Highway Superintendent George Woodson and the Town of Riverhead

George Woodson considers himself a lifelong resident of Riverhead, N.Y., having lived there for 50 years, excluding the four years he served with the U.S. Army as a military police traffic investigator.

George was first hired in the town of Riverhead’s highway department as a laborer in 1985. After working up the chain to crew leader he made his first attempt to get the position of highway superintendent and was not successful: he lost the election to the seated highway superintendent by 50 votes.

“It was a tough deal serving under the highway superintendent that I had run against and lost to, but the mental aspect of my military training came into play and I was able to make it through the challenges,” he said.

Two years later, he ran again and won, and in 2008, George took over the responsibilities of highway superintendent after working for the department for 20 years. After winning another two-year term in 2010, he petitioned that the position be changed to four-year terms. The board put it up for a public vote and the public approved the referendum. In the last election, George received 80 percent of the votes.

One of his biggest initial challenges was learning the administrative aspects of the job, which he had not previously been exposed to. He still loves the highway aspect of the job, however, and has kept his CDL up to date so that he can run the trucks when needed.

George considers a good day at the office when 60 percent of the day’s challenges go right, and he prides himself on his ability to adapt.

“There is no such thing as a perfect day,” he said. “The secret is to stay calm, know your people, and know which ones you can go to and rely on, and you’d better be able to think on your feet.”

George also has served as fire chief in Riverhead for seven years and is still a member of the fire department after 27 years.

“I am a big believer in volunteer service,” he said.

George currently serves in the position of chief and he is the first vice-president of the Riverhead Fire Chiefs Association. He also is the president of the Suffolk County Highway Superintendents Association, where his main function is to work with vendors and to organize going to Albany each year as a group to petition for CHIPS money.

“Our current CHIPS budget is $395,000 per year and that has not changed much since the 1980s. We still petition Albany each year for more. This is necessary because some of our equipment costs have increased by as much as 100 percent since the 1980s. Also as a member of the New York State Association of Town Superintendents of Highways [NYSAOTSOH], I petition other Long Island highway superintendents to get more involved with the State association.”

Equipment Needs

Before George started as superintendent, the department had very little money available for equipment purchases. The funds for equipment has not increased in over 25 years, but the equipment cost has almost tripled.

“We are working to get that changed,” he said.

But he was able to work with the board to purchase five new trucks recently. Now, he tries to purchase two new trucks every two years, assuming they get budget approval.

When it comes to buying new equipment lately, Riverhead has been “piggy-backing” off of various NYS contracts. However, when it comes to used equipment, George is not afraid to buy at auction. If you don’t have the funds you have to be creative.

“New York City holds an auction for excess equipment regularly. From that sale, I have recently picked up two pickup trucks, two safety trucks, and a 10-wheel Mack at some pretty amazing prices.

“We also purchase distressed Federal government equipment. I was turned on to this process from a story in the Superintendents Profile about the highway superintendent in Binghamton, N.Y. [Michael Donahue, January-February 2011 issue of Superintendent’s Profile] I was amazed to find out that any purchase from government agencies is exempt from the bid process.”

Buying government surplus equipment has allowed him to buy useful equipment that most towns with a similar budget would never be able to have, including:

• Five Mack trucks purchased at New York City’s municipal truck auction for $6,000 each that were worth at least $75,000 each; new cost $300,000

• The brine machine would cost $28,000; George has about $6,000 invested in it;

• A 6,000 gallon water truck was purchased for $1,200;

• A rough-terrain fork truck was purchased for $2,500;

• A Komatsu crawler loader was purchased for $19,000;

• A 5-ton wrecker was purchased for $5,000;

• Safety trucks were purchased for $4,000;

• A pothole patcher was purchased for $19,000;

• Two Oshkosh trucks from Fort Drum for free; and

• One Large self-propelled snow blower, typically seen working at airports, was purchased for $5,000.

Of course, some items need to be purchased new and George is particularly proud about (and the crew appreciates) two new Freightliner trucks and two F550s trucks that were recently purchased and are equipped with their bodies and snow removal equipment.

Other equipment includes: five rubber-tired front-end loaders; two Vac-Con basin washers; one clamshell dump truck; 16 International trucks with dumps and plows; four Freightliner trucks with dumps and plows; two 10-wheel Mack trucks with dumps and plows; two Mack roll-off trucks; two Bobcat skid steers with attachments; one Takeuchi track loader; one ASI track loader; five hot boxes; four sweepers; two brush mowers; four side-arm mowers; two Hustler mowers; one Case tractor loader backhoe; one Samsung excavator; one LeeBoy paver; two small rollers; two Peterbilt tractors with tri-axle aluminum dump trailers; one lowboy trailer; one shop truck; two Seam seal machines; six pickups trucks; one Cat grader; one 32 ft. bucket truck; two Chevy small dumps; and one 1956 Walters snowplow.

The Best of the Best

“Our crew size has reduced from 47 to 32. I give all credit to my employees, they work hard when needed. We have reduced our workforce by a third. As guys have retired, we have not replaced them and we are definitely getting the same job done with fewer people. But don’t tell my board that,” he joked.

“I believe that our department is now better organized and we now have the right equipment to address each job that we tackle.”

George is a strong believer in on-the-job training.

“Education is important — going out with the crew or sending someone out with the crew who knows how each job is to be done and at the end of the day, making sure that crew understands how that particular job should be done in the future.

“I have a tight management philosophy and I make sure that everyone on the crew understands it. That philosophy includes come to work on time, do your job, show respect to your fellow workers, be safe, and go home to your family at the end of the day.

“If you’re going to be the man in charge you need to take responsibility. If the board is wrong, fight the board and get what is needed for your department to function properly. Understand the job; be out in the field. The guy who sits behind the desk all day has no idea what his department needs.”

George also is a strong proponent of maintenance. During downtime, four or five employees are assigned to maintenance and inspection. They look for any signs of rust or wear and do fabrication as needed. Maintenance of equipment also includes truck washing, then power washing after every storm when applicable.

Key personnel includes: Mark Gajowski [now retired], deputy superintendent; Mike Zaleski, lead mechanic and new deputy supt; Sue Beal, senior administrative assistant [now retired]; and Donna Testa, A.C.T. and Joan Mottern A.C.T.

The crew communicates via high band radios and a GPS system is used for the monitoring of all vehicles.

Facilities Now, and in the Future

Facilities include six truck bays; four shop bays; two 500-ton salt barns; one 1,000-ton salt barn; and one maintenance office

George is hoping to have a 66 by 100 ft. prefab building constructed that would get all of his equipment fleet inside.

“We know that this would significantly improve the condition of our equipment and extend its life. That size building should allow us to fit 14 trucks and their accessories and we anticipate the cost to be around $300,000.”

Managing Mother Nature

During George’s term, Long Island has seen some of its worst natural disasters, he said, including three hurricanes, one of which included eight inches of rain when the ground was still frozen, and blizzards with more than two feet of snow that have shut down the Long Island Expressway.

“After the last blizzard, it took us 24 hours to open up the main roads and another day to get the housing developments opened up. Our biggest challenge is the amount of open farmland in our township. The farmland makes blowing and drifting snow a big issue. Each year, I send out a letter telling the residents how things will be handled in the event of a snowstorm and we spell out our priorities [[see “Message From Highway Superintendent George Woodson … page XX]]. The communication has made a big difference. Residents understand our priorities and why certain areas get plowed first. Previous to the letter, we received a lot of complaints that no longer need to be addressed. We also made a video of what it’s like out there when plowing snow so the public can see.”

Compared to hurricanes, George says blizzards are a “piece of cake.”

“Dealing with a lack of power, downed trees, brush removal, and all that comes with it, requires a specific strategy. When we know the storms are approaching, our first concern is to stage our equipment strategically across the township. All of the equipment in the world does you no good if you can’t get it where it needs to be during a state of emergency.

“Phase two is open up. When the storm has passed, get the equipment operating, opening up the roads from fallen trees, power lines, etc., so that emergency vehicles can access those in need.

“Phase three is cleanup. Get the crews to work cutting up, chipping and processing all of the materials that have to be cleared out of the way. Of course, the best laid plans are worthless if the highway department is not operating efficiently so backup generators in the case of power outages have been put in place.”

Future projects include the creation of swales between town roads and agricultural acreage to help control drifting snow and flooding.

The Town of Riverhead

Located on eastern Long Island in an area that is outlined by the Peconic River to the south, the Long Island Sound on the north, the western section of the Hamlet of Laurel on the east and the village of Wading River on the west, the town of Riverhead mainly consists of middle class residents, many of whom are farmers. Riverhead is considered the starting point of the North fork of Long Island and is not really a part of the area considered the Hamptons.

With its recreational appeal and close location to New York City, the population of Riverhead swells by about 30 percent during the summer months, so one of the biggest challenges George’s department faces is dealing with summer highway congestion.

New Yorkers appreciate the area’s beaches, the Atlantis Marine World Aquarium, summertime strawberry picking, and purchasing the sweet corn that is grown on Suffolk County farms. There also are eight wineries in the town of Riverhead, which also draw a large number of visitors.

George is responsible for 417 lane miles of highway, all of which are town roads. He has 17 plow routes, each about 16 miles long. The Riverhead Highway Department is not responsible for the maintenance of water, sewer, parks or cemeteries.

Early Riverhead*

The town was founded in 1792 when it was carved out of the town of Southold. The town of Southold was founded in 1640, but the town was so massive geographically that it was reduced in size to make it possible for residents to attend town meetings.

In the 1600s, eastern Long Island was purchased by English subjects from the Corchaugs Indians, who had inhabited the north fork of Long Island when early English settlers arrived. From its earlier days, Riverhead found much favor largely because of its many bodies of water. These waters were important to the early settlers for many reasons, one of which included transportation. The area was covered with dense forests, which created transportation challenges and made travel by water preferable. As New York City grew, there was a great demand for wood and Riverhead had an abundance of it. Shipping that wood via water to New York City was preferred over using land routes.

The flowing waters of the Peconic River were tapped into for powering mills, which in early days included grist, saw, paper, wool, flour, and sorghum mills. Later on, the waters were used for generating electric power. In the wintertime, the Peconic River also was a source for refrigeration. Large blocks of ice were harvested and stored in icehouses, which would keep the ice frozen well into the summer months. Other industries that sprouted up as a result of the abundance of natural aquatic resources included ship building, cranberry bogs, and duck farming. In the 20th century, Riverhead was world famous for its duck farming. The seafood industry thrived on Long Island with New York City providing a growing market for fresh seafood. In the 1800s, harvesting fish for fish oil and for fish that would be processed into fertilizer was a prospering industry.

The early settlers of the region in the 1700s and 1800s were almost all farmers. The dense forests of the area were cleared and the ground was found to be very fertile. Crops such as livestock, corn, oats, rye, flax, wheat, hay, apples, potatoes, pumpkins, turnips, beans, squash, mutton, pork, and waterfowl, were all commonplace. These farms were almost entirely self-sufficient with very few items such as molasses, sugar, salt, spice, and rum being traded for.

In 1844, with the opening of the Long Island Railway, New York City markets were opened up to farmers for fresh produce and agriculture thrived. Specific crops such as potatoes, cauliflower and strawberry production grew dramatically.

The population of Riverhead is now in excess of 33,000, and agriculture is still a part of the community. However, industry and tourism have arrived, as well as a segment of the population that commutes daily into New York City.

In his spare time George enjoys golfing, fishing, and riding his 2003 Harley and chillaxing. And one final note, the Highway Supt. has more power then you know, use it to your advantage.

(*Historical background appears courtesy of “A Brief History of Early Riverhead,” which was compiled in 1987 by Justine Warner Wells, the Riverhead Town Historian.)

You can also view previous issues of Superintendent's Profile.