Commissioner of Public Works Robert Kiley and the Town of Irondequoit

Laurie Mercer - Profile Correspondent

Earth, Wind and Fire, for most of us, was a wildly popular group with a funky beat. For Bob Kiley, commissioner of public works of the town of Irondequoit, a place he calls the best little town in a big city, the group's name has become a metaphor for his first two years on the job.

After being deputy commissioner for two years, he was appointed commissioner in 2016.

Bob has had to respond to the highway garage burning down (with all of the sanitation equipment inside), gale force winds of up to 100 miles an hour on the day his third child was born (nickname: Hurricane Hannah), and constant flooding on Lake Ontario.

Geographically, Irondequoit, a town of 51,000 residents, would be called a headland because it is bounded by water on three sides: the Genesee River (west), Irondequoit Bay (east), and Lake Ontario (north). The town is a bedroom community for Rochester.

Irondequoit is the second largest DPW in Monroe County. DPW's budget is $16 million — 46 percent of the town's budget. CHIPS provides $386,000 and Pave NY, $87,000. The town has 426 lane miles of road and 300 miles of sidewalks (half of them plowed). The highway salt barn holds 3 tons of salt in a nice new salt barn. On the town's Web page, you can watch the barn be assembled through time lapse photography. DPW uses its own mechanics. The offices are in the town hall where the hallways are lined with photographs of the movers and shakers from the 1800s to the present.

While the presence of Lake Ontario is an attraction, flooding these past few years have made it a nightmare. Along the shores in Irondequoit, the homes are for the most part modest cottages once used as summer homes. With each flood, the property values probably drop. Many residents lack flood insurance.

Bob said Irondequoit is, “the largest small town in the state.” Once known for its melon farms, Irondequoit melon farmers sold their land and watched it quickly morph into a tidy and desirable bedroom community as nearby Eastman Kodak Company manufacturing took off. Having an “in” at Kodak, as they once referred to it in Rochester, satisfied workers looking for cradle to the grave careers, many lasting more than 50 years.

Largely because Kodak failed to catch the digital wave in time, Kodak today is a now shadow of its former self, while the town of Irondequoit continues to flourish on many levels and in many different ways. Talking about community pride is kind of expected in a town this size, but it's even more enlightening to see it in action. Positive things are taking place here as the town of Irondequoit realistically builds positive momentum while facing life in upstate's evolving opportunities.

Christmas Eve 2017 the town of Irondequoit's highway facility burned down. Seventy percent of all their equipment and all of their sanitation trucks were lost in addition to repairs and offices.

Bob has a department of 63 general population employees in addition to five labor foremen on the highway side, which also has: roads, sidewalks, trees cemeteries, parks and recreation and special events, like the fall German festival that started in a tent and now draws thousands of people, has music provided by musicians imported from Germany. For special events, DPW does just about everything from securing HVAC to cleaning up. Along with their families, they are probably in the crowd, as well.

Recreation, which blossoms from eight people to around 90 during the summer, has 13 pocket parks and Camp Eastman, measuring 100 acres.

“We keep building new parks,” Bob said of recreation. One of the most recent with soccer fields is named for Joshua, an 11-year-old resident who died during soccer practice. “We built a baseball field behind the town hall two years ago. We just put a concession stand on that. We just built soccer and lacrosse fields. We have two tennis courts and a synthetic field for football.”

Sanitation is yet another department. “We collect waste and convey it to Rochester Pure Water and they treat it. We take it from the house to the main and from the main to one of the 28 pump stations that we maintain. Then the pump stations send it to the Van Lear waste water treatment plant.

“We constantly have to upgrade our systems,” he said.

Complete sanitation replacement was accomplished recently in Summerville, a charming, lake-side neighborhood with about 100 homes. He said they did the work in three phases over three years. The project, which cost about $7 million, involves new storm sewers, new roads, new curbs and gutters and new sidewalks throughout the neighborhood.

“Before, backups were a known issue here. During a backup, sewage goes back up through the lateral into the basements. Every home now has brand new main and stopper valves, so there is no backup, ever.”

The melted structure of what was once the highway facility, but investigators determined that arson and the engine block were not responsible.

Holiday Disaster

On Christmas Eve, 2017, at around 9 p.m., the town of Irondequoit highway garage caught fire. By the time the flames were extinguished, 60 percent of all the road work vehicles and all of sanitation equipment, plus the buildings were gone.

“The fire was traumatic,” Bob said. “I got a call from Tom, my labor foreman at 10:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve saying the highway garage is on fire. Tom got the news because he is the former chief of the fire district where the garage is located. I've got two little kids, my wife is six months pregnant, so we go to bed early. I spring out of bed, of course, and said I'll be right back. It's an adrenaline thing. The garage was an older facility. I had just been appointed commissioner of public works two years prior to the fire that I was now about to encounter as I drove to work.”

“I knew the town,” Bob continued. “I had been deputy commissioner for two years prior to my current title. I know the facility inside and out. You are prepared for wind storms, and snow events, but fire? It's a bit different. So, I am driving fast, and I've got the lights on. About two minutes from the fire, I get a call from the fire marshal saying the highway department is on fire. As I turn the corner on King's Highway, I get a third call from a police officer who says, 'I hate to not be the first person to tell you this, but the highway garage is on fire.' I did not know how severe it was until I pulled up. The smoke was so bad it was difficult to see. The police were closing the highway. As I went through, Dominic says, 'Good luck.' By the time I got there they were shooting water into the facility, and it was almost out.

“The fire chief says it's in the roof, which means we've lost the whole barn. After all the insurance investigation that had to occur, I never did get an official determination of the cause of the fire because they began litigating against each other. They said the wiring in the truck did it, the battery did it, the overhead heat lamp did it. What we do know is that cause was not arson, and it did not start in the engine block. We had every single news agency around calling us. The first question always is how did it start?

“The fire was in the roof of the sander garage — that's what we called it. The building was original 1952 brick and mortar, but the roof was all stick and very combustible. North of that was the mechanic's garage which is the heart — the life's blood, if you will — of the entire operation. And north of that was the personnel center, dispatch, and offices that were all connected. On the backside, we had all kinds of trucks parked everywhere. At that time the majority of equipment was in the adjacent garage, which we called the Brockway garage.”

Approximately 60 percent of the snow and ice fleet was lost in the fire. A total of 17 vehicles were gone including brand new Macks and a brand new International.

“You can't believe the depreciation!” Bob said. “We also lost 100 percent of our sanitation fleet, including two VACs that cost $400,000 each. There were also a couple of other vehicles including a one-ton quad cab and a couple of F150s. Plus, the loss of the buildings themselves. How are we going to fix things? It's the middle of winter.”

Bob explained that when the fire began in the sander garage there was some hope that it could be contained. Then the wind kicked up, and the flames popped through the roof.

“You had welding with acetylene torches in there,” he said. “There were shock waves from those explosions. It got so hot in the mechanic's garage that the roof melted. The roof just kind of folded down onto the trucks that were on the lift.”

Even though it was Christmas Eve, 100 firefighters from 11 different fire stations were on the scene, as well as Bob, the county executive of Monroe County, the Irondequoit town supervisor, and the director of emergency for RG&E.

With flames shooting 100 feet into the air, spectators quickly became a problem.

“It was wild. Fire brings people out. But we also have a 20 foot cell tower right there and flames are licking the guide wires. The cable that anchors it goes right over the building that is on fire. I am yelling to the fire marshal and chief, if this thing comes down, it will kill people. We ended up getting people away to a certain degree.

“RG&E comes out and shuts down the gas and electric to the building, which also shuts down the gas to the generators that run on natural gas. That makes sense, but they also killed communications from the cell tower. So all of a sudden our fire and ambulance people are using portable walkie talkies to communicate with 911. We were down here for about 40 minutes which is a lifetime for somebody who needs critical care. One way to avoid the situation would be to use dual fuel generators — natural gas and diesel. If one cuts off, you still have power. The downside is tremendous expense — typically $75,000 to $100,000 more than the cost for a single fuel device. It wasn't the same gas line for power and for communications, but RG&E couldn't confirm it.”

Bob said that a lot of work and communication took place in the field, but once the action there subsided, the reality-provoking meetings began to take place in his office in the town hall.

“The sander's garage is on fire, the mechanic's garage is engulfed. The fire chief and 100 fire fighters have this under control, so we came up here to my office (about 200 yards from the fire) at 3 a.m. We sat down to address the question: What are we going to do from here? Dave Moseley, the town supervisor at the time, and I became the point people. We agreed: Let's try to plan it right here.

“I said let's break it down into three's. I don't know why. I just thought of it as an organizational principle. Where do we want to be in three days, in three weeks, in three months? And three years? What we were going to do in three years was always the easy part. The end game was simple — we were going to have a new highway garage. Rebuilding was out of the question. Somehow the crew quickly turned what had been heated storage into a mechanic's garage and kept on trucking.”

Christmas and Disaster

“It's Christmas morning by the way, and my administrative assistant shows up and then my mentor arrives as we were concluding our initial meeting. The support in this town is unbelievable.

“The basic challenges were big ones. Where are people going to report for work? How are we going to maintain all of our services? How are we going to get people to come in to work on the Monday following Christmas? Where are they going to punch in? Where will they do their work? How are we going to plow roads? Everything in sanitation is gone. We can't maintain any sewer backup in town.”

Bob said he finally left his office around 7 a.m. to go home and wake up his young family so they could open some Christmas presents together, then back to work. “We were here all day and all night,” he said of Christmas.

“We had an emergency plan, and we had done table top exercises on what to do in a pandemic. The plan usually leads with the chief of police, but during a snowstorm and flooding, DPW is prime. “We've been in the lead for the past four emergencies,” Bob said. “In this position emergencies are often the most rewarding part of having the job. The crew responds with real gusto. For example, we brought everybody to town hall after the fire to discuss where we would work. We ended up quickly moving into a town library that was vacant and going on the market soon. All the utilities were working, the heat was never turned off. So, we moved what was left from the fire and renovated the space on the fly. It has been interesting.”

Bob said that it was town supervisor's idea.

“I have to give him credit for that,” Bob said of their new headquarters. “It was a good save.”

They had plenty of parking. They did have to discourage confused library patrons from coming in by posting a large sign — This Is Not a Library — on the front door. Other than that, the move — affecting about 75 workers — was seamless. Without the library as temporary headquarters for highway, original crisis management plan had always been to use Camp Eastman as an alternative site in an emergency. It is the town's largest park with five cabins and a small maintenance garage.

The centrally-located, former library quickly became action central. For highway people, it is an odd sort of work area where open space is punctuated by cubicles. Bob said, “As long as you have Internet and parking, you can make it work.”

Now for plowing snow and addressing sanitation. Bob said that while neighboring towns immediately could meet their needs for about six to eight dump truck/snowplows, nobody has extra sanitation equipment to loan.

“I called the county superintendent of highways and said I'm going to need plow trucks. I quickly had 10 lined up when I only needed seven. For sanitation, we were down for quite a while. Nobody had an extra flush tank so in the middle of the night we would call Webster or Greece to come and pay their invoices for them to assist.”

As they dug into their new digs, in early March, the heavy equipment began to work the ground for the new, $14 million highway garage. It will be roomier and in a more remote location than their land-locked base by town hall. Shortly after the fire, the town was in talks with NYSDOT about acquiring a vacant piece of property off of Route 390 that the state took over during the development of 390. For about 30 years. the land was used as a dump for fill materials.

“Our problems here in our current location, was it was small and landlocked with no ability to expand. Plus, it is close to people's homes. The new location is remote without any neighbors, and our site expands from six acres to 12. We also will grow the footprint from the current 35,000 square feet to 77,000 square feet. All of our vehicles will finally get to be inside!

“Previously all of our vehicles had to be outside in the rain and snow. The doors were too small. You had to bring the wing up and chain it in place so you could park the truck. You touched bumpers. The vehicles were one, two, and three deep so you could never walk around each vehicle easily.”

He expects the ribbon-cutting on the new, $14-million DPW facility/garage to be in fall of 2020, roughly 18 months from the groundbreaking. “I want the 2020 snow season to be out of that highway barn. We are on track for that.”

Easier to Say What They Don't Do

In addition to highways, Irondequoit's DPW is involved in just about everything that takes place in the community including roads, sidewalks, trees, cemeteries, storm water drainage, sanitation, parks and recreation.

“Just about the only things that we don't do are the police department and fire department,” Bob said.

Although highway is often part of a triumvirate of first responders when there is an emergency, highway people are often under the radar even though first responders can't respond effectively with gear until trees are cleared from the roads or roads are plowed to make way for emergency vehicles.

Bob said computers make his job so much easier because, “Someone can say I have a problem at a location like Titus and Burlwell. We put it in the work system and they take care of it.”

As for the popularity of television news stories about potholes popping up every spring, Bob has gotten used to being interviewed. “We say the same stuff over and over.”

Organizations are important to him. Bob is secretary for Monroe County's highway association. He said, “I send out the email blasts and keep the minutes.”

He also is on the board of directors for the local Kiwanis club and is on the board of directors for the local Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Engineering a New Location

The engineers on board have already produced new DPW facilities for Fairport, Ogden, Perinton, and others. The site itself has been used for fill for about 30 years, so they have to drill through a lot of settling organic material to get to bedrock for the foundation. Building standards reflect the fact that the campus is designed for use as a secondary location in case of any natural or manmade disaster.

Hurricane Force Winds

“More stressful than fire for me was the wind storm,” Bob said referencing a major wind event on March 8 and 9, 2016.

The gale force winds took down many tress, trashed some homes and cars, and caused thousands of residents to lose power — some of them for as long as a week.

“When we got nailed by the wind storm after the fire, some of the crew joked that we'd be hit by a flock of locusts next,” said Bob. “We had received notification that we could see gusts up to 60 mph. The county EOC sends out that information. We've seen winds that strong before, so I think we are going to be OK. There was no real snow on the ground. And then I leave.

“My wife is in the hospital. My family comes to watch the two and four-year old kids. Hannah is born at 11:30 so we are happy. My wife Sarah got her girl. I had been up all night so I go home around noon to get the kids and relieve the in-laws. I call the shop to say how are you doing, and they say OK.

“Suddenly things start coming down at my house, including a 60-ft sugar maple next door that crushes a basketball hoop and hits a car. My dispatcher at 2 p.m. says we are getting killed. We are getting a lot of calls for trees blocking the roads. Now the town supervisor starts emergency procedures. What the town supervisor is authorized to do in a state of emergency is to institute travel bans and travel advisories, even to declare marshal law.”

Bob said that in the absence of having power to about 60 percent of the town, social media took over.

“Nobody could turn on their TV so it was on Twitter and on Facebook. It's amazing how this generation was getting this information.”

Because more than 25 percent of the citizens are elderly, Bob said of the population, when they were without power, they remained the crew's primary focus.

“So we are working through the county EOC to get National Guard troops in to assist while we were cutting trees down. Then, as the wind was settling down, the weather pattern changed from mild to extremely cold. It was early spring. It had been mild. I think every single pine tree came down because they had all of their needles. Trees had crashed on houses. The building inspector and fire marshals were looking at homes impacted. If they were unsafe, the residents had to find friends, family, or a hotel. Stories of near misses where a serious injury was avoided, even while roofs were collapsing, were numerous.”

Bob's generator made his wife and baby's homecoming a little more comfortable.

“We spent weeks cleaning up from the wind storm,” he said. “We finally were picking up sticks for the rest of the year. People used to object to our taking down trees, and now they were begging us to take down large, healthy trees, which we don't do unless it is on our right of way. During the wind storm cleanup, we did it street by street and chipped the material. The town of Webster even brought some of their wood chips because they ran out of room.”

Because of the town's concern, largely for the elderly without power, Bob's crew tried a first-time idea — warming shelters in the library.

“People could come in and charge their phones, get warm, find people to talk to. They also opened up another shelter with cots at the school. It was 30 below. We had about 10 people the first night and a few more on the second night with one pet. I think it was a cat.”

Even though they were not equipped to serve food at the shelter, Bob said people keep sending them pizzas to the library.

“Overall, I would say that this community is very resilient. In any emergency, they know it is only temporary. They pitch right in.”

But the wind storm caused a procedural storm of its own.

“We had phone conversations with RG&E twice a day to find out when they expected things to happen. We had folks 10 days without power. I was out for seven. That's where the frustrations come out. We couldn't even cut up trees that were in the wires. RG&E had to have a contractor to do it, and we had 22 roads closed!”

He said cemeteries were hard hit, and he made them an immediate priority, even though he had to hire an outside contractor to do so. Appearances matter here. He said he didn't want families visiting grave sites and finding a mess of trees down. More than half a dozen ancient silver maples had crushed some gravestones in soft earth.

Sidewalks were another challenge. The town of Irondequoit has 200 miles of them. It took about a week to clear them all. To address cleanup issues throughout the town, Bob broke the town into quadrants and assigned one crew to each quadrant for two months. For equipment, they each had a loader and a backhoe, three dump trucks, and five to six people assigned to each team Three roaming brush trucks kept the debris at bay.

Because of the town's snow bird residents, he said the cleanup of trees from yards took months, as people returned.

“Everybody was cutting up trees that were down or cutting up trees that they, now, were afraid would come down. We just went block to block. Even with overtime (we didn't use contractors), we had only about $400,000 in expenses from the wind storm. Other towns had millions. We also had FEMA legislation that came through for this storm.”

Facing the Floods

The flooding shores of Lake Ontario in Irondequoit have brought Gov. Cuomo to town more than once. The water level in the lake is higher than it has ever been in recorded history. In 2017, Irondequoit town leaders passed a relief package for residents dealing with floods. The state allowed home owners to modify their property assessment for a tax break just for that year.

For DPW, each flood event brings the need to create thousands of sand bags using a piece of equipment that Bob managed to borrow from a disaster management organization. He said they could produce about 10 at a time for a total of 30,000 sand bags.

Country Boy to Big Town DPW

Bob, an energetic 32-year old who is quick to laugh and has an engaging manner, was born in Springwater, a tiny town in the southern tier, surrounded by woods and streams. His one remaining passion in the face of a demanding job and young family is deer hunting.

“That's my own time when I charge my batteries.”

In a similar vein, that same joy in being outdoors and enthusiastic about it adds to dedication to his job, even in crisis mode.

“That's why I love this job. In any emergency, they are gearing up. It's go time. That's the mentality. They love it. It's giving back to the community. I went to Catholic schools my whole life in Springwater, Canandaigua and Geneva. I went to SUNY Potsdam for my undergraduate degree in environmental studies and history. Next was grad school at Syracuse University for environmental science and forestry school.”

While Bob was in grad school, his father, who had moved to Rochester to work for Kodak, was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, so in 2009 Bob got a job with the county and moved back home to help. He became engaged to his wife Sarah just three months after meeting her in a bar.

“I just knew,” he said.

Children Levi, Lucas, and Hannah are a big part of his life. His wife works part-time in the neonatal unit of both Strong and Highland hospitals, a profession she began at age 22. Between the two of them and the grandparents, they manage full-time at-home care for the kids.

While working with the county, he became expert at storm management and planning reviews for new construction.

“I also did a lot of training for highway people on control measures. Things like being aware of what happens when you take all the trees out and grade a piece of property. That's when I began to meet highway people.”

He said the need for better health care for his family led to a job search, which led him to his mentor who was looking for a deputy. The position is politically appointed so Bob cautiously chose to wait until after the election, which his would-be supervisor lost, so he continued on with the county. Three months later, the Irondequoit town supervisor at the time invited him to talk. He joined the town's DPW department in March 2016; his mentor took a promotion to NYSDOT.

New Horizons

Bob said that most of his replacement equipment has come in private sales between municipalities and Teitsworth auctions.

“We've been buying a lot of stuff at auction. Equipment is more than a pretty face, it's expensive. We have over 100 pieces of heavy equipment including 27 heavy dump trucks, VACS, sidewalk plows, F150s and F250s.”

As a result, the inventory is colored black, green, blue, yellow and red.

“We have to embrace it. With the fire, I'm not going to pay to have those things repainted, so I can be a red town. How could I say to our residents that our trucks need to match?”

In addition to being able to help influence the construction of the new highway facility, there is another building opportunity at DPW centered on a formerly troubled, very large shopping mall that has been vacant, problematic, and expensive both in dollar terms and in prestige for the town. Finally, after several years of vegetating in place, in January 2016, Monroe County sold the property at public auction. New owner Angelo Ingrassia, the only bidder, purchased the large, indoor mall for $100,000.

The businessman almost immediately offered the town 55,000 square feet of space gratis to be used as a town recreation center. DPW will be doing the construction. Bob said the crew likes the diversity of the work they do.

An abandoned shopping mall can be an eyesore or an opportunity. Now called Sky view on the Ridge, things are looking up.

Irondequoit's Long History

No surprise that the word Irondequoit is Native American in origin. The native Seneca tribe, part of the Iroquois Confederacy, were called “the guardians of the Western Gate.” The natives helped control trade routes for the people in the Ohio Valley. The lucrative fur trade was worth fighting for, so they were here, but they probably did not have a settlement in what is now Irondequoit.

In 1687, the Marquis Denonville, Governor-General of Canada, brought 1,500 soldiers emboldened by 500 Hurons, who were enemies of the Seneca, to the shores of Irondequoit Bay and landed with dark deeds in mind.

Villages were destroyed, natives murdered, and crops burned to the ground. Ganondagon, a living history museum, and the only native American museum in New York State is located nearby in Victor.

After the American Revolution, this land, like most of western New York became part of the Phelps and Gorham purchase. Pioneers drained the swamps, cleared the land and planted their crops. When the town was founded in 1839, much of the land was still unused.

And yet by the end of the century it had become the “garden spot of western New York,” famed for its peaches, and vineyards on the shores of Irondequoit Bay. Truck farms produced a variety of vegetables. Popular produce stands — Wambach's, and Aman's — still draw crowds today.

In the 1870s, with the introduction of train and trolley lines, the place took off as a summer haven. In order to ensure profitable passenger traffic on the rails, the railroad rented wooden platforms along the bluffs. At the end of St. Paul Blvd., a village within a village evolved. The tent city was known as “White City,” and it had its own governing body, electricity and water. Both electric and water were supplied by the railroad. Sea Breeze, a famous amusement park, the Disneyland of its day, graced the mouth of the bay with hotels and rides. Sea Breeze was also owned by the railroad, a common traffic-building idea of its time. Dozens of chi-chi hotels had rooms, food, boats, and fishing tackle, which led the area to be called “the Coney Island of Western New York.”

And its recreational history is not all over here. The Rochester Canoe Club, founded in 1881 for the purpose of racing sailing canoes on the bay, has been so doing so ever since.

The end of World War II and the growing number of automobiles enhanced Irondequoit's identity as a great place to live. First ranch houses, and then center entrance colonials have helped transform this once sleepy melon-growing area into a bustling suburb with expanded school districts, expansive shopping, and businesses. Irondequoit remains one of the shortest distances to commute from a desirable, quiet neighborhood to work in or near downtown Rochester. P

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