For Dave Gunner, it doesn't get any better than this. He loves his family. He loves the town where he has spent the past 45 years. He loves getting up every morning and doing his job as the highway superintendent for the town of Aurora and he loves his rescue dog, Hannah.
Born and bred in Holland, N.Y., Dave attended Holland Central School. Following graduation, he enrolled in Erie Community College, where he studied accounting.
“During college, I took a job with a local building supplies company, Reboy Supply, that delivered stone and building materials,” Dave said. “I fell in love with that industry and ended up going into construction. After that, I went to work for UPS. I left there after 9 and-a-half-years to go back to the construction industry. I worked as a general manager for two dump truck companies, LCA Development and Pariso Trucking. In 2004, I founded my own dump truck company, Gunner Construction. I grew it to a fleet of seven trucks. It was heavy highway dump trucking. We hauled blacktop, stone and basic building materials.”
So, how did he end up at the highway department?
“In 2008, the Great Recession wiped out the construction industry,” he said. “The former highway superintendent retired, so there was a vacancy. I thought running for the position would be a good move, so I threw my hat in the ring. I knocked on every door in town. I sold myself to the people and they must have liked me. I ran against a sitting councilman and ended up barely winning. It was 51 percent to 49 percent. In our town, it was separated by 232 votes out of 8,000. They declared a recount because it was within the margin.”
Dave credits Gunner Construction for the smooth transition from business owner to highway superintendent.
“My dump truck business was involved in some of the biggest heavy highway projects in the Buffalo area. We did a lot of work for the NYS Thruway. I was able to bring my business and accounting background to the job. That helped with the financial aspect of being a super. Then there was my actual field knowledge, such as road construction, which was another good fit.
“As you can tell, I love what I do. It's a dream job. The town treats me well. I have a great relationship with my town board. We work well together. When you become more efficient and you start improving the infrastructure, the board sees that. I always try to have measurable results. I'm a time study and efficiency person. I think that's why I've been successful with the board and my budget.”
Family is an important part of Dave's life.
“My wife, Laura and I were high school sweethearts. She works for Catholic Charities' WIC program, making sure young babies get the necessary nutrition. My son, Steven, 25, is a free spirit. My daughter, Sydney, is 13. I'm proud of her so I'm going to do a shout out. She scored #1 on the high school entrance exam and was awarded a full four-year scholarship to Mount Mercy Academy, which is an all-girl college prep school.”
A former hunter and fisherman, Dave has a new-found love.
“My wife and I fell in love with cruising. She formed her own cruise business, so we could sell ourselves cheap cruises. We went to the Mediterranean for Easter. From Barcelona, we sailed to the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa and spent a day in Morocco visiting a mosque. Our daughter went with us. It was a cultural experience for her.
“Hawaii was my favorite. We went there last year for our 25th anniversary. I surprised my wife and had a priest meet us at the port. We renewed our vows on the beach. It was a happy day. I could walk on water for about six months before the dishes started flying again.”
Dave is a member of the Erie County Highway Association and the New York State Superintendent of Highways Association.
About the Job
The town of Aurora's highway department is housed in a recently remodeled facility. Originally built in 1951, this state-of-the art building includes 10 bays.
“We also have a 2004 highway facility across from it, which houses our parks and water departments and dog control. It has four bays and my main office. We have 10 acres, so there's plenty of room to store stone, sand and materials. We also have a 1,500-ton salt shed and two large cold storage buildings.”
According to Dave, Aurora is an unusual town.
“We're more a department of public works. I'm in charge of highways, parks, building, water and dog control. Out of those titles, the only one I'm elected to is highway superintendent. I get stipends for the others. I like it because I have more manpower and flexibility between departments.”
As highway superintendent, Dave is responsible for maintaining the town's 62 paved lane miles of road and another 70 for Erie County. That translates into four plowing routes that take about three hours to complete. At the time of this interview, the town was in the middle of a snowstorm.
“It's tough. I think we're above our average snowfall of 140 inches. We're on pace for between 180 and 200.”
That's nothing compared with the town's December 2014 storm that dumped 7.5 feet.
“That was the ultimate test,” Dave recalled. “It didn't fall in one night. It was 2 ft. the first day, 1 ft. the second and 4 ft. on the last day. We plowed around the clock. My biggest problem was trying to get fuel. We ran out of our tanks three times.
“We started with a road that's 22-feet wide that slowly shrank to about 8 feet. When it was all said and done, we were down to one lane but we kept every road open. I'm proud of that. Those trucks never shut off. We still could get an ambulance or fire truck to anywhere in town. It was a nine-day event. During that time, I clocked 178 hours. It was a helluva challenge. What's cool is after we've been through that, when we get a big snowstorm like 18 inches, you just kinda' laugh.”
Speaking of snow … “On my third day, I watched my employees plow so hard with two-man plows trying to plow 24 hours with one shift. They were exhausted. I went to our union and convinced them that it would be better for everyone if we went to one-man plows and ran shifts. Then people could rest properly. In the beginning, I ran into a lot of resistance but now this is my 10th year and everyone here thanks me. Their quality of life is better. Financially, we were able to cut $100,000 out of overtime because of that, which allowed me to shift that money to my road materials budget. Now, we spend about 20 percent of the overtime and have 50 percent more materials money. I'm proud of that, too, because we're working hard to improve our infrastructure without raising taxes. It was a win-win. The workers are happy. The taxpayers are happy and our roads are improving.”
Dave is quick to admit that paving is his favorite part of the job.
“I love road construction. I love paving the roads, making them smooth. That's my happiest time of the year. We're done with our paving projects and just driving over the roads. Last year, we did four miles, which was a lot. I'd like to do at least two a year, which puts us on a 15-year rotation like with our equipment. “
Together, Dave and his crew of 11 full-time and 10 part-time employees serve the county's 14,000 residents. His staff includes Deputy Superintendent Mike Bove and six MEOs, three truck drivers, one mechanic, one laborer, five RPTs, five seasonal workers and three dog catchers.
When asked what he'd like to say to his crew, Dave's response was a resounding, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for buying into my crazy ideas and giving them a try. I'm proud of that. A lot of the things we did here were different from other highway departments. We consolidated all the departments and increased efficiencies. Their lives have improved because they know what they're doing every day, instead of being on call. I'm a small part of this highway department. The work force is the big part.
“And let's not forget Hannah the Highway Dog. Hannah is a four-year-old Pug rescue from the town's dog control team. She belonged to an elderly gentleman who suffered from dementia. It got to where he couldn't take care of her anymore. I was up for the chance to have her. She's been with me since last May. She comes to work with me and keeps me company when I check the roads. She's the highway department's unofficial deputy. The residents love it when they see her in the truck with me. “
Under Dave's watchful eye, the Aurora highway department runs on a total operating budget of $1.6 million that includes salaries and benefits for employees and an annual CHIPS allocation of $100,000.
To perform its duties, the town uses a modest fleet of equipment that includes:
• 1996 Gradall
• 2009 International plow trucks (3)
• 2013 Kenworth plow truck
• 2017 Kenworth plow truck
• 2017 Kenworth dump truck
• 2018 Kenworth grapple truck
• 2017 Ford F-550 dump truck
• 1992 Ford F-700 basket truck
• 2017 Cat tractor backhoe
• 2016 Cat 3.5-ton roller
• 2008 Case hilift
• 2002 Johnson sweeper
• 2008 John Deere tractor road side mower
• 2011 Kubota tractor
• Ford pickups 2009 and newer (7)
• Jacobson lawn mower model HR311
The high cost of today's equipment is prohibitive for many highway departments. Dave found that out first-hand.
“When I started, we had a $1.1 million budget. We also were $1.1 million in debt. Now, it's up to $1.6 million and $400,000 left in debt. We're slowly trying to wean ourselves from buying equipment with payments and pay more with cash. As additional revenue comes in with more sales tax and houses being built, we're increasing our equipment budget. This year it's up to $135,000.
“We only buy new. My theory is if we take care of our equipment and keep it for a good amount of years, we'll get a better recoup on it. We've come a long way with our debt situation, which makes our highway budget stronger. It's all about holding the cost and increasing the revenue — just like being in business. We've also done a good job of updating our plows. We're trying to get into a 15-year rotation. All my plow trucks are 2009 or newer. Now I'm trying to get enough money to buy a new one. Trouble is it's difficult to come up with the money.”
For Dave, the most important part of his job is doing the little things, like ditching, mowing and tree work.
“You can pave all you want but if you're not curing those issues, you're wasting your money. They're the unsung things you do that are probably more important than paving and plowing. People don't realize that.”
With an eye on the future, when it's time to hang up his superintendent's hat, Dave wants “to leave the town in a better place than when I started. That's my goal. We had a highway superintendent that was here for about 20 years. When I went around knocking on doors everyone would mention him and what a great guy he was. He's long since passed. I hope when I'm long gone, people will say, 'I remember that superintendent Dave Gunner. He did a great job.'”
About the Town of Aurora
The town of Aurora as a government was founded in 1818, 14 years after the first settler Jabez Warren obtained a contract from the Holland Land Company for 1,443 acres and made it his family's home in 1804. Previously, Native Americans lived in the area. The town is 36 square miles with a current population of approximately 14,000, which includes the village of East Aurora, the hamlets of Jewettville, Griffins Mills, West Falls and a portion of South Wales.
One of the town's earliest and most prominent settlers was a young Millard Fillmore, who came to Aurora in the early 1820s to open the first law practice in town and build a home for his future wife Abigail. Twenty-seven years later, Millard Fillmore became president of the United States. The president's home was moved twice: from its original location on Main Street to Millard Fillmore Place, and then in 1930 to its current location on Shearer Avenue. Irving Price, who was one of the founders of international toy company Fisher-Price, purchased the home of Millard and Abigail Fillmore. Margaret Evans Price, a well-known artist, used the home as her art studio. Today, it is a National Historic Landmark.
Due to its proximity to Canada, before the Civil War the town of Aurora, especially the hamlet of Griffins Mills, played a major role in the Abolitionist Movement and on the Underground Railroad.
With the Hamlin and Jewett Farms, the latter of which included the world's only mile-long indoor racetrack off Grover Road, Aurora became known as the horse-racing capital of the world in the late 1800s.
Aurora is also well-known for its contribution to the turn-of-the-century Arts & Crafts movement, led by Elbert Hubbard, who founded the Roycroft Community at the corners of Main and South Grove Streets. The Roycroft artisans are still recognized today for their hand-crafted works and the 14-building campus is a National Historic Landmark that attracts people from around the world.
The town of Aurora is governed by a town board that consists of the town supervisor and four town council members. The town supervisor is elected every two years, and town council members are elected every four years.
The appointed town planning board and zoning board of appeals consider and make decisions regarding development and zoning in the town. There also are various other advisory boards and committees.
The village of East Aurora, incorporated in 1874, is a separate government entity within the town of Aurora. Residents of the village also are residents of the town.
(*History courtesy of http://www.townofaurora.com/about-us/)