John F. Miller, Commissioner, Department of Public Works Town of Babylon, NY

James Van Horn

John Miller’s choice of leisure activities should prepare him well for the exigencies of work life as the public works commissioner for one of the largest municipal jurisdictions in the state of New York, the Town of Babylon.

He holds season tickets to the New York Jets games.

The Jets, probably more than any other team in professional football, subject their fans to weekly roller coaster rides of stunning victory and crushing defeat, narrow escapes and near misses.

Monday through Friday, and sometimes Saturdays, John and his group manage the infrastructure (his words) for a Long Island suburb that more resembles a city in its size (population 220,000), diversity of people and income levels. It’s also the most densely populated town in Suffolk County.

Locating Babylon on the map can be misleading, because what shows is Babylon Village, with a population of only 13,000. The Town of Babylon is actually much larger, encompassing Amityville and North Amityville, North Babylon and West Babylon, Copiague, Deer Park, East Farmingdale, Lindenhurst and North Lindenhurst, Wheatley Heights, Wyandanch, and the beach communities of Gilgo Beach, Oak Beach and Captree Beach. The land, almost entirely flat, slopes down from the hills in the center of Long Island to the bays and beaches along the Atlantic Ocean.

The Town takes its name from the ancient city of Babylon, capital of the Babylonian kingdom some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago and located in Iraq, near present-day Baghdad. The Babylonians and their predecessors in that area, the Sumerians, are credited with civilization’s earliest achievements in writing, codifying law, accounting, civil engineering and brewing beer.

The area encompassing the Long Island Babylon was originally acquired by the Dutch from the local Native Americans in the 17th century. Sparsely settled, with few permanent residents, it was known as Huntington South, after the more developed Town of Huntington directly to the north. However, in1803, Nathaniel Conklin and his family moved from Dix Hills, LI, to the intersection of two main roads, now Deer Park Avenue and Montauk Highway in the Village of Babylon. Conklin’s mother was unhappy with the move from the hills of the north to the flatlands along Great South Bay. A deeply religious person, she was particularly incensed when her son opened a tavern next to their house. Consequently, drawing on the Bible, she compared their relocation to the Babylonian captivity of the Jews and the tavern to the Babylon of old, which had a reputation, to put it mildly, as a party town. Nathaniel, taking a more positive attitude, told her, “Oh no mother! It will be a New Babylon!” and affixed a tablet to his house, “New Babylon This House Built by Nate Conklin 1803.” The name stuck, and Conklin’s house became the Town’s most historic site.

With the coming of the Long Island Railroad in 1867, the area began to grow rapidly. The Town of Babylon was officially incorporated in 1872. One of the major historical events in Babylon occurred in 1901: the first overseas radio transmission, by Guglielmo Marconi.

Due to its location and the railroad, Babylon became the gateway to Long Island’s beaches, both within the Town and to the east. Even today, two of Babylon’s salient points are recreational. It has a number of excellent beaches on the Atlantic Ocean, both town and state-run, and 27 baseball fields, most of them devoted to Little League play. In addition the Town maintains softball, soccer, lacrosse, and football fields and recently added a skateboard park.

DPW Responsibilities

As Commissioner of Public Works, Miller is in charge of six divisions: Engineering, Highways, Buildings and Grounds, Lighting, the Sign Shop, and Fleet Maintenance.

However, the primary thrust of his area is roads. The Babylon Department of Public Works is responsible principally for the town’s 1,200 lane-miles of roads and streets, all paved. New York State handles state highways such as the Southern Parkway and Sunrise Highway in Suffolk County and the county roads.

While there is a separate parks department, DPW is responsible for maintenance and upkeep of all parks, including ball fields, pools, and beaches, as well as Town buildings.

The county handles water and sewer, and an outside vendor picks up solid waste. (The town has its own fall leaf campaign, recently completed – residents pack their leaves in bags provided by the Town, which then collects them.)

Miller reports to Steve Bellone, Town Supervisor of Babylon. (The town is governed by a supervisor and four councilpersons, all elected.) Miller has an annual operating budget of $15 million and a $7 million capital expense budget; annual CHIPS allocation is $640,000. His group employs 136 full-time and 10 seasonal workers. Key staffers to Miller are Ronald Kestenbaum and Frank Orcell, deputy commissioners, and Donald Quedens, highway supervisor - fleet maintenance.

John Miller has lived in the Town of Babylon all his life and has been working for the Town for 10 years. He strikes a person as youthful, probably because Miller is probably the youngest commissioner of public works in the state, certainly the youngest of any major municipality, at 29. He started as an intern, first in the town supervisor’s office and later in the town controller’s, then became executive director of the Housing Systems Agency for five years before moving over to the Public Works area as deputy commissioner in 2002. He was named full commissioner in July 2003.

Along the way, while working for the Town, Miller earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration/management from Hofstra University, with an undergraduate minor in political science.

And how did Miller, as a teenager, become interested in Town government? “I was recruited by Steve Bellone,” he replies.

Miller takes over as public works commissioner at what could be considered a critical juncture for the Town of Babylon. The area is for all intents and purposes entirely built up, with almost none of the new construction prevalent in the parts of Suffolk County to the east. Consequently, necessary roads and utilities are in place but they, in particular the roads, are aging and require maintenance, repair and even in some cases replacement.

However, the Town is in the second year of a “no tax increase” pledge by Bellone: “My colleagues and I have been able to achieve our no tax increase record each year by cutting costs at Town Hall, taking advantage of historically low interest rates and aggressively pursuing non-tax revenues like tipping fees from neighboring towns and securing new county, state and federal grant monies.” Low interest rates and a stable financial position have enabled the Town to retire old debt and pay less on new bond issues.

As a result, Miller sees his own mission this way: “To completely look at the department from top to bottom to make it more efficient. We don’t want to do things the same way we’ve always done them. We want to change the way we do business and provide better service. And the way to do this is through better communications. To take down the barriers, clear the red tape and get things done.”

Fulfilling his mission, given his age, is comparable to a double-edged sword. On one side, Miller feels his youth “gives me opportunities to look at things differently with a fresh perspective, not necessarily tied to the status quo.” On the other side, “many people have been in this department longer than I’ve been alive. Babylon is, after all, a town that has matured. I feel that if I do a good job I can overcome what might be in effect a reverse age barrier.”

Given this situation and its constraints, Miller and his people have approached the road program methodically. “We have five stages,” says Miller, enumerating them basically in decreasing order of magnitude: reconstruction, pavement overlay, micropaving, crack sealing and pavement repair – potholes.

Right now Babylon is in the third year of a five-year, $20 million program to reconstruct 200 lane-miles of roads. This is being partially funded by a bond issue. In mid-2003, the Town had completed projects on 160 of the 280 streets, roads or sections of roads designated for improvement that year. (Most road work is contracted out.)

In an effort to stretch tax dollars even further, the Roadway Improvement Program makes full use of two pavement recycling techniques: full depth reclamation and hot in-place surfacing recycling. These techniques are environmentally friendly and conserve valuable resources, while saving the town approximately 30 percent of the cost of traditional construction methods.

Full-depth reclamation recycles existing pavement and underlying soils to form a new base course for the reconstructed roadway.

Hot-in-Place surface recycling is used as a preparation method before the final overlay: existing pavement courses are heated, mixed with a recycling agent and relaid. In a few days the entire roadway is then resurfaced.

“I feel the roads are our biggest challenge as a Town,” says Miller. “We need to invest now in town roadways. As we found out after last winter, when roads start to go, they seem to age exponentially.”

At the same time his DPW can’t ignore basics like keeping roads clean, so they recently reconfigured the street sweeping program by adding new sweepers and changing schedules.

And then there’s the other stuff that clogs the roads in winter. Since Babylon is one of the southernmost parts of New York State, and warmed by the Atlantic Ocean, snow removal is not the major item it is in points further north. Yet the severe winter of 2002-03 didn’t spare the Town either. So Miller says they’ve geared up for it this year. “We added over 20 new plows. Snow equipment drills on the Town’s 78 plowing routes began right after Thanksgiving. And this winter, we’re recruiting all town employees to help in snow removal, instead of just the regular equipment operators.”

Call Miller prescient. In the first weekend of December, Long Island was hit hard by a storm that dumped at least a foot of snow in most areas and brought the entire New York and Long Island metropolitan area to a screeching halt.

Equipment Well Funded

While efficiency and cost-cutting are bywords in the Department of Public Works, the Town keeps up its equipment replacement cycles, thanks again to bond issues.

The Town of Babylon has more than 300 licensed vehicles, including almost 50 units of mobile equipment, and over 50 heavy-duty trucks. The rest are cars, vans, pickups, SUVs and light trucks. There are 14 vehicles in the shop fleet. All equipment and vehicles are purchased.

Babylon is in the second year of a program to update the equipment fleet by buying $3 million in new equipment; next year the town plans to spend an additional $2 million. By late November 2003, the Town had added new lawn tractors, plows, pickups with plows, cars, SUVs, wheel loaders, turf equipment, a vacuum unit, fire prevention trucks, buses, a screening plant, sweepers, and assorted small equipment.

Old iron doesn’t go to the back of the yard to rust out. Ron Kestenbaum says the Town recently sold a batch of old equipment in a public auction, held in the Public Works yard, and got a good return out of it.

The department’s physical facilities total over 22,000 sq. ft, including 20 fully equipped repair bays and two offices.

Life After 6 p.m.

Typically, John puts in 10-hour days. Most of his time is spent in meetings, since he has 12 people reporting directly to him, and a multitude of functions. And of course as PW Commissioner, he’s “on call” nights and weekends if an emergency should arise.

John still finds time to teach evening business management courses at SUNY College at Old Westbury, LI, in topics such as human resources, compensation, marketing and market research, training and development and ethics. In addition he’s vice chairman and director of campaign operations for the local Democratic Committee. He’s also a member of the Suffolk County Highway Superintendents Association.

“Politics, football and golf – my outside interests,” says John. He and his wife Cristina live in Deer Park.

His favorite part of the job? “That I’m having a part of updating our town’s infrastructure, and that I have the confidence of the board and have been given the flexibility to do things differently” to achieve that objective.

His best day was the “day after election day when we knew we were coming back.” The roads were a major issue in that election and Miller obviously feels the election validated the approach that he and the Town are taking.

He cites as his biggest challenge to date the recently finalized four-year contract with its unions. “The negotiations were very interesting,” he says. Working with a known quantity such as the contract helps give Miller more certainty in setting his budgets.

A Unique Challenge

So John’s job is basically split into several areas:

1. Day to day requirements.

2. Seasonal needs – snow removal in winter, getting playing fields ready in spring, paving in summer and fall.

3. Major objectives -- improving infrastructure and increasing efficiency.

But John is also part of a unique challenge and opportunity for the Town of Babylon – the Oak Beach Inn park project.

The Oak Beach Inn, located along Fire Island inlet at the southeastern tip of the Town of Babylon, is a saga almost as long as that of the town itself.

Built years ago when the area was much less populated, the Inn became not just a night club but a “destination” for thousands of partygoers. It was famous throughout the northeast – and infamous as far as Town residents were concerned, citing issues such as traffic, high occupancy levels, parking, disturbances, etc. (To them, Mrs. Conklin’s prophecy of 150 years earlier may have come true.)

In its efforts to force compliance on the Oak Beach Inn and/or shut it down, the Town got into a 20-year-long legal battle with the owners which was finally resolved only recently. With the help of various grants, the town and Suffolk County purchased the site, tore down the Oak Beach Inn (which by this time, through years of neglect while the legal battles raged, had gone from semi-historical to dilapidated), and announced intentions to develop the site as the new Oak Beach Park, asking private investors to present their plans for consideration.

Current plans call for leasing out part of the property – the rest would be public areas – to one or more developers who would build and operate new facilities, with oversight by the Town. The plan envisions a self-sustaining project that will bring revenue to the Oak Beach Park fund. This would be used, hopefully, to help pay off the purchase as well as build and maintain the public portion of the park. Currently town officials envision a bed-and-breakfast with a restaurant, a shoreline boardwalk, fishing pier, spray park, seasonal clam and oyster bar, kayaking, sunfishing and scuba diving.

From John Miller’s perspective, the proposed Oak Beach Park offers a from-the-ground-up public works opportunity not usually found in maturing, built-up areas like the Town of Babylon, and he’s looking forward to it. P

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