Superintendent of Highways James Fugel and the Town of Olive

Jim Fugel, highway superintendent of the town of Olive, has been having a love affair with cars for most of his life. What started when he was a kid working in his family’s automotive shop branched out to racing dirt cars and ultimately landed him the highway department’s top spot.

Jim—Jimmy to his friends—was born in New York City. His family moved to Long Island when he was three and then to High Falls (in the town of Marbletown) when Jim was nine.

“From that time until adulthood I lived three miles up the road in the town of Olive in West Shokan. I graduated from high school in the Onteora Central School District right here in Boiceville. I attended BOCES Welding School while in high school and graduated at the top of my class in 1968. After that I was drafted into the army,” Jim said.

“Originally I was given an MOS [military occupational skill] as a welder,” he continued. “I was sent to Fort Hood, Texas, where I had an opportunity to go to school. I went for an M60-M60-A1 tank, which probably is in a museum now. Most people have seen them on television when they’re firing tanks at targets. They are the targets. When I left the army in 1972 I was a turret repairman. Turrets are the top part of a tank that moves with the gun.”

Once Jim’s military career was complete, he returned to his first vocation, the automotive industry.

“I have been involved in that business most of my life. We had a family-owned body shop in Saugerties, N.Y., for almost 15 years. I started working there as a helper when I was 13,” he recalled. “When my parents moved to Georgia in 1977, I went to work at my father-in-law’s excavating business. I eventually was laid off from there and took a job as a parts man with a John Deere dealership in High Falls.”

Jim left the dealership to open his own auto body shop, but a friend had other plans for him.

Joining the Crew

“Bob Bruckner was the highway superintendent at that time and one of my childhood friends. He kept trying to get me to come and work for the highway department. Finally, in 1990, I did,” said Jim.

He began his tenure with the department as a heavy equipment operator (HEO) specializing in welding and fabricating.

“I ran the grader, drove a truck and plowed snow but most of the time I was in the shop. Any time something was broken I fixed it thanks to my auto body background, Jim explained.”

In 2001 Bruckner was planning to retire and wanted Jim to throw his hat in the ring for the position.

“I really didn’t want to but 11 of the 14 guys on staff approached me—one by one—and asked me to run,” said Jim. “I thought if I had the support of most of the men it wouldn’t be so bad. So I decided to do it. That was eight years ago. I’m near the end of my second four-year term and I’m up for re-election.”

As the highway department’s “commander in chief,” Jim is in charge of keeping up the town’s 70 lane miles of road; five of which are gravel and the rest are paved. That translates into 11 plowing routes that take about four hours to complete.

Jim’s 13-member crew help serve the town’s 4,641 residents. His staff includes David Faulkner and Kevin Tyler, HEOs and working supervisors; Joey Minew and Bob Olsen, HEO mechanics; HEOs Brian Burns, Jack Giuditta, Jimmy Henderson, Tommy Kraus, Andy Martin, Thom Martin, Greg McCauley and Chris Winne; and Grant Dewitt, laborer. Perhaps Jim’s most important staff member is his “right-hand-ma’am,” Jennifer Vines.

“She’s more than just my secretary,” Jim said.

Jim knows the importance of having a good and loyal staff.

“They make or break you. I have a great crew and I praise them all the time. I know what goes on in other towns and my crew gets more done in one day than most towns.”

Jim credits his pre-superintendent years with the highway department for helping him do his job well.

“Every superintendent who ever sat in this seat came from [within] the highway department. I believe that’s the only place they should come from. Someone from the outside has no idea how a highway department really works. I prepared for the job by watching what my former boss did.”

About the Job

The highway department’s facilities consist of three buildings and 12 bays. The structure’s main section was constructed circa 1965. The town has expanded the building several times since then.

There also is a 50 by 100 ft. (15 by 30.5 m) salt/sand mix storage shed.

“The department doesn’t have a building for straight salt,”Jim said. “Instead we have salt delivered as needed. There is a huge sand pile on the premises and as we work our shed down during the winter I order more salt—usually in 100-ton increments. We’ll mix it together and refill the shed throughout the season. Our deliveries come from Mt. Marion, which is about 20 miles away. The wait depends on how bad a winter we’re having,” Jim explained.

Under Jim’s conscientious eye, the town of Olive’s highway department runs on a total operating budget of $1,636,302 that includes salaries and benefits for employees and an annual CHIPS allocation of $115,328.

To help with its daily operation the department uses an armada of equipment that includes:

• 1993 International Harvester

• 1999 International Harvester

• 2005 International Harvester

• 2007 International Harvester

• 2008 International Harvester

• 1979 Oshkosh

• 2003 Ford F550

• 2006 Ford F550

• 2003 Chevrolet Pickup

• 2008 Ford F350 Pickup

• Bucket truck

When making major equipment purchases Jim draws from reserves from unexpended balances.

“Our budget has an equipment line but basically it only covers small items. Whatever money is left over at the end of the year is put into a reserve account.”

Jim strives to buy one new machine every year.

“We don’t bond or lease. We primarily buy new but on occasion I have purchased used apparatus. When I took over the department’s equipment was all OshKosh pieces from the 60s. One winter several wheels broke and we couldn’t replace them because they were obsolete.”

This highway super is not convinced, however, that the more technically advanced machines are better.

“You always could jerry rig the old ones and make them run,” he joked. “Not so with the new ones. A $10 part can put a $200,000 truck right out of business and unfortunately quite often it has to go back to the dealer. The older models could be fixed in-house. Our department recently purchased a computer system and software that will enable us to diagnose equipment problem ourselves.”

Keeping the Road Smooth

Each year Jim and his crew strive to repair or repave seven road miles but they usually fall short of that goal.

“It’s more like three miles mainly because of a lack of money. The CHIPS program works on a 10-year cycle, which means every road should be resurfaced or resealed every 10 years. That’s the life expectancy of most roads. In our case we have 70 miles of road. That means we should be doing seven miles a year. We never achieve that. A department’s not allowed to spend CHIPS money on a road in less than 10 years. For us it’s more like 15 to 20 years before we get back to it. We always have plenty of roads to spend money on.”

Since Jim has been in charge the department has done away with the oil and chip method of paving. Instead they do things the moto-paving way.

“The benefit of moto-paving is that the stone is hauled close to the job. Because we’re located so far from the plants it’s not feasible for us to use blacktop. Peckham Industries would bring in the oil and the moto-paver and mix it right in the road. Moto-paved surfaces stay pliable for nearly their entire life span, which oftentimes is 10 years.

“This type of paving has become popular in this area. Blacktop costs about 50 percent more and requires the road to have a good base because any movement will cause the blacktop to crack. Moto-pave moves with a surface so there is no cracking. The old oil and chip method also was extremely labor intensive. Workers would lay down a coat of oil followed by a layer of stone and repeat those steps over and over again.”

Ups and Downs

Jim believes that being a highway superintendent today requires a lot more of his time.

“It used to be almost a part-time job but those days are over,” he said. “My day is busiest in the morning. That’s when we field most of our phone calls. That takes more time. People want more than they used to. This is such a rural town. People move up here from the city [New York] and want to know why the services they had down there aren’t available here, like leaf pick-up.”

In addition to its regular duties the highway department is responsible for maintaining the town’s three major parks, its Olympic-size swimming pool, the adjacent buildings and the landfill.

“We open the pool in the spring and close it in the fall and fix everything and anything that breaks in between. We also mow and seed the softball field and repair the fences.”

Like most highway superintendents, Jim finds helping residents one of the more rewarding aspects of his job.

“It’s always nice when you can help out someone who’s had a problem for years that no one has addressed. Instead of putting a band-aid on it I try to figure out a way to fix it and be done with it.”

Running his department on a shoestring budget is what frustrates him.

“Stretching a dollar to get the most from what you have to work with is quite challenging. We are capable of doing a lot more if only we had the money.”

Looking back one of the highlights of the job thus far for Jim involved the work the department did on a stretch of road in Boiseville.

“This particular section constantly was the scene of accidents and several people lost their lives. Working with the state I was able to close both ends of the road and make a 90-degree common entrance/exit in the center and eliminate the problem.”

When the time comes for Jim to turn over the superintendent’s reins to his successor how would he like to be remembered?

“As someone who brought the highway department to the next level. There was a lot of antiquated equipment here when I took over. My predecessor was very old-school. He didn’t believe in buying anything new or trying new techniques. There were no cell phones or pagers. Since I’ve been in charge we strive to purchase one major piece of equipment every year.”

Jim would like to spend his retirement years doing “something that is totally unweather-related. I’d like to deliver parts for NAPA. I’d like to travel, especially to the Grand Canyon, and spend time on the water fishing, boating and water skiing.”

Off to the Races

In the meantime Jim spends his spare time racing cars.

“I have raced cars everywhere within a 100-mile radius of here since I was a kid. I’m involved in dirt or oval track racing.”

It all began with his fascination with cars and being in the autobody shop business.

“I started out helping someone else with a car, then wanting my own car and it snowballed from there. At one point I had three cars and I’d race all of them on any given weekend,” said Jim. “They were dirt cars, not just cars off the road. They’re similar to those used in NASCAR racing. The cars aren’t built the same because of the surface on which they run. Dirt cars are lower and the set up is different. The cars I’m driving now are called IMCA [International Motor Contest Association] modified and are designed to run on either surface.”

So what’s the thrill?

“I’m the kind of guy who makes everything. I get a thrill out of competing with less against someone who has bought everything. I do pretty well. I’ve won numerous track championships at various tracks for a total of about 30 features throughout my career.”

Jim has a daughter, Jennifer, 27, and twin granddaughters, Sarah and Lila, 3. He is a member and treasurer of the Highway Superintendent’s Association of Ulster County and a member of the NYS Association of Town Superintendents of Highways Inc.

About the Town of Olive

Nestled in New York State’s Catskill Mountains is 40,000 acres known as the town of Olive. Theory has it that in 1824 it was so named from the biblical story of the dove returning to Noah’s ark with an olive branch. The Ashokan Reservoir geographically divides Olive to the north and south. The hamlets around the shoreline are Boiceville, Olivebridge, Samsonville, Krumville, Shokan, West Shokan and Ashokan.

The first town meeting was held on the second Tuesday in May 1824. Conducted at the home of Uriah Schutt in Olive City, the meeting was presided over by Abraham LaDew and William Schutt. Officers were elected: for the positions of supervisor, town clerk, assessors, overseers of the poor, commissioners of schools, collector, constables, fence viewers and inspectors of schools.

It was voted that $200 be raised for the poor; that the next town meeting be held at Uriah Schutts’ home; and that swine should be considered Commoners provided they had on yokes and rings. It also was determined that the collector shall collect .03 cents on a dollar and that a lawful fence be four feet and four inches high.

Gordon Craig held the office of supervisor for several years and in 1832 he became the first representative to the state legislature. He also became the first postmaster in the Olive (Tongore) Post Office that same year. At the same time he ran the only store in the town.

The passing of the Water Act of 1905 led to the building of the handmade Ashokan Dam on the Esopus Creek. Upon its completion in 1916 the Ashokan Reservoir was created. It became the main water supply for New York City—Olive’s largest landowner. The demand for pure, clean drinking water for that city’s inhabitants changed the course of history for the town of Olive and still impacts the everyday life of its residents today. The town center and the majority of the residents were forced from the rich Esopus Valley and relocated to the nearby foothills. In May 1997 Land Use Regulations, which could become a model for the rest of the country, became effective as a Memorandum of Agreement signed between Watershed Towns and the City of New York to provide for protection of water quality throughout the New York City Watershed.

The dividing weir at the Ashokan Reservoir offers panoramic views of the southeastern Catskill Mountains with Route 28A being a scenic drive through the southern side of the reservoir.

Traveling west on State Route 28, Olive is 30 minutes from Kingston—the first capitol of New York—and is a little more than an hour travel time to the state’s current capitol, Albany. Being only two hours north of New York City and totally within the Catskill State Park, Olive has been a seasonal recreational area for New Yorkers. The days of boarding houses and hunting camps popularized in the 30s, 40s and 50s are long gone. Today visitors will find seasonal second homes or primary residences for many city dwellers.

The major industries of timber harvesting, tanneries and excelsior mills, which once ravaged the mountains of Olive, vanished when the Catskill Forest Preserve was created in 1885 to forever maintain the wild forest lands. The Preserve serves as a watershed and scenic reserve supporting recreational usage of hiking, cross country skiing, camping, hunting and fishing.

The Catskills have been a favorite tourist destination for more than 100 years. Today, the town of Olive is primarily residential, with a large percentage of seasonal residents and a limited number of backyard farms with victory gardens.

History courtesy of P

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