Highway Superintendent Peter Harris and the Town of Southold

In 1972, a young Peter Harris spent the summer working for the town of Southold. At the end of the summer when he went to the office of Highway Superintendent Raymond Dean to thank him for the opportunity, he was asked how he liked working for the town and what his career plans were. “I told him that someday I wanted his job,” Harris recalled with a smile.

“Someday” occurred in 2001. After working for the New York State Department of Transportation for 28 years — 24 of them as a highway maintenance supervisor — Harris became the town’s highway superintendent. Ten years later, he continues to serve in that position.

Harris’ tenure has weathered many challenges, not the least of which was weather itself. Last year, Southold survived Hurricane Irene, thanks in large part to the department’s training in emergency preparedness. All staff was on hand as the storm approached, and they quickly put into place what they’d been taught.

“We sent staff and equipment to different locations across the township and had them ready to be dispatched,” Harris said. Once the storm had cleared, staff and equipment were in place to begin clearing roads. Within six hours, every road was open and passable, allowing emergency vehicles to respond to power outages, accidents, fires and other emergencies. The cleanup began immediately afterwards.

Criticism from the fire department for waiting for the storm to end before clearing roads hurt the hometown superintendent who put the safety of his staff first.

“They seemed to think that we should have been out there clearing the roads before the storm had ended,” he said. “My department is not made up of a bunch of cowboys. Dispatching them during the storm would have been a mistake. We followed procedure.”

One of the keys to safely executing their plan was to wait until the winds had calmed down before crews were dispatched so that their response was safely executed, Harris said.

“To clean up [fallen] trees during the storm would have accomplished nothing but putting our workers in harm’s way. We don’t need equipment out clearing the roads that ends up getting destroyed [or] progress stopped because a tree fell on the piece of equipment and injured or killed the operator.”

Harris’ sensitivity to his staff has contributed to his success as the head of the department. A lifelong Southold resident with a storied career in highway work, he knows and understands the people, the land and the challenges of this scenic region.

Equipping the Department

Because of its isolation, Fishers Island has a deputy highway superintendent and two workers permanently assigned there. With a town board focused on reducing the size of local government, that’s a big part of Harris’ budget and staff allotment.

“I have already reduced my department by six people through the use of early retirement,” he said. Cutting staff makes covering vacation days and comp time even more difficult

The cuts also make completing jobs in the town of Southold difficult, Harris said.

“Last year we needed to use [Department of Public Works] employees and solid waste management employees to complete snowplowing.”

Fortunately, snow removal is not typically a big issue on the island, but while last year was mild with little or no snow, the year before dropped 60 to 70 inches of the white precipitation.

A bigger issue than snow removal is that many local residents don’t adjust their driving style or their speed for snow conditions, Harris said.

“Yet, when the inevitable accident occurs, they immediately blame our department.”

No matter how many employees are available to do the job — or what department they’re from — it’s just as critical to have the right equipment to get the job done. That’s been another of Harris’ challenges.

“Much of my fleet is getting pretty old,” he admitted.

A few years ago the board charged him with developing a fleet replacement plan that led to his 10-year replacement plan for cycling out older equipment. Unfortunately, after the second year, a restricted budget decimated the plan.

“The third, fourth and fifth years I was told we had no money,” Harris said.

Funds budgeted for replacement equipment were diverted elsewhere.

“One of the challenges I have is that several of our board members are farmers,” Harris said. “Oftentimes, a farmer will have a different standard for what is a safe and acceptable piece of equipment than what we need to have when public employees are using equipment around our township’s residents. It gets very frustrating to see money that was budgeted for replacement equipment being put into the town’s capital funds and ultimately getting spent elsewhere. Then when I ask for money for the highway department I’m told that it’s not there. As a result, my fleet is deteriorating significantly.”

He did, however, recently add a new Hyundai loader. Like any other township, they load a lot of material — and make heavy use of attachments for the loader, such as grapple buckets, Harris said.

“Every spring we do a town-wide leaf and brush cleanup. From that material we make mulch and sell it back to the residents.”

Residents put their leaves, wood and other organics on the curb and the department uses grapple buckets to grab and load.

“We have found that for this application the grapple bucket is far more effective than a 4-in-1 bucket.”

The Hyundai loader was purchased off a New York State contract through local dealer All Island Equipment. Over the years, Harris said, the town has purchased Takeuchi loaders, LeeBoy pavers, Interstate trailers and Dynapac rollers from All Island.

“We have been very comfortable with the support we have received from Gary Wade, the owner, and his staff. That has made us very comfortable purchasing state contract items when they are available through All Island.”

Before the town’s first Hyundai purchase years ago, Harris traveled to Syracuse to see some of the Hyundai machines in action.

“I was impressed with what I saw: a well designed, heavy-duty loader that would meet our needs for $40,000 less than other loaders.”

Although he realized that buying a brand name unfamiliar to the board members could be a risky decision and knowing that he could be “voted out of here tomorrow,” he believed he needed “to do what’s best for our local taxpayers regardless of whether or not it is a popular decision.”

Not only did it turn out to be the right decision, but it wasn’t the last time Harris stuck his neck out for the residents’ benefit. During the decision-making process regarding purchase of their first Hyundai loader, Harris approached the board about sending him to ConExpo, where he would have an opportunity to closely examine every make and model.

“It’s an unusual opportunity to discuss directly with factory representatives the features and benefits of every feasible piece of equipment that our department uses.”

The Board said no.

Harris then made the decision to go on “my own time and on my own dime.” For three days he examined equipment from the time the show opened until the time the show closed.

“When it was all said and done, I decided that the Hyundai machines were the best buy for our dollar for our township.”

Trying to make the best purchasing decisions is not always an easy process, Harris said, but he finds ConExpo helpful.

“The computer does not tell you all you need to know. You can’t sit in the cab; you can’t look the representative in the eyes. ConExpo gives you that opportunity.”

Through years of experience on the job, Harris has learned to insist on certain features when he purchases new equipment. For example, all tractors purchased for the mowing fleet, most of which come from Lacorte Equipment, a local John Deere dealer, have cabs.

“We had an operator get hit in the face with a flying piece of metal while he was moving. It nearly took his eye out. Since that time, we have purchased all of our tractors with cabs.”

Cabs also provide climate control so operators can work comfortably in extreme heat and cold and during light rain.

Goal, Met, Match

The best part of his job, Harris said, is simply “working in the town I grew up in: my hometown. I’m a blue collar guy who worked his way into a management position and I try to make it a point to never forget where I came from.”

Remembering his roots makes him an effective superintendent because he takes into consideration the taxpayer’s perspective as well as his workers’ safety. Above all, his honesty, straight-forward assessment of situations and dedication to the town and its residents have kept him in the dream job he set his sights on 40 years ago.

Harris said he just does the best job he can. “I always give honest answers and go out of my way not to make promises that I know will not work.”

About the Town

of Southold

Founded in 1640 and credited as the first English settlement on Long Island, Southold lies on the northeastern tip of Long Island on a peninsula called North Fork, which is part of a chain of islands separated from Connecticut by the Long Island Sound.

The site of an early Revolutionary War raid, Southold figured in later military operations as the site of the nation’s first submarine base. The USS Holland, the first submarine commissioned by the U.S. Navy, was based there. But its fleeting martial past belies Southold’s pastoral peacefulness. The island’s gently rolling hills are punctuated by fields where corn and hay help feed local horse farms. Twenty-three area vineyards produce some of the United States’ finest Merlot and Cabernet wines and attract tourists, who are also drawn to the area’s pumpkin patches, nurseries and pristine beaches.

Once home to renown political activist and educator Helen Keller, the 53-square-mile island has a current permanent population of just under 21,000 — a number that by all estimates practically doubles in the summer due to the influx of tourists drawn to its tranquility and natural beauty.

Of the permanent residents, many were born and raised on the island, with family roots deep in the area’s rich agricultural heritage or its long-running fishing industry. Like much of eastern Long Island, these two typical kinds of residents share their rustic, agrarian island with some of the nation’s well established and “old-money” families who have chosen Southold and nearby Fishers Island as destinations for their summer vacations where they have built exclusive estates and luxurious summer homes that reflect an emphasis on tradition.

Discovered in 1614 by Dutch explorer Adrian Block when Pequot Indians inhabited it, nine-mile-long Fishers Island was formed during the last Ice Age as glaciers receded. A hamlet for fishing and yachting gave rise to the founding of the Fishers Island Yacht Club in 1886.

An ownership dispute between Connecticut and New York was resolved by a joint commission in 1889: Despite its proximity to Connecticut, it belongs to New York. Accessible only by ferry from Connecticut, Fishers Island remains part of New York State and its fourteen miles of roads are maintained by the Town of Southold.

Although it benefits from the prevailing winds blowing off the eastern end of Long Island Sound that provide a pleasant oceanic climate, which creates warm autumns and winters and more moderate late summer temperatures than nearby Connecticut, Fishers Island is considered a “hurricane haven” that is a magnet for foul weather. A U.S. Navy Meteorological reports that 84 tropical storms, including 32 hurricanes, passed within 180 miles of Fishers Island between 1886 and 1996, including the great hurricane of 1938.

Nevertheless, agreeable weather, the Fishers Island Country Club — one of North America’s top 100-rated invitation-only courses, which offers extraordinary views of the ocean from every hole — and picturesque vistas (the seaside scenes in the movie The World According to Garp were shot on the grounds of the Fishers Island mansion built by Bethlehem Steel heir Robert Linderman) make it a playground for tourists as well as the leisure class.

From a year-round total of approximately 235, the summer population swells to 2,000, all attracted to an island paradise preserved by the absence of a bridge to the rest of America. Many of the large summer estates on the eastern two-thirds of the island are reachable only by a single private road protected by a guard shed.

The island is so isolated that it takes a full day for one of Harris’ staff to take the ferry over, deliver a load of material and return the truck to Southold. Excluding the cost of labor, it costs the town about $800 to take a single load of material to Fishers Island.

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