Public Works Commissioner Brian Hunt and the Town of Sand Lake

Mary Yamin-Garone

For Brian (“Buster”) Hunt, it doesn’t get any better than this. He loves his family. He loves the town where he has spent all of his 56 years. He loves getting up every morning and doing his job as the public works commissioner/highway superintendent for the town of Sand Lake and he loves building houses.

Born and raised in this history-laden town, Brian graduated from Averill Park High School in 1976.

“After that I took every night course in accounting that Hudson Valley Community College had to offer. I didn’t graduate. I didn’t matriculate. I was accredited but never put them all together. I didn’t get my degree because I was going to use it for my own business. I figured I’d take over for my father. I thought I’d be an accountant.”

That’s not how things played out. Instead he went to work for the highway department and never looked back.

Brian fondly remembers his first day.

“December 4, 1976, was the first time I rode wing. The next summer I started working part-time. I did that for two years without committing to it. I’d help my father before 7 o’clock. Then I’d work here until 3:30 go back to work for him until around 7 at night before working on my own stuff. We both kept that up until he sold out in 1984.

“When I left here the first time, I went to work insulating houses with my father. I did that for a year and half or so before going to work for a Kevin Kronau, a local builder. The department hired me back in 1982 when one of the old equipment operators retired. I officially came back in January 1983. My brother Joel was the public works commissioner/highway superintendent. I became his foreman/deputy in 1990. After that I served as Larry Browe’s deputy so by the time I got in this seat I’d been deputy for about 18 years.”

Taking over the helm as commissioner of public works and the highway superintendent was a natural progression for Brian.

“I'd been deputy long enough. Now I’m trying to be here long enough to give everybody who’s interested a shot at it. It’s an appointed position. My current two-year term ends in December 2015. I need to do about four more years. If they don’t reappoint me, I’ll try and get back in the workforce and just keep going for another four years. We kind of worked that out but nothing’s carved in stone.”

Brian and his wife, Diane, have three children between them.

“My daughter, Kassandra, lives next door to us with her two children, Griffin, 8, and Lilianna, 6. My son, Jeremy, just started with the village of Nassau Highway Department. He has one son, 10-month-old Alex. My wife has one daughter, Kristina.”

Married for eight years, the couple shares a love of motorcycles and ride whenever and wherever they can. Diane also gets an up close and personal look at her man and how he does his job.

“My husband lives and breathes this kind of work. He grew up with it. It’s in his blood. He also grew up in this town, so it holds a special place in his heart; a trait you don’t find with everyone. Do I enjoy the calls in the middle of the night? No. Do I enjoy being left alone during a crazy snowstorm? No. But that’s his job and he never complains about it.”

In his spare time, Brian prides himself in being a recovering workaholic who has relapsed.

“I own 40 acres of land and I’m in the process of building a house out of insulated concrete forms. I bought a farmhouse in 1986 and remodeled it and I helped my father build his house. This one might be my last.”

A member of the Rensselaer County Highway Association, Brian hopes to raise animals again and add a barn to his new digs when he hangs up his superintendent’s hat.

The Job

The town of Sand Lake’s original highway garage dates back to 1933. The 60-by-60 building that houses the department today was built in the mid-1960s, early 1970s by Brian’s father.

“They built the salt shed in 1989. It holds about 400 tons of salt and probably 400 tons of mix (three parts sand to one part salt). Then in 1996 they added a mechanic’s bay (50 by 80) and a storage area. Total for the shed was about 230 feet long by 80 feet wide. That’s where we store our tandems and equipment; just about anything you can think of. There are five doors in the open area so you can pull in different angles. We took the walls out and combined all the offices into one. It’s starting to show its age and what salt and equipment does to it.”

The town also has a transfer station at the old landfill. For an annual cost of $25, residents can dispose of everything from waste oil and electronics to scrap metal, paint, brush and grass clippings.

As highway superintendent Brian is responsible for maintaining the town’s 85.16 miles of road or 151 center lane miles. All but one mile of those is hardtop. Three small roads still have not have asphalt applied due to their size and lack of thru traffic.

“The remaining roads are all hardtop. Ninety percent of them are a combination of Cationic Asphalt and sand mix blended at the town mine. It’s laid down with a paver or grader and then we apply a chip seal as a top wear surface. The remaining 10 percent are blacktop, which we normally apply to the smaller dead-end streets.

All that translates into seven plowing routes that take about four and a half hours to complete.

“This winter was one of the most constant. It was always here. The guys were talking about only having two weekends off from October until Christmas. It just didn’t stop.”

This past winter also took a toll on the roads.

“The state and county roads were breaking up like crazy, but our CHIPS seal held up well.”

Together, Brian and 12 full-time and two part-time employees serve the town’s 8,900 residents. His staff includes Deputy Commissioner Highways Bill Rohl; Deputy Commissioner Sewer Ray Hernick; Dispatch/Foreman Joel Hunt; MEOH (Highway) Mike Steinburg; MEOH (Sewer) Gary Meissner; Mechanic (Highway) Bruce Wicks; MEOL (Highway) Kevin Rifenburgh, Mark Petrone, Josh Bucci, Bill French and Jason Grignon; and MEOL (Sewer) Don Corellis. Part-timers are Bob Martin (first public works commissioner) and Dylan Densmore (college student).

When it comes to his crew, “There’s not a better group of people. When I say something needs to be done, they do it. They get going and do it. Not everyone agrees all the time. I tell them they can each have their own individual quirk as long as they don’t all develop the same one.”

This time of year the men are busy preparing the town’s roads.

“First we determine which ones are the worst. Then we cut the ditches and make sure the pipes are okay. We let them settle in before we go through and mix our own shim material. We’ll screen sand then have one of the locals, like Gorman or Peckham, mix it with asphalt. The guys will go out with a paver or grader and skim it or level it up. Now the roads are all fine patched and we can lay down the oil and stone.”

Under Brian’s guidance, the Sand Lake highway department runs on a total operating budget of $1,586,000 that includes salaries and benefits for employees and an annual CHIPS allocation of $166,000.

To perform its duties, the town uses a convoy of equipment that includes:

Light Trucks

• 1993 Ford F-350 service truck;

• 1999 Ford F-550 dump (rebuilt with new dump body in 2013);

• 2005 Chevy 2500 HD pickup/plow truck/sander;

• 2005 Chevy 2500 HD pickup/plow truck/sander;

• 2012 Dodge 5500 dump/plow truck/sander;

• 2014 Ford F-350 pickup;

Heavy Trucks

• 1982 International 1800 water tank;

• 1991 International 2500 dump truck single axle;

• 1992 Chevy Kodiak boom truck;

• 1993 International 2500 dump truck tandem;

• 1997 International 2500 dump truck single with plow truck/sander;

• 1999 International 2500 dump truck tandem;

• 2002 International 2500 dump truck tandem with plow truck/sander;

• 2004 International 7600 dump truck tandem with plow truck/sander;

• 2006 International 7600 dump truck tandem with plow truck/sander; and

• 2009 International 7600 dump truck tandem with plow truck/sander.

Heavy Equipment

• 1971 Raygo 6600 steel drum roller;

• 1990 Elgin Pelican street sweeper;

• 1991 Mobil Athey street sweeper;

• 1995 Ford 1520 mower tractor w/snow blower (parks and sidewalks);

• 1999 John Deere backhoe 410E;

• 2000 Champion road grader 726 VHP;

• 2001 Gradall XL 3100;

• 2004 Bobcat Toolcat w/attachments;

• 2005 Massey Ferguson 5460 mowing tractor;

• 2006 Salsco wood chipper;

• 2007 Volvo wheel loader L-110E; and

• 2012 John Deere wheel loader 624K.

Sewer Department

• 2003 Ford F-350 pickup;

• 2007 Chevy utility step van; and

• 2013 International vacuum pumper.

Mechanic Bruce Wicks is responsible for maintaining the fleet.

“When he’s overwhelmed or more than one vehicle is in the shop the guys will pitch in,” Brian said. “During the winter each crew member is responsible for basic maintenance. You have a plow truck. If something happens to it and you can’t fix it, you go to Bruce. It doesn’t really play out that way in the summer because we’re doing so many different things.”

Brian admits that while today’s technology-driven equipment is more convenient and luxurious, when it breaks down it’s not an easy fix.

“Now electronics are involved so if the hydraulics don’t work it doesn’t mean the pump’s bad. It might mean a celluloid is bad. Before you had a control you could feel and do something with. Now you push buttons.”

On the upside, “They’re more comfortable [thanks to] cushioned air seats, better ergonomics and air conditioning. They’re also more user-friendly and don’t punish your body.”

With increasingly higher price tags, how does Brian budget for new equipment?

“Usually I cry to the town board,” he chuckled. “We put it in our budget and they usually take it out. We have old equipment. There are some things we buy used, but we try and buy our trucks new because they’re needed. The department has 35 pieces so you can’t always have new. There’s always a need for equipment. We could use a screen for screening our salt sand. We had an opportunity 10 years ago to buy one for $32,000, but the town board said no. We had rented that same machine every year. It would have been paid for and then some. We don’t even have an excavator. In this day and age that’s unheard of. Any home improvement contractor has one. Here we are saying wouldn’t it be nice but you can’t plow a street with an excavator.”

Equipment isn’t the only thing that technology has impacted. It’s changed the way the highway department does its job.

“Now you have e-mail, fax machines, computers, cell phones, instant weather reports at your fingertips. It’s all tied together. There’s no way that sooner or later someone can’t reach you. Good or bad.”

Brian and his men also are responsible for the town’s park and beach, three cemeteries and seven bridges.

“The town of Nassau just put a sewer extension off of ours so now we take care of about 140 of their sewers’ pumping stations. We flush lines and maintain seven pumping stations. We keep busy. There’s never a dull moment.”

Reflecting back on his time as highway superintendent thus far, one day stands out: December 12, 2013. Brian emotionally recalled the day his neighbor’s horse barn caught fire.

“I was at Stewart’s when they told me Keith Meissner’s barn was on fire. I got past my house and I’m about 1,200 feet away and I could see the whole side was transparent. Being winter, I knew the fire department was going to need sanders and stuff so I called in two guys. It wasn’t a half-hour later when Gary, who works for us, called and said his brother was lost in the fire. I had to go over there with a backhoe and try and find him. That was the worst. Not just because I knew him but his brother works with us. It was like family.”

Brian believes that emergencies, such as the fire, are the most important part of the job.

“You’re there for the storms. You’re there for the floods and the fires. You’re there when people need you. A lot of times when I know it’s starting to get bad I’ll come in and make sure no one’s called. It’s trying to keep a little bit ahead. If I can do that, I’m good.”

As he looks to the future, Brian is focusing on moving ahead.

“You have to make sure you get enough support behind you from your town board to get the equipment or money or budget you need to keep moving forward. You can’t get complacent. You have to keep thinking about the next step. That’s pretty much what I’m doing here.”

When it’s all said and done Brian wants to be remembered as “the guy with a smile on his face. I don’t have big aspirations. At the end of the day, no matter what it is, you did what you could to help somebody.”

What more could the townspeople ask for?

How the Town Began

The town of Sand Lake has a rich history behind its humble beginnings of development and growth. In early 1994, a working committee began a research study into its early development and growth. The aim was to trace the division of the Manor of Rensselaerwyck as it was divided into the many towns of today's Rensselaer County.

Development of the Town of Sand Lake

The boundaries of the town of Sand Lake, as known today, are the result of many divisions and subdivisions over the years. When Henry Hudson sailed up the river that would bear his name, the land was a wilderness, occupied by a few Indians.

The Manor of Rensselaerwyck was established in 1629, when Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, a wealthy director of the Dutch West India Company, received a land grant from the West India Co., to establish a colony. This grant, which was establishing a colony in the new world, included land on both sides of the Hudson River, between Berrent Island on the south and Cohoes on the north. The territory was 24 miles long and 48 miles wide, contained about 700,000 acres and constituted a patroonship.

The colony was under Dutch control until 1664, when the English took possession, only to lose control in 1672. In 1674, the English again regained control and was the ruling government until the Revolutionary War. Under the English, the area was known as the Province of New York and was a colony of England.

The Town

By an act of the legislature on March 21, 1812, the towns of Greenbush and Berlin were divided to form three towns: Greenbush, the new town of Sand Lake and Berlin. This division took effect on March 1, 1813, so that is the town of Sand Lake’s true birthday. The first town meeting was held at the dwelling house of Thomas Thompson, the brother of Calvin Thompson, who became the first supervisor.

The first officers of the town of Sand Lake were: Supervisor, Calvin Thompson; Town Clerk, David E. Gregory; Assessors, Lawrence Van Alstyne, John Clint and Ezra Newton; Commissioners of Highways, John Stevens, John North and Jacob Boyce; Overseers of the Poor, Stephen Gregory, Lewis Bullock; Collectors, Jonathan Ford and Henry Lord and School Commissioners Aretus Lyman, Joel Bristol and Ellis Forster.

What happened along the border of Greenbush and Sand Lake is not certain but in 1843, a very short Act of Legislature simply stated: “All that part of the Town of Sand Lake in the County of Rensselaer, on which the dwelling house of Andrew L. Weatherwax now stands, shall be annexed to, and form a part of, the Town of Greenbush.”

On March 2, 1848, the town of Sand Lake was divided into Sand Lake and Poestenkill. This final division created the town of Sand Lake’s boundaries as we know them today. On Monday proceeding the first Tuesday in April 1848, the first meeting of the newly-formed Town was held at the house of Calvin Sliter.

Government

The counties were governed by a board of supervisors. Each town would elect a supervisor to represent its citizens on the county board. This board had the power to collect taxes and distribute monies to the towns.

Initially, the towns had little power. In 1901, town government in the state assumed more definitive form. The state legislature established a judiciary system. Provision was made for assessing and collecting taxes. The settlement and relief of the poor; the regulation of highways; establishing the power of town meetings; and defining the duties of town officers. Town meetings were held in private homes and inns. It wasn’t until 1972 when the former Presbyterian Church was obtained and transformed into the town hall, that a regular meeting hall became available.

County government was the primary form of local control. Each town elected a supervisor to represent the town at the meetings of the county board supervisors. The board was the legislative body for making the county’s laws and ordinances and raising money to cover the cost of operation. These monies were distributed to each town in accordance to needs.

In 1964, the state legislature enacted the Municipal Home Rule Law, greatly extending the powers of each town. As a result, in 1968 Rensselaer County revised its form of government. The board of supervisors was dissolved. In its place, a county executive and a county legislature was formed.

Until this time, the town of Sand Lake was governed by a supervisor, four justices of the peace with voting rights and a town clerk. With the change, the town legislature was made up of a supervisor and four councilmen as voting members. A town clerk and two justices were also elective positions. The office of justice of the peace was changed to town justice.

As of the 2010 census there were 10,135 people, 3,009 households and 2,229 families residing in the town. The population density was 226.9 people per square mile and 3,277 housing units at an average density of 93.1 per square mile.

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