Robert Mitchell, Commissioner of Public Works and Superintendent of Highways, Town of Colonie

Craig Mongeau

The Town of Colonie is known as the “crossroads” of New York State. Go north a few hours and you’re in Montreal; travel south a couple of hours, you are in Manhattan; go east and there’s Springfield, MA; and travel two hours west and you find Syracuse.

Being a crossroads means that, in a way, the Town of Colonie functions as a hub for travelers coming and going in all directions, which might explain why the town — with a population of approximately 80,000 — also is known as having the largest public works department in upstate New York.

Robert Mitchell is the Commissioner of Public Works and Superintendent of Highways for the Town of Colonie and is serving as the town’s first commissioner. In 1997, when Robert became commissioner, through a referendum, the Town Highway Superintendent position was moved under the umbrella of Public Works, which made the Commissioner of Public Works an appointed position by the town’s seven-member board. His current term, which is two years, expires Dec. 31, 2005.

Before becoming the Commissioner of Public Works, Robert was director of engineering and planning for the Town of Colonie, which exposed him to some level of interaction with all of the departments he now oversees (See Colonie’s Divisions and Bureaus of Public Works.) He had been the licensed engineer for the town for nearly 20 years. Robert grew up in Colonie and has lived there for 53 years and is active in the community as a baseball and basketball coach.

The Job

Normal work hours for the Town of Colonie’s Public Works are from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday to Friday. (The Water Treatment Plant employees works 24 hours a day, in three shifts.

The department’s total operating budget is $27 million, with CHIPS allocation of $297,000.

The Town of Colonie Public Works and Highway division are responsible for approximately 300 mi. of road (all paved) and three bridges. Combined, the public works and highway department employs 182 full-timers and 22 a part-time workers.

When he took over as commissioner, Robert immediately realized what was going to take up a lot of his time. “There are approximately 200 employees and between personnel issues and grievances; it was probably the least pleasurable aspect of the job,” he admitted.

Then there are the residents’ complaints to deal with. “You really feel obligated to answer them all and not to be dismissive of any, and that can be time-consuming. You can offer the same reasonable explanation to two different people and one will willingly accept it, yet the other is dismissive of it. I guess you can’t please everybody.”

There are other challenges. Just as every business tries to do more with less, so does Colonie’s department of public works and highway department.

“We’re constantly trying to do more with less,” began Robert. “Currently we have 10 fewer people than we had 10 years ago in the highway division, but have more highway miles and storm sewer lines to maintain than ever before. Our infrastructure of water and sewer is aging and yet its demands are ever increasing with our population growth.

“We know that down the road that the water and sewer infrastructure will be a major project that we will have to face. Water consumption continues to increase dramatically and it’s not just population pressures that is creating that. Over the past few years, lawn sprinkling systems have become very much in vogue and they put a tremendous additional strain on our system. It seems like almost every year for the past several years we have had to issue some sort of limit on water use during the summer months,” he said.

Then there’s the ever-present and ongoing task of keeping the equipment fleet up to date, and Robert is always looking into whether or not it’s best to purchase or lease some of the department’s vehicles.

“In recent years we have purchased a number of our pieces of equipment, but it’s really a dollars and cents issue,” he said. “Depending on where interest rates lie, our comptroller makes the determination as to whether or not we are better off buying or leasing.”

To do this, the Town of Colonie has a five-year equipment replacement program. “We project out over a five-year period what our purchasing needs will be for each year. This allows our comptroller to do extensive planning.”

Skyrocketing Growth

For the past seven years, Robert has put a major emphasis on planning for the growth within the area. So much so that Ron Langdon, his deputy superintendent of highways, handles the day-to-day highway and road maintenance.

Colonie has experienced very strong growth. In the 1980s, residential development boomed and in the 1990s, there was strong commercial growth. This decade has produced another residential housing boom.

“Over the past 12 to 15 years, the roads in our township have increased from 260 to 300 miles. That does not include the area around the airport and represents mostly residential growth,” Robert said. “Three hundred thousand people commute into our town, not including our 80,000 residents. We are still seeing strong commercial growth in the area. Two new commercial projects were reviewed just last week and we currently have 30 projects in various phases. Of all the development requests we receive, about half of those involve commercial and other half involves residential.”

The airport sits right in the middle of Colonie and has been responsible for most of the commercial growth in the area. Consequently, Robert has had to find ways to deal with this growth.

He explained, “The airport has been completely reconstructed and with the addition of Southwest Air as a provider in Albany, air traffic has expanded dramatically. Obviously, with the addition of expanded air traffic, infrastructure to bring people in and out of the airport also has grown dramatically.

In 1988 a developmental impact study was done to study growth around the airport area and the anticipated surge of commercial activity around the airport. It was determined at that time that the area could not sustain a full build-out. This study allowed us to determine how much build-out we could handle, how fast we could build our infrastructure to support it, in short — how to plan for the growth.

“Using this information, we developed a 20-year plan, which allowed us to do a 25 percent full build-out over a 20-year period. With this information in mind and anticipating the tremendous cost involved, we also developed a mitigation fee process [only in the airport area], which called for developers to pay a fee to help partially offset the cost of bringing the infrastructure to their development.

“Every new development in the area has to fit into the model that we have developed for our highway and water development impact and every developer is paying some of that cost. The mitigation fee process also exists in the Boght and Lishakill areas of the town as a result of similar development impact studies,” he said.

Initially, this plan met with a lot of resistance — as would be expected — but over time the benefits have been seen. “We have been very successful in collecting state and federal highway funds for our projects around the airport area. Thus far, we have successfully collected $100 million in state and federal highway funds.”

Eye in the Sky

Another area where Robert has focused much of his attention is Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems, and under his leadership, the Town of Colonie’s Public Works Department has invested heavily in it.

“On our fleet vehicle side, we are currently using GPS in some of our trucks and we are expecting to expand the system on a yearly basis,” said Robert. “Obviously, GPS allows us to know where our vehicles are at all times and from a dispatching point of view with hundreds of vehicles in our fleet, this will be invaluable. We are also using GPS to map and track the entire infrastructure of the town. The process has been lengthy and expensive, but it is giving us tremendous returns. When we have a water main break, we now know the repair history and location of all valves and manholes in our system and it all shows up on our computer.

“We are also using the GPS to assist our two full-time utility locator employees. We receive requests to dig on a daily basis. The GPS system will make our utility locators lives more bearable. We can use the system to track the repair history of every valve in our water system and every manhole in our sanitary and storm sewer systems. We can rate manholes by which ones have the greatest need of repair. This technology is very innovative but costs in excess of a quarter of a million dollars, but its uses are extremely varied.”

Soon, Robert hopes to use GPS technology at Colonie’s landfill to track proper compaction rates and save space there. The town also makes it own topsoil and compost.

“We have a screening plant that is shared by the highway division and the environmental services division ‘landfill,’ ” Robert said. “We use the screener to separate and mix compost with sand to make a good grade of topsoil. Brush and leaves are ground using our tub grinder. The compost is available to our residents free of charge. We also recycle concrete and asphalt and produce our own aggregate.”

About the ‘Settlement Outside the City’

Established by an act of the New York State Legislature on June 7, 1895, the Town of Colonie received its name from the Dutch “Colonye,” meaning “the settlement outside the city,” which was created from the Town of Watervliet when farmers living in the rural part of the town grew dissatisfied with being governed by the Village of West Troy.

The New York State Legislature, after listening to their concerns, allowed the rural portion of the Town to secede. Subsequently, most of the former Township of Watervliet, except for the City of Watervliet, became the Town of Colonie.

Since its inception, Colonie has grown to become the largest and most populous suburb in Albany County with 57.2 sq. mi. and approximately 80,000 residents.

Colonie is bounded on the north by the Mohawk River and on the East by the navigable Hudson River.

The Town of Colonie, a town of the first class, is one of 932 towns in the State of New York. It ranks 16th in population, and is the largest of the 10 towns in Albany County. P

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