Charles “Skip” Vezzetti, superintendent of highways for Rockland County, is a straight shooter, dedicated, hard-working, in-your-face (in a good way) kind of guy. Not one to shy away from controversy, Skip is known for speaking his mind and getting things done.
Skip has enjoyed a long and storied career that began when he went to work at a drive-in theater.
“I worked myself up to assistant manager while in school,” he said. “I also worked at my father's construction company, but the theater business was my first love. I was always writing letters to the managers. It must have made an impression because one day this limousine came up. A gentleman got out and introduced himself as the vice president of United Artists Theater [UAT]. 'We've been getting your letters and you seem to have a complete view of the whole thing.' They hired me and I worked my way up to division manager.
“Then, some of the upper management at UAT left to form their own company. Six months later, I took over the company's operations all over the country. I was 24. Eventually, I was promoted to general manager.
“I ran 150 theaters. That gave me a solid business background. I'm good with figures. I love operations and focusing on how things run and how one aspect of the industry interacts with the others. I worked in every division from film buying to film direction and promotion to buying the candy. I loved it. It was great work. I even did a private showing of Midnight Cowboy for Dustin Hoffman and John Voight.”
Like any young guy, Skip eventually got bored, though.
“Next thing I knew, the company was being sold. The majority stockholder said he could get me a job but I declined. Instead, I got on my motorcycle and traveled around the country. When I came back, I opened a restaurant. I started to lose interest in that, so I went back to school. I passed the Series 7 test and became a stock broker.”
Shortly after that, several politicians approached Skip.
“We know you have a great business background. Would you be interested in looking at our department of public works? Do you think you could run it?” I replied, “If you give me a little time, I'm sure I could.
“In 1982, I was appointed commissioner of public works for the town of Orangetown, N.Y. That's where I started my highway career. I knew nothing about highways, but I found my niche. I loved it and I was there for over a decade.”
When in Orangetown, Skip was offered the position he has now.
“I didn't take it at the time because I felt I had more work to do down there. I was obligated to meet my commitments to the people where I lived. I left in the '90s and worked doing pavement maintenance, management and preservation. That's when the Rockland county executive called and asked if I was interested in the highway superintendent's position. It was a good opportunity. Having been involved in many different fields, it sounded challenging. That was late 1999 and I've been here ever since.”
That experience helped Skip do his job better.
“It's allowed me to analyze different aspects of the operations. I was well versed in budget management. I could read, prepare and work with budgets. That was a big help. I read the highway law, the Red Book, even trade magazines, about every aspect of the job. I also learned early on that good, well trained people are your greatest asset.”
All those years later, Skip seems to have found his “dream” job.
“This is probably the best job I've had. My main reason for wanting to become superintendent was I liked the highway department. You're doing something different all the time. You're not in the same place too long, doing the same thing, day in and day out. Seasons change and so does the job. Sooner or later, you find something you identify with. That's how I feel about this job.”
When he's not overseeing the highway department, Skip spends time at his cabin near Margaretville, N.Y., in Delaware County.
“I've been going there since the 1950s. My father had a place up there. I bought a place of my own in the early '80s. I love fishing. Once the season ends, I go hunting. I'm a licensed NYS Hunting and Fishing Guide. I also have my master's license from the Coast Guard so I can operate ships.”
Skip is president of the County Highway Superintendent's Association of New York, past president of the Metro NY American Public Works Association and a lifelong attendee at the Cornell Highway School. He's also the chairman of the Rockland County Drainage Agency, the town's sanitation commissioner and a former police commissioner.
When he hangs up his hat with the highway department how will Skip like to be remembered?
“I always thought it would be nice to be remembered as the highway man.”
On the Job
The department's facilities are a story in and of itself.
“This was the county's longest, continuous capital project on the books. It started in the '60s. The highway superintendent at the time told the board of supervisors that we needed a new highway garage. It was brought up several more times. They did a study in the '80s, which verified that. When I came here, it was a junkyard. The place was falling apart and we had a poor condition rating. In 2007, we got the bids for the new facility. At that time, there was an economic downturn and the county couldn't afford it. So, it was shelved.
“About three years ago, the new county executive said we had to get it done. Interestingly, when we started our design in the first phase of it, we were asked to incorporate things for other departments. That was the kiss of death. Emergency Services wanted all redundancies up there. That was $1 million extra. Then the MIS people said they needed some place to store all their backup. That was another $1.5 million. Then it turned out the building needed special air conditioning. Everything had to be separate.
We thought we're doing the right thing by helping other departments, but it was like shooting yourself in the foot.
“When they started this project up again, I said I'm not doing anything for anybody else. This is for the highway department. This is the oldest, continuously operated county highway facility in the state. We have pictures of the day it opened. It doesn't look any different. They didn't make any improvements. There's no ventilation or air conditioning. We're lucky we get heat.
“They finally gave us the go ahead. I was fortunate that back in 2000, Gov. George Pataki and I had a personal relationship. I contacted him because we had done a study on what would be the optimal place to locate a highway facility. It happened to be right near the intersection of Route 59, the Thruway, the Garden State Parkway, Palisades Park — all our major roadways. It turned out the state had a 24-acre parcel right there that they'd purchased for what they call the Spring Valley Bypass that never went through. We made a request and scrambled to get 24-acres for $1. It was worth $6 million. The only problem with it was the way it was shaped. It wasn't an easy site to work on.
“Three years ago, I was able to get a small [1,200 sq. ft.] building built on a 2-acre site in Orangetown. That's for snow storage and to keep some trucks there. I got that for free. Having been with the town, I negotiated a deal. I traded an abandoned road to the town so they could work with a developer. The town had to give us the land and the developer had to build the building. It didn't cost the taxpayers anything. That's my pride and joy. I call it the southern outpost.
“The new facility hasn't opened yet. We're still designing it. We got permission to extend the contract for our old consultant. We have an estimated cost of $30 million. It's six buildings: an administrative office building, large vehicle storage, maintenance/repair shop, cold storage building and a 10,000-ton salt storage facility. Right now, I have the capacity for 5,500 tons, a small facility for about 200 tons and another 3,000-ton facility up the road. There's another 2,400 ton at Stony Point. That's adequate storage but with our new facility, one of the selling features is a county-wide salt facility courtesy of a grant from the DEC.”
As superintendent, it is Skip's responsibility to maintain the county's 340 lane (167 center) miles of road; all of which are paved. That translates into 24 plowing routes that take 1.5 hours to complete.
Together, Skip and his crew of 88 full-time employees serve the town's 345,000-plus residents. His staff includes Andy Connors, deputy; John Monroe, foreman; CD Beatly, assistant general foreman; Bob D'Loughley, assistant general foreman; and Vince Altieri, Drainage Agency director.
“When I got here, we had 105 employees. In 2007 and 2008 we went through two rounds of layoffs due to a financial crisis. At that time, we lost about 30 percent of our people. One of the hardest things I had to do was call in good people, who you know are hard workers and tell them they were being let go.”
Under Skip's attentive eye, the county highway department functions on a total operating budget of $14 million, which includes salaries and benefits for employees and an annual CHIPS allocation of $1.44 million.
To help with its daily operation, the department boasts an imposing fleet of equipment.
“We have great equipment. That's because I made a case with the county executive and the legislature that we couldn't go on with the up and down cycle every couple of years with the budget. They agreed. We have a three-year program. Six million dollars is bonded every three years. I don't have to worry about raising the taxes. We broke down the program. We showed every piece of equipment, what it's worth, life expectancy. It came out to about $2 million a year.
“I have $20 million worth of equipment that sits outside most of the time. We have medium-sized International trucks with wings. They're good for the smaller roads. They're what I call my heavy-duty snowplow trucks. Large 52,000-lbs. 10 Oshkosh with wings and plows. We're talking trucks that are almost $400,000. What you're finding now with all the chemicals that are being used and part of it is they don't build trucks like they used to. I was finding that they're lucky to get 10 to 12 years out of a truck and they'd be rusted or falling apart. We're building these trucks that last 20 years, so if we can double their life or get 30 percent more longevity out of them, it makes up the difference in the initial cost.
“We buy new. Although over the last few years, we had a 1988 big Cat motorgrader rebuilt for one-tenth of the cost of a new one. We did the same thing with a bulldozer. We've been saving money that way. Thinking a little outside of the box, but they're like new.”
Skip and his crew also came up with their own design on the back end of the truck.
“Our salt comes off the conveyor instead of going behind the truck, which would put it in the center of the direction we're going. We have an auger that runs it out into a spinner that's on the center line so we only have to do the road once. We use the crown of the road to spread the salt. We cut our salt usage in half. It's wonderful. We mix mag chloride and it's injected into the auger. It's more like a porridge rather than dry salt. I haven't used sand since the second year I was in Orangetown.”
The Importance of Training
Skip is a big proponent for training for both himself and his crew.
“This will be my 35th year going to highway school. I try and make sure my foreman and an outstanding employee go, too. We don't have money to send them all but we bring who we can. The Local Roads Program has great educational opportunities around the state. I try and send people to that. I also put on classes in the county that are directly related to our different fields. This month, we'll be putting on chain saw classes. We do three different types. One is a beginner's class for safety. The second is an advanced class for our primary climbers and the guys who do the high tree work. The third is for the mechanics and the ones who work on the equipment. We do this training every two or three years. Soon everyone in the department will be certified.”
Skip also likes to cross train.
“I'm constantly trying to stimulate people. I like to move people around from crew to crew doing different types of work. On any given day, they could be driving a sweeper, on the tree crew or working on drainage. Doing that makes it a more active and stimulating work place. That's one of the things I focus on. When I first got here, I analyzed all our crews. One thing I found was we had too many people on each work crew. You're better off having too few than too many. If I have one guy standing around it might not be too bad. But if I have two guys standing around I know there's a problem. There's not enough work to keep them busy. I broke down the crews and was able to put more crews on the road so we're doing more work. The changes made us more efficient.”
Variety of Responsibilities
It's not all road work for the men of the highway department. They're also responsible for:
• Annual pavement program (overlay, microseal and chipseal) of county highways;
• Traffic, highway and bridge engineering along county highways;
• Plowing and salting county highways;
• Most signs fabrication, installation and maintenance along county highways;
• County highway pavement marking;
• Highway permit issuance for construction activities, such as driveways, utility installations, drainage installation etc., along county highway right-of-way;
• Monitor and issue Drainage Agency's permits for construction activities within the jurisdiction of County Regulated Streams;
• Providing surveying and mapping services;
• Removing dead trees or trimming branches within the county highway right-of-way; and
• Assisting the towns and villages with traffic engineering needs upon request.
To accomplish its responsibilities, the Rockland County highway department is divided into six divisions.
• The Engineering Division is composed of licensed professional engineers, surveyors, engineering technicians and draftsmen. The division plans, engineers, designs and constructs capital projects in conformance with the standards and specifications of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the New York State Department of Transportation.
• The Maintenance and Construction Division maintains approximately 340 lane miles of county roads in a travel safe condition.
• The Rockland County Drainage Agency (RCDA) was established under authority of Chapter 846 of the Laws of 1975 to regulate construction and maintenance along designated County regulated streams. In conjunction with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the Army Corps of Engineers (COE), and local municipalities, the RCDA regulates development and activity along 14 streams — approximately 78 miles — within the county. The Drainage Agency also performs inspections of county regulated streams to identify obstructions or damage.
• The Permits Division consists of two permit technicians working under the supervision of a licensed professional engineer. Permit applications are processed by a permit technician, reviewed by the engineer and forwarded to the superintendent of highways for approval.
• The Traffic Safety Division monitors traffic and accident patterns and provides for uniform implementation of traffic control devices, in conformance with the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law and Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, on the County Road System.
• The Highway Department maintains a large inventory of maps.
Despite Skip's years of experience, every now and then things can go horribly wrong — thanks to Mother Nature. That's what happened one day in 2011.
“It was after Hurricane Irene and we got hit with an October snowfall. All the leaves are on the trees. You're not ready. We had two major layoffs the year before and I lost every spare man I had. The guys did a great job of getting through the hurricane. We got everything cleaned up. Everything was good and then the storm came in. It was heavy snow with high winds. It started taking down trees, utility poles and wires.
“It's easy to put the plows down. We can do that in five minutes, but we didn't have spreaders on them. We could put salt down, but we knew it was going to be warm the next day. It became overwhelming. We lost power at the highway garage so I lost communications. We're working with hand units. I had trucks that would go into a road and run into an obstacle zone. Trees were down and [stuff] would come down behind them. They were stranded, so then I was calling people in who were plowing to help out. It was everyone on board. Mechanics were going out there with chainsaws. Without a doubt, that was the worst. I've seen blizzards where the closed the Palisades Parkway because it was like a parking lot. It was a three-day ordeal. This was worse. The stress of not having the men … It was too much. Some areas of the county went three weeks without power. It was unbelievable. We couldn't go anywhere with live wires down. One truck was stuck for the entire day. The driver rescued a family in a car. A lot of crazy things happened. When it's all over you pat yourself on the back. You tell your men what a great job they did but during it, the stress was phenomenal.”
Interacting with his staff and seeing them succeed makes up for those rough days.
“I get a kick out of it. I enjoy seeing people succeed. We didn't have our own surveyor when I got here. I encouraged one fellow to pursue his surveyor's license. He did and now he's the surveyor.”
Skip also finds pride in the work his crew does.
“Wherever I go, I see things my departments have done. We've built 12 bridges while I've been here and completed major capital projects. In 2010, we won the James B. Sorensen Award for Excellence in Pavement Preservation. Pavement preservation consists of numerous programs that focus on using every technique you can based on the type of road surface. We're the only county that's ever received it. It's always been states or large cities. It's a program whereby you use the right product for the type of traffic you get. It involves a lot of cost analysis. We use every type of pavement technique available. We do overlays, milling, hot in place recycling, micro surfacing, CHIPS sealing. While doing that, we ended up lowering our cost per square yard for resurfacing in half.
“When I got here, the county would do between four and seven miles of road a year. The roads were falling apart faster behind us than the ones we're paving. Now, we do up to 20 miles a year. We're on a 10-year cycle and it's not costing us any more.
Change Is Good
Despite the changing times, modern equipment and having to do more with less, Skip still finds the simple things about his job most rewarding.
“It feels good to see a road paved that was nasty before or you had a wicked snowstorm and you nailed it. You had the guys in on time. Everybody plowed their beats. Nobody complained. The roads were bare when you were done. That's the most rewarding thing right there. You did a good job and it was done right. Everyone stayed with it. No one broke down.”
Poised for the Future
The future of the highway department looks bright and busy.
“I try to do a bridge or two a year. We just started the Sampson Dale Bridge. We're in the early phases. It's over the railroad. It'll be a while yet [Estimated cost: $5 million]. Our highway facility is our biggest project. That will be going on for several years. We're also completing the Orange Burg Road bridge [Estimated cost: $17 million].
“We hope to start the River Road reconstruction later this year, too. It's a total reconstruction — two miles of roadway along the Hudson River between South Nyack and Piermont. All new roadway, curb, drainage. It's a $12 million project. Last but not least is West Washington Avenue. We'll reconstruct part of the roadway and the bridge within a year and a half [Estimated cost: $8 million].”
When it's time to pass the baton, what advice will Skip give his successor?
“Roughly one-third of the highway superintendents turnover every two years, which is unbelievable. That's because they're underpaid and underappreciated. Many of them can't take the pressure. They don't know how to balance it out. They have to learn to work hard then go out and play hard. You have to take time for yourself, your family and friends and maintain a sense of humor.”
About Rockland County
The recorded history of Rockland County, begins on Feb. 23, 1798, when the county was formed as an administrative division of the state of New York. It is located 12 miles (19 km) north-northwest of New York City, and is part of the New York Metropolitan Area. The county seat is the hamlet of New City. The name comes from rocky land, an early description of the area given by settlers.
Rockland is New York's southernmost county west of the Hudson River. It is suburban in nature, with a considerable amount of scenic designated parkland. Rockland County does not border any of the New York City boroughs, but is only 9.5 miles (15.3 km) north of Manhattan at the counties' (New York and Rockland) two respective closest points (Palisades, New York, in Rockland and Inwood Park in Manhattan).
Most of the early settlers were Dutch, with a sprinkling of Huguenot and Quaker families. The settlers lived almost entirely off the land, farming — berries, fruits and vegetables, as well as hunting, fishing, and trapping.
Early attempts to settle the county by the Dutch were generally unsuccessful, and in 1664 they handed over the territory to the English. Yet the Dutch did leave a legacy in place names like Dunderberg Mountain, Sparkill and High Tor, as well as a small collection of unique sandstone houses like the 1700 DeWint House, built in Tappan and still exists, which later served as George Washington's headquarters.
Two important battles took place in Rockland County during the American Revolutionary War — the capture by the British of Fort Clinton at Bear Mountain in October 1777 and the victorious attack by General “Mad Anthony” Wayne's army on the British fort at Stony Point in July 1779.
Rockland was also the site of the first formal recognition of the new nation by the British. On May 5, 1783, General George Washington received the British Commander, Sir Guy Carleton, at the 1700 DeWint House to discuss the terms of the peace treaty. On May 7, 1783, Carleton received Washington aboard his vessel Perseverance. On this day, the King's Navy fired its first salute to the flag of the United States of America.
During the War of 1812 against the British Empire, Rockland turned out more soldiers in proportion than any other county in the state. Four Union generals and four Medal of Honor recipients lived in Rockland.
During the Revolutionary War, Rockland County was a strategic crossroads, camping ground and vital link between the northern and southern colonies. Troops often used Kings Ferry at Stony Point and Dobbs Ferry at Snedens Landing in Palisades. The first post office in Rockland County was established at New Antrim, now Suffern, on Oct. 4, 1797.
By 1800, the total population of the newly created County of Rockland was nearly 6,400. The land was cleared, homes, schools and churches were built and sawmills and gristmills erected along the numerous creeks.
By 1828, Native Americans had virtually disappeared from the county and slavery existed in a diminished form.
The earliest of its industries was the growing of foodstuffs for the great city. Iona Island, known as Weyant's Island, became famous with the noted Iona grape as well as hundreds of fruit trees and vines.
Besides agriculture, boat building was one of the early industries until after the American Civil War. Johnsontown in Haverstraw was the seat of the first boat building. Nanuet ran a Lumber business. The mountain people in Ladentown made baskets, beer barrel hoops, bowls, chairs, ladles and spoons they made from the wood and reeds found in the mountain to sell or take to New York City to be sold.
Mills, both saw and grist, were among the first industries of the county. As early as 1792, tanneries were in existence. Theill's Corners, named after a Dane who came to the locality previous to the Revolution erected a forge. Water power of the Minisceongo was used for grinding grist in 1793; A 120-foot dam was constructed across the Ramapo River.
By 1813, The Ramapo Works, owned by the Pierson brothers were producing a million pounds of nails annually. The addition of a cotton mill in 1814, and later woolen mills, nearly doubled the size of the Works, which in 1822 were incorporated under the name “Ramapo Manufacturing Company.”
During its heyday, the Pierson nail factory was a powerful economic stimulus to the region because of its links to existing agricultural and commercial trade. Ramapo developed into an agricultural marketplace and a locale for manufacturing innovations.
Garnerville was the home of the John Suffern Paper Mill in 1850, and print cotton textile factories. West Haverstraw, once known as Samsondale, was where a large rolling mill was started in 1830;
Ramapo built its early reputation in the iron industry. Iron mining was opened up by an English company in 1768 and in 1771 a nickel mine. Because of the proximity of iron mines, numerous metal products were made — plows, hoes, railings, nails, machinery, even cannonballs. The Ramapo Wheel and Foundry Company, organized in 1873, took the prize among all competitors for the productions of their wheels at the Vienna Exposition of 1873.
Grey and red sandstones were quarried in great quantities, Building stone from local quarries went into the old Capitol at Albany, Fort Lafayette and the old Trinity Church in New York, and the first building at Rutgers College. In 1838 Calvin Tomkins and his brother Daniel purchased approximately 20 acres of land, located in a cove north of the Stony Point promontory, limestone was found in usable quantities suitable for burning along the river shore for the purpose of making lime.
Rockland factories made shoes, straw hats, silk and cotton cloth, sulfur matches, smoking pipes and pianos. But the greatest of the industries was the making of brick followed by the ice harvesting.
The first bricks, made for public market, were baked in 1810 on the banks of the Minisceongo, but not until James Wood, of England, set up a brick kiln at Haverstraw, in 1817, was the first successful plant erected.
Wood developed the modern way of mixing coal dust with the clay, in 1828, which revolutionized the manufacture of brick.
Commonly referred to as “Bricktown.” Haverstraw was famous for its brickmaking, which was a major industry for the village. Brickmaking was so popular due to the clay formed by the Hudson River's water and the rich soil that lined Haverstraw's waterfront, that it was nicknamed the “Brickmaking Capital of the World.”
Many of the old brownstone and brick structures that were constructed in New York City in the late 1890s, early 1900s were composed of bricks manufactured by Haverstraw. At one point, in the early 20th century, there were more than 40 brickmaking factories lining the Hudson River within the village. Although brickmaking involved all the ethnic groups, 60 percent of the brickyard workers were African-Americans.
Rockland Lake, a beautiful sheet of water a half mile back from the Hudson, at an elevation of more the 150 feet above that river was and is the most notable natural lake and the source of one of the largest branches of the Hackensack River. Rockland Lake, known to have had the cleanest and purest ice in the area was harvested by The Knickerbocker Ice Company established 1831. The company harvested thousands of tons of ice from the lake each year and once harvested 1 million tons of ice. The wooden storehouse's walls were insulated with sawdust to keep the ice blocks frozen until they were shipped in the summer.
By 1834, the company owned a dozen steamboats, 75 ice barges and employed about 3,000 to ship ice countrywide. The stored ice was placed on inclined railroad cars, transported down the mountainside, placed on barges on the Hudson River and shipped to New York City. Slaughter's Landing was used as the shipping point for the Ice harvested at Rockland Lake. So much ice was shipped that Rockland Lake became known as the “Icehouse of New York City.” P