In his first 16 months as highway superintendent for the town of Berne, Randy Bashwinger is proving he’s a force to be reckoned with.
It all started back in March when Randy was out of town. At 7:30 p.m. on a Friday, the town supervisor went to the homes of two highway department employees and told them they were laid off. He said, “If the department gets rid of the four 10-hour workdays, you can come back to work immediately and have 100 percent of your health insurance paid.”
“I’m in Maine when I get the call [from the guys]. It isn’t until 8 p.m., Sunday night that I get an e-mail from the supervisor telling me about the layoffs. Bad politics. That’s all I can say.”
And so the battle begins.
The gauntlet had been thrown down in response to what happened last October.
“I won’t back down on the four 10-hour days. That’s what this is all about. The town board didn’t approve of it. The supervisor said it was just a way for our guys to have a three-day weekend. When I told him the town hall was closed on Friday, he said, ‘It’s the town highway department and the roads have to be taken care of.’ I told my guys they didn’t have to do it. A compressed work week is Monday through Thursday.
“They said if I wanted to cover Friday we could put three men on Monday and three on Friday. Then all five days are covered. So I take it to the town board and they say, ‘Absolutely not. We don’t approve of it.’ I answered, ‘Okay. I’m going to a four-day week and they’re going to work Monday through Thursday. We did that all the way into October. That’s when the union contract negotiations started. The supervisor started the negotiations by throwing his papers down on his desk and saying, ‘If you don’t get rid of the four-day work week, this negotiation is off.’”
According to Randy, “that’s where the dirty politics comes in. I prepare my first budget, fill out the paperwork and submit it to the town board. Shortly after that, the board held a workshop to go over the budget. I didn’t go, figuring I was all set. Budget is in. Good to go.”
“The board took $80,000 out of my budget and put it into a separate line because they were pretty sure the union wouldn’t sign the contract. That allowed them to have two layoffs. Now they’re saying I approved the layoffs through the budget. I didn’t approve anything. I would have definitely fought that one. I’m an elected official and I have a responsibility to take care of the roads. I also have a responsibility to take care of my men. And I will take care of my men.”
Randy is counting on the support of the town’s 2,800 residents to help him. “There are rallies planned. Most town board meetings draw between three and eight people. There will be up to 250 at the next one.”
Born and raised in Knox, it seemed like Randy was destined to sit behind the superintendent’s desk.
“My uncle was the highway superintendent of the county over in Knox for over 40 years. When I was a kid, I’d go out and check roads with him during snowstorms. I can remember snowstorms being as big as the signs out here. I loved it. You can’t do that now. You’d get in trouble for having people riding around in vehicles. I remember one time watching him when the sander broke on one of the trucks. He was out there spreading the salt from the back of the truck by hand. He wouldn’t stop.”
Randy learned quickly how to save money, pay bills and manage his time.
“My father died when I was seven so I went to live with my aunt. When I was 16, her husband had brain cancer so I’d take him to chemo every day after school, even though I only had a driver’s permit. I’d bring him back and then go to work at the local hardware store. I had my own apartment when I was 17 and still in high school.
“I came from a selling background. I covered all of New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. I’d travel all the way to the Canadian border selling building products and making almost six figures. I’d leave on Monday and get back on Wednesday afternoon. Then I’d have to do five to six hours of paperwork. I did that for a long, long time. I got burnt out.
So what made Randy leave all that behind to become a highway superintendent?
“I wanted to be home with my kids. I have six of my own and two stepchildren. I live three-quarters of a mile down the road. The school’s right in between my house and here, so I can go to school functions. I’ve had an interesting career and family life. That’s what’s made me who I am. It’s the experiences. I tell my kids, ‘I don’t care what experiences you have. Give it your best and no matter what you do, fight, fight, fight and be honest.’”
In what little spare time he has these days, Randy loves traveling with his wife and his kids. “I’d also like to spend some more time on my motorcycle.”
A member of the Town Highway Association, Randy is up for re-election to another four-year term in 2017.
Will he run? “They’re not stopping me. One thing I don’t do is give up.”
All in a Day’s Work
In his role as highway superintendent, Randy is responsible for maintaining the town’s 98 lane miles of road, half of which are gravel and the other half paved. That translates into seven plowing routes that take about four hours to clear.
“Most of our roads are hills as you can tell by coming up here. When I started, the guys didn’t really have a territory. Now we have a color coordinated map on the wall so they know where to go.”
Randy’s 15-man crew helps serve the town’s 2,800 residents. Full-time staff includes Pete Becker, Pat Stempel, Ed Hampton, Kevin Kemmet, Jason Geel and Josh Gebe. Part-time staff includes: Paul Whitbeck, Dave Harnett, Bob Bushnell, Dave Wagoner, Paul Giebitz, Ian Conners, Dave Chase, Mark Young and Kathy Stempel.
“When I first took over last January, this crew was falling apart. A lot of them were ready to leave because of leadership. You couldn’t get these guys to go in a truck together, yet alone work together. There was a lot of head butting, but then there was a 150 percent turnaround. Their work ethic changed. Your crew can make or break you and I have to say these six guys right here are unbelievable. They’re great to work with. I’ve managed lots of people and I’m really impressed with my men. They’re the most rewarding part of this job.”
The town of Berne’s highway department runs on a total operating budget of $1.3 million that includes employee salaries and benefits and an annual CHIPS allocation of $195,000.
To help carry out its duties the department uses a bevy of equipment that consists of:
• 2015 GMC Sierra
• 2006 Chevy pickup
• 2008 Dodge Suburban van
• 1989 International sweeper vac
• 2007 International roll-off
• 2005 Ford Suburban bus
• 1986 John Deere forklift tractor
• 2007 Sterling utility
• 1991 International Paystar
• 2007 Sterling dump truck
• 2015 International dump truck
• 1997 Oshkosh dump truck with plow
• 2016 International Terrastar
• 2000 International dump truck
• 2002 International bucket truck
• 2015 GMC Sierra
• 1986 Chevy military box plow
• 2012 John Deere 410-K backhoe
• 1987 John Deere 544-D wheel loader
• 1992 Champion grader
• 1999 Caterpillar wheel loader
• 1988 Badger excavator
• 2007 International plow truck
• 1987 Ford F-350
• 1988 Eager Beaver trailer
• 2015 trailer
• 2007 trailer
• 2016 loader
• 2003 John Deere road mower
• John Deere forklift
• 1974 Koehring roller
• John Deere bulldozer
Every highway superintendent prides themselves in having an up-to-date fleet.
“Since January 2015, I’ve purchased four new trucks. The equipment was ancient. I didn’t really budget for the equipment. The money was in the budget from the year before. We had every color you could imagine for town trucks. We had red, orange, green, yellow. It looked like the rainbow crew. We’re starting to get consistent with colors and new vehicles. Having smaller trucks and new equipment is definitely a plus for us”
For service and maintenance of this new equipment, Randy’s crew is busy building an addition that will include another three bays.
“Our parts room will be out there along with a place to work on our hydraulic hoses and things. Instead of a 4 by 8 room, it’ll be 16 by 50. We already added to the back side of our pole barn. We built a lean-to that gave us an additional six bays. We do all the work ourselves.”
The men of the highway department also are excited about their new salt shed.
“Last year, we got a grant for Advocacy Day. I met with Senator George Amedore about getting more money for CHIPS and the shed. The engineers were just here so we have preliminary plans. We also had a flyover. We have to dig some test holes and then it’ll go out to bid. It should be done by August or September. The new building with be 65 by 80 versus 6 by 46. That will give us tremendous storing power for our material. Half of our roads are dirt and the other half are paved so you need different mixes.
“The guys are concerned about the shed. Last year, the town wanted the county to take it over. It didn’t pan out that way. The county couldn’t do what we do. We plow in between mailboxes. We go almost up to the doorways. You’re not going to get a county truck to do that. I’m not saying anything bad about the county. We do a lot with them, but the county taking over the salt shed was never going to happen.”
Randy can’t stress enough the importance of other highway superintendents going down to Advocacy Day.
“We were able to get in front of Senator Amedore and talk about the salt shed and got him going with that. He even paid us a visit. The whole point of the day is to get people in front of these politicians.”
In addition, a lot of time has been spent cleaning things up around the garage.
“When I first came here it looked like Sanford and Son. We cleaned up, got rid of, moved and fixed things. Trees were falling down. The buildings were in a lot worse shape. You couldn’t even park out there. There was so much junk and garbage. Three months into it I took back almost $11,000 in steel. I used the money to buy two new pumps. We also got rid of two dump trucks we weren’t using. We sold them on Auctions International for $14,000. That money was used to build the lean-to. We did it ourselves for $4,000.”
Randy and crew don’t just spruce up their own digs. They also lend their time and talent to improve the town.
“There’s a park a little bit up the road. You’ll see all new plywood around the building. It’s 26 by 32. The guys and I enclosed it and we’re putting in two bathrooms and a kitchen for the town residents. We also put in brand new swing sets in the park and dug out two contaminated oil tanks at the senior center.
“We’ve done a tremendous amount of work for this town. It’s not out of their budget. It’s out of mine. I don’t have to do that. I’m doing it because I live in the town. I get paid by the townspeople. I’m doing it because it’s a town thing. For me to stop what I’m doing is like saying, ‘Screw you town.’ All of what we do was done in four 10-hour days. And you’re going to complain? Shame on the board for that.”
About the Town of Berne*
The town of Berne (originally spelled “Bern” until the Berne Post Office was established in the middle of the 19th Century) was created in 1795 from part of the town of Rensselaerville. In 1822, the north half of Berne was spun off to form the new town of Knox.
The earliest settlers were Palatine German refugees. Settlement began before 1750. At that time it was called Beaver Dam (also spelled Beaverdam). The settlers were actually squatters, since in the 18th and most of the 19th centuries, Berne was part of the Rensselaerswyck estate. The head of the Van Rensselaer family was the patroon who owned all the land on which the tenants in the Hudson Valley lived, and used feudal leases to maintain control of the region. Before the Revolutionary War, the patroons acted as feudal lords, with the right to make laws.
The massacre of the Dietz family in 1781 was the only Iroquois incursion in Beaver Dam during the American Revolution. During the War, inhabitants fought on both sides of the conflict. Loyalists who supported the British left and went to Canada. Those who stayed and fought the British expected that if they won, they would either be released from their tenancy, or at the least, be allowed to purchase the land at fair market value. Instead, the new government of New York decided to honor the lease contracts of the patroons, who contributed heavily to the politicians.
The first mass meeting of tenant farmers leading to the Anti-Rent War was held in Berne on July 4, 1839. In January1845, 150 delegates from 11 counties assembled in St. Paul’s Lutheran Church to call for political action to redress their grievances.
As of the census of 2010, there were 2,794 people, 1,099 households, and 805 families residing in the town. The population density was 43.6 people per square mile (17.1/km²). There were 1,385 housing units at an average density of 21.6 per square mile (8.3/km²).
(*History courtesy of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berne,_New_York.) P