In one significant way, superintendents of highways and public works are a link to America’s past when rewarding a stalwart work ethic and loyalty to the company or organization was commonplace.
Today, the average worker changes companies five or more times in a career, while companies are quick to lay off its workers over the slightest hiccup in profits.
But this industry still holds dear the value of an honest day’s work, and when that is combined with patience, a department member can still start as a motor equipment operator (MEO) and rise through the ranks to the helm of a highway department. Like many others before him, Superintendent of Public Works James “Jim” C. Davis of the Village of Kings Point has made this journey.
Thirty years ago, Jim got his start with the Kings Point department of public works as an MEO.
“I was a mechanic at a gas station in Kings Point at the time,” said Jim. “In the fall for probably three years, I would come down here to the highway department and repair all of their trucks, right before winter. Then, in 1975, the superintendent at the time, Larry Ninesling, asked me if I would be interested in an MEO job because somebody was leaving. I thought about it and actually took a pay cut for the job. Back then, I was after better benefits, which Kings Point offered.”
The job was quite a bit different from what he’d been doing. “I had to learn everything,” he recalled. “I grew up basically with a wrench in my hand because my father had owned gas stations and I worked for him, but I didn’t have operator’s experience.”
But on his first day, he was put on a roller.
“Charles Angelo, who was my foreman when I started, taught me how to make the corners, ride the curb with the roller. We got to the job and it was on a hill,” Jim said. “They had taken the roller off the truck and it was my turn to get up on it. He’s telling me, ‘if something goes wrong, just jump off of it.’ Well, the thing wouldn’t start. So then he said, ‘you have a choice … either you get it started or else go back in and get the hand roller.’ I’m looking at the size of the hill, so I say, ‘get me a penknife.’ I adjusted the points and got it started.”
Jim would eventually learn how to operate the department’s other pieces of equipment, though he confessed there wasn’t much to learn. “When I first started, we just had a payloader, a sweeper, and a tractor with a sickle bar, so basically those were three pretty easy things to learn to operate.”
One particular aspect Jim liked about his new job was the element of surprise in the morning when he arrived at work.
“I liked dealing with something different every day. It was never the same aspect to the job. Some days you were inside; some days you were outside,” he said. “You’re doing tree cutting one day and the next day you’re doing asphalt or repairing a catch basin. But in one way that was a draw back. With highway department work, sometimes you don’t always get the satisfaction of finishing a job; you would do the basics and somebody else would come in and they would put you someplace else.
“I did eventually begin to really enjoy it once I got used to the work because I knew more, learned different things, and I enjoyed the challenge that you get. What I learned along the way is that you can read as many books as you want, but you don’t know anything until you get into where you’re working. And I do feel that mechanical background helps in everyday life in the highway department.”
Jim worked as an MEO for 15 years until he was promoted to highway supervisor. He was in that position for approximately seven years. He’s been superintendent since 1994.
“I pretty much worked into this position,” he said. “While I was foreman, I was being taught the superintendent role. Unfortunately, I kind of fell into the position because my superintendent, Charles Angelo, became ill and was out for two years. So with his help through phone calls during this time, he guided me through step by step. He eventually retired and I took over in 1994. Charles passed away about three years after he retired.”
Becoming foreman was a big change for Jim. “You’re like the fulcrum of a seesaw,” he said. “You have the employees on one side and management on the other side. And you’re stuck in the middle. You basically try to please everybody, and it’s the same way as a superintendent. You have to keep management happy. With the employees you have to — I don’t personally like being pushy or bossy — but they do know that when there’s a time to do something that it has to get done. And nobody likes to get angry over anything. It’s the same thing for Tommy Tiernan, whom you profiled in another issue [May 2006]. He said, ‘there’s a time when you have to be stern and there’s a time when you can joke around.’”
This philosophy has worked well for Jim and his co-workers.
“We had all worked together for a long time. Back when I started, I was the first person hired in 12 years in the DPW. Also back then, everybody was in the fire department, too, so we had after work contact. So there was almost like a friendly, family-like atmosphere here,” Jim said.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Jim while moving up the ladder.
“When I was appointed superintendent I was a little nervous. There was, and is, a lot of responsibility. Most challenging was learning how to get everything done within a certain time frame. Realizing that sometimes you get shorthanded, sometimes you get a storm right in the middle of a project so you can’t go out, which means you have to switch your gears and go back to cleaning up after the storm. We are a peninsula so we get nailed every time there’s a sizable storm. So suddenly I had to make the decisions on all these things,” Jim said.
Jim added that in the first few years he had to learn to deal with budgetary concerns, going over old records and just trying to compile everything into a new standard. He learned this through “trial and error.” He also had a lot of help from the mayor, Michael C. Kalnick, and the board of trustees.
Jim was president of the American Public Works Association (APWA) last year for the Long Island branch. He is vice president this year for the second time. He’s been a member of the APWA for the past 15 years.
Jim grew up in Great Neck, just four houses from the Kings Point border. He went to Great Neck North High School and also took auto mechanics at Nassau County Voces; splitting his days between the two.
Jim got his degree in auto mechanics, and learned a lot from working with his father, Charles, when he was young. For Jim’s 12th birthday his father gave him a Renault to get running. Then on his 16th birthday he got a ’57 Chevy that he completely rebuilt.
The Kings Point Department of Public Works
“To cut to the chase, we’re very small. We don’t handle garbage; that’s contracted out. We basically handle road repair, tree planting and removal, sidewalk repair, drainage, curbs, striping, sign painting,” Jim said.
All of the street signs in Kings Point are hand-built; they’re made out of one-inch plywood and the letters are cut out from templates. The department is responsible for 56 center line miles and one culvert on East Shore Road.
The Kings Point DPW oversees the maintenance of the 12 police vehicles. Their fleet includes four dump trucks, a payloader, a sweeper, and they still have the 1973 tractor kicking around, Jim said.
“We’re in the process of trading in two dump trucks for two new ones; all of our trucks are four-wheel drive. We’ll mostly get these off of state contract from Syosset Truck. We deal with everybody around here; we have a payloader from Ehrbar, we have a backhoe from H.O. Penn. We have a roller from All Island Equipment; we just bought a Bobcat off of a state contract from Bobcat of Long Island,” Jim said.
All seven crew members are full-time, but the department is in the process of procuring a part-time seasonal position for the summer for painting, grass cutting … a jack-of-all-trades, Jim said.
All roads are paved. Only in the case of an emergency will the DPW help out with some of the privately maintained roads. If there is a bad storm and the police call for assistance, the DPW will open the road up.
The Kings Point Military Academy has its own maintenance department. The Kings Point DPW occasionally lends them a hand, such as bollards, which they put up to stop traffic.
“The biggest thing we have collaborated with them on was on 9/11. The DPW blockaded the entire academy — all their entrances — with dirt and bric ’n brac. The academy only wanted one entrance/exit. Kings Point Military Academy contacted us right away and we finished it that day within three hours.”
White Snow, Black Roads
“We use salt on the roads here. We’re looking into using a brine solution, something similar to what Tom Tiernan and his department uses in the Town of North Hempstead,” Jim said. “We’re right now trying to get prices on the units, find out what it’s going to cost us to retrofit our existing trucks, which will help us with the design of the new trucks because now we don’t know whether or not we’ll have to stretch the chassis to put a tank in between the cab and the chassis.”
Jim said that his department mixes in some sand, but has significantly reduced its usage.
“It [sand] really wasn’t cost-effective, even though the sand is cheap, it kills us for removal of it,” he said. “Kings Point has always been known for having black roads after it snows. Some people have said that there’s an umbrella over the Kings Point when it snows because our roads are black generally about eight hours after the storm. We have three plowing routes and three big trucks that go out. If we get a major storm, we’ll send a fourth one out just to do the main roads. It takes roughly two-and-half to three hours to do one loop.”
“We do sweeping and line striping. The sweeping program is ongoing. The sweeper is out a minimum of three days week, covering all 56 centerline miles of road in the village,” Jim said. “We have certain streets where we get some washout on constantly. We call them the ‘rain streets’ and we just hit them right after it rains because we know there’s going to be debris there. Basically we try to keep the same person working on the sweeper. There are three guys who handle sweeping duties. This, of course, presents a scheduling problem. It’s very hard; sometimes you put one guy out to do something for two hours then have to send him someplace else … wait for the asphalt truck to come in, etc.”
The Kings Point DPW also does catch basin repair and maintains (mows) approximately 18 turnarounds.
Leaves Fall ’n Autumn
“We collect leaves; since I’ve been in management, we used to maintain all the roads to a level where we had to rake 15 feet back into the yards and pickup everything. The village changed the ordinance to where the homeowners are responsible for their property out to the curb.
“So basically our leaf maintenance involves whatever village property we have. We have a few grassy areas near some entrances and a couple of malls. The size of the Village Hall though is a project-and-a-half when the leaves start coming down. We plan to get a new leaf vacuum soon to help us with clearing the leaves in the roads,” Jim said.
The Kings Point DPW generally has dumpsters in which to put the leaves. “We used to haul the leaves to the dump, but when costs were analyzed and we took a look at the size of our trucks, we determined that it would be more cost-effective to have a dumpster and have a contractor pick it up. So instead of putting in 30 yards of leaves, which is roughly about five truckloads, there’s far less time and money involved using a 30-yard dumpster.”
Currently, the highway department has a culvert repair project on East Shore Road. The roadway is closed for three months while it’s being done.
“The contractor, Ferran Development of Farmingdale, NY, is repairing a wall that was collapsing; it was an old stone wall; it will be poured concrete and will feature a stone appearance, a special form that the concrete is poured into. The culvert is approximately 75 to 100 years old.” Jim said.
“We have two sections of roads that consist of eight different road names where we’ll be putting drainage in as well as curbs. It will be just a little over a mile. We’ll be excavating a lot of material because it’s clay. It’s contracted out now; we’re just waiting to get the bids back. This project should start this summer and run right up until winter. Some of it may be held over until spring 2007,” Jim said.
Once these projects get started, the Kings Point DPW will begin planning its projects for the following year. “We’ve done one of these projects each year for the past eight years. We evaluate them each year, and actually this year two of the roads were added on to the project because they were in poor condition after the winter.”
Jim and his crews also have their sights set on a new highway facility.
“The highway facility is old; it’s actually a car garage,” Jim said. “We converted it as much as we could. It has seven bays, and we have two bays at another small facility. The two-bay-garage is where our salt shed is. When I first started here, our trucks were ordered to be less than 10 feet tall. Now at least our doors are 10 feet. I have quite a bit of my equipment outside. I’m confident we’ll get a new garage.”
Passing the Torch?
Jim plans to retire in August 2007.
“I think 30 years has been long enough and I’d like to try different things,” Jim said. “We’ll be in good hands, though. We have a labor supervisor, Michael Moorehead. He’s been with the department for 14 years. This position was actually created for Michael. He’s got the knowledge; he’s a great worker and he will be a great superintendent. It’s going to be a shame for the crew when he becomes superintendent because he’s a hands-on guy and he’ll have less time to do that because he’ll obviously have many different responsibilities.”
What does Jim want to do when he retires?
“I’d like to get into boating sales or possibly boat repairs … electronics installations on boats and so forth. More of a boating type job, I think,” said Jim, who owns a 35 Sea Ray, which he keeps in Manhasset Bay.
“We’re thinking of moving to Florida for the first year or maybe for two or three months just to get a general idea of where we want to move. It’s a definite in our head, but whether it winds up being a reality, I don’t know. If we do go to Florida, I’ll miss the changing of the seasons, though, here in New York.”
“The way I look at it is that ever since I was 16 years old, I’ve worked in snow. I never really just stood outside and got covered in snow and said, ‘Hey, I don’t have to work today.’
Jim has been married to his second wife, Joyce, for 12 years, and he has three children — James Jr., 28; Janine, 24; and Elyse Martin, 24.
Janine works as an operating room nurse at North Shore Hospital. James Jr. works for a house-remodeling contractor, but he recently took the New York City police test and will be taking the New York City fire department test in October. He currently lives in Boston, but is looking to moving back to Long Island. Elyse works at a restaurant in Las Vegas.
In addition to being past president of the APWA-Metro NY, Long Island Branch, James is a member of the New York Conference of Mayors. He also is a member of the local volunteer fire department, the Great Neck Alerts. He’s been doing this for 15 years. His hobbies are boating and golf.
About the Village of Kings Point
It was through unlucky circumstances that former New York Gov. John Alsop King first built on the land that is now Kings Point.
In the mid-1800s, after King and a relative inherited a strip of land north of Great Neck, a coin toss decided who would get the fertile farmland to the east and who would be stuck with the rocky shoreline and woods. King, who also was a congressman and a founder of the Republican Party, lost. He built a home on the craggy shore overlooking Long Island Sound — now among the most expensive real estate on Long Island. Kings Point became part of a loose group of associations that included Elm Point, Grenwolde, East Shore and Gracefield.
In 1924, Kings Point and the surrounding areas were incorporated as one village by residents concerned about preserving its rural charm and individuality. Some of the key people in the move to incorporate were driven by environmental conservation issues, ideals well ahead of the time. The village became a model of the Roaring ’20s on Long Island’s Gold Coast, with wild jazz parties thrown by such glamorous residents as Wall Street titan Jesse Livermore, store owner Henri Bendel and car manufacturer Alfred P. Sloan, among others. Such lavish events set the stage for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, “The Great Gatsby,” in which Kings Point was portrayed as West Egg.
In 1942 the federal government established the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy on a Kings Point estate purchased from auto manufacturer Walter P. Chrysler. His 35-room marble mansion became the administration hall. The academy was the only military institution from which undergraduate cadets served in World War II. More than 260 cadets gave their lives.
Besides Sloan, Chrysler and Livermore, Kings Point has been the home of mansions belonging to actor and playwright George M. Cohan, electric energy pioneer William S. Barstow and copper mogul Arthur S. Dwight.
(This section courtesy of Newsday Inc.) P