busy all winter and save the town money by doing things like refurbishing the baseball backstops and the diving board at the pool. In house they created their own crafty looking trash barrels using wood left over from the boardwalk project built over wetlands, which was actually created using prison labor.

The town, approximately 26 square miles, has about 300 acres invested in various parks, all of them a beautiful enhancement to the pastoral landscape. The area also is home to the Knox Farm State Park, which is another 630 acres of beautiful, rolling pastures and woods. In addition there is about 200 acres at Emery Park, which is run by the county. Aurora recently agreed to take over 25 acres of Knox State Park, which means, among other things, maintaining parking when the Buffalo Philharmonic puts on its popular summer concerts on the expansive lawn of the main house. The mansion is the former summer home for the Knox family, a Buffalo dynasty whose fortunes were made on Wall Street and Woolworth stores.

When the state ran into financial trouble, it temporarily closed the Knox State park, and residents didn’t like that at all. So the town came to an agreement with the state to manage one side of the park of about 25 acres — most often used — which includes soccer fields, polo grounds, the equestrian areas used for the carriage driving competitions, Frisbee contests, and college horse shows. Carriage driving is the town’s longest running event ever, now in its 39th year. Volunteers are strong here with about 50 people showing up to groom and maintain bridle trails.

Many Hats/Multiple Skill Sets at Work

“We all wear lots of hats. None of us really has a specific job sometimes. Peggy has hopped on lawn mowers,” Dave said. “She isn’t afraid of anything. She was in a ditch wearing high waders during water work. If I am busy elsewhere I can ask her to come in and make sure things get done correctly.”

Thanks to her efforts at enhancing the parks programs in a town of 15,000 residents, nearly half of them are registered in one program or another. In summer, outdoor pool visits hit the 16,000 mark.

Peggy has been with the town for 20 years and has worked for the village of Owego as an assessor. She said her business background helps manage the department, with responsibilities as varied as hiring tennis and swimming instructors, planting trees, hosting the fishing derby, and volunteering as a Friend of Knox Farm to help that property, now belonging to the state, become more self sufficient by hosting special events and weddings. This year the Junior League in Buffalo will give the mansion a facelift during their Decorator’s Showcase, a popular fund raising event.

This year, Dave said, “I can’t believe we pulled it off because we had a drought, but Peggy added six more new ball diamonds, that were in great demand, with no money.”

The cost was contained to $40,000 in the ground, including some borrowed equipment. “She went around town knocking on doors,” he said. “Residents and businesses came up with the funding.”

While polo turf needs to be mowed with specialized equipment and fertilized a certain way, both Dave and Peggy have been surprised to find that baseball players using the town’s 14 ball diamonds are fussier than polo players about how their diamonds are built and maintained. Soccer people, not so much. The town of Lancaster loaned Aurora an excavator for the baseball diamond construction. In the spirit of shared services, Dave’s crew will be helping them when it’s time to pave. On sharing he said that the smaller towns appreciate that “we’ve got big snow equipment.”

Shared services are done on a handshake, but Dave said you “have to be careful. It is taxpayer’s money. You will get the calls asking what our equipment is doing someplace else.”

Getting More

With Less

While the fiscal situation in Aurora is rosy with tour buses full of tourists and housing prices remaining strong in all economies, all towns face caps on spending, which for Dave means, “getting more creative to get things done.” One change was switching to part-time help for seasonal jobs when people retired. Out of 24 people in the department, 14 are now part time.

“Take the salaries and benefits, and we were able to hire eight people in the summertime. These are desirable jobs. If there is an opening I have it filled a year before.”

Dog control just came under the highway department’s roster. Cheryl Harris, dog control officer, works part time harnessing the town’s 2,500 licensed canines if they stray; the rest of her time is spent doing almost anything supporting the highway department. In mid-winter she is making appointments with residents to have their meter readers replaced.

“Cheryl knows almost every dog in town,” he said. “She has her repeat offenders.” The temporary kennel is housed in the highway garage where strays are also offered for adoption or sent to the ASPCA after a certain time. Cheryl herself adopted a 110-pound bull mastiff mutt to keep her Pomeranian company.

Aurora has had some recent success in the recycling business when the town did a complete re-do on all of the town’s water meters. They have gone from manually read meters to radio-controlled meters that can be accurately read by a worker driving down the road. Thanks to a new concept called piggybacking, the town got a great deal on the cost of 600 leading-edge units for $70,000. The actual purchase was piggybacked with the city of Rochester, which was also buying meters. He said the cost was “unbelievable” for his town because they represent such a small water district. The ability for any state municipality to buy equipment more competitively through piggybacking went into effect in September 2012.

Dave said, “Recycling electronics has been a good revenue generator for us. We made $4,000 from it last year with 4 days of work. Plus the people get a great service with 4 pickups of their discarded electronics each year. We pick up tires and batteries as well, but they cost us money to get rid of.”

On the old water meters he managed to gross $2,000 by separating the elements in house before they were sold for scrap. They take the electronics and sell that part, and then take the brass and sell it separately. Instead of making $2 on each unit, he makes about $5. With 650 of them, he says the town profited by almost $2,000. “We’ll take it!”

Heavy Equipment Coming up the

Creek Bed

It’s not all snowplowing and dog shows in Aurora. Dave said they oil and chip everywhere. “We do slurry seal, micro pave, oil and chip, overlay with 6-top and 7-top, depending on the applications. The 7-top is more likely to be used in suburban, heavier- trafficked locations.”

Aurora presents a stark difference between the trendy village and the heavily rural parts towards West Falls. Dave understands why country people sometimes feel slighted, and it can show up in their attitudes about his department. When he ran for office it was West Falls that helped him win his first election. His roots are there, and he understands why people think others are favored. In such a small geographic area encompassing tour-bus hopping tourists staying in a National Historic Landmark and a busy gun shop only a few miles away. The crew responds to many different resident concerns.

Two years ago, Dave had a major washout on a road with a century-old box culvert that finally failed. The culvert was about 150 feet below the road surface. He said what previous workers had done was to fill in the ravine and put the road on top of it. Many years later, the whole thing collapsed. He said they had to dig the road out all the way down to the pipe to replace it. He hired an outside contractor equipped for the more skilled job of actually forming the culvert and laying the riprap — the big work. Once the culvert was done, he and his crew refilled the ravine to the top using bank run gravel and then created a new road surface. In order to reach the project, much of the heavy equipment had to travel to the job site by coming up the creek bed because there was no other way to get it into the ravine.

“The crew really liked working on this job. It was a big deal for this little town. We saved the town lots of money by doing most of the work ourselves. Generally speaking we don’t hire contractors any longer. I have a lot of knowledge and experience about construction and road work.”

Butting Heads

Dave Gunner may be pleasant when it comes to fishing derbies, but don’t let him find a home builder contractor doing an awful job with a sewer line underneath a water line without first making repairs to the water line. He said, “Sure enough the water line is exploding and they (not his crew) want me to pave over it. And I said ‘no, I will look like quite the fool when I have to go back and dig it out to repair the water line.’”

“I like to say that we are good government. Good government is why we pay taxes. Last Sunday I was featured on Channel 7 because we had six roads closed with about 25 big trees down in 70 mile an hour winds. The police department calls that morning, and we are ready to be early responders.”

He said he and the supervisor have had extensive disaster training to meet any situation that may arise.

Liz O’Donnell, an active volunteer in many places and one of Dave’s biggest fans, said putting on a sophisticated two-day carriage driving competition on town property is a constant reminder of how well things are run in Aurora. Peggy Cooke added, “I think Dave does a really good job of looking at all of the assets in the community. It’s really a quality of life issue, not just roads and parks. His department is helping us to preserve and protect the assets we have. So he doesn’t take a small view of the highway department. He takes the position of where his crew fits in within the entire town.”

“He leaves us always wondering what the New Year will bring. We just get on our boots and we go!”

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