When the newly elected highway superintendent of the town of Lisbon in St. Lawrence County filed for — and won — a competitive grant from the Water Quality Improvement Program through the Department of Environmental Conservation in 2018, there was some surprise expressed — no less from the grant writer himself. It was Mike Baldock's first time writing a grant application.
The money — a 50/50 match — will be spent on building a salt barn.
“We need to contain the salt,” Mike said, explaining that it is currently kept in the open. “There's nowhere to put it now. That is costly.”
Weather dissipates the stockpiled salt, reducing the material needed to keep roads clear in the winter.
At first glance, it might not appear evident that a salt barn would qualify for an environmental and water quality grant. However, as Mike pointed out, there are “a lot of federal streams in this area.”
Protecting them from run-off is vital to the health of the streams and wildlife. It's an important aspect that he recognized and exploited for the benefit of the town's budget.
After doing research that included talking to the Innovative Solutions crew that does dust control for the town, Mike put together a proposal. He admitted that his effort was facilitated because a blacktop pad had already been put down in preparation for a barn and that money was set aside for it. Nevertheless, it was a first for the town and one of many fresh, new ideas this modest young superintendent has implemented in his first year on the job.
Bringing New Ideas
The bashful 47-year-old superintendent said it's “hard to be the boss of older guys,” but he isn't scared of trying new things. For example, originally met with skepticism, his summer schedule of “four tens with Fridays off” eventually won favor among the crew, who grew to accept working four 10-hour days in order to have three-day weekends.
“I was able to make that decision,” Mike said. “I think you get more out of a longer work day. The guys weren't sure about it at first, but now they love it.”
The winter schedule remains a standard five-day week, however.
Implementing new ideas isn't a one-way street for Mike, who holds a morning tailgate meeting during which he asks the crew for their ideas and allows time to “get personal” because, he acknowledged, “I spend more time with them than with my family” and building rapport is as important as building roads.
But it's not always easy to gain consensus. When his ideas are met with resistance, Mike said, “I tell them to try it my way, but then I let them do it on their own.”
Rarely does he have to send someone back to re-do work, but attention to detail is important to him, and getting the job done right is essential. He leads by example in the hopes of instilling pride of ownership. That can mean doing “a lot of cleaning on rainy days, but I don't ask them to do anything I won't.”
Another idea his crew was slow to warm up to is the addition of rubber cutting edges on the wings of the plow blades. They're particularly helpful in the early spring when the ground is soft. By extending the life of the blade, they save money. They're also easy on the shoulders, Mike said. It didn't take long for the crew to approve and begin requesting them.
The majority of Mike's new ideas are designed to save labor and/or money.
“We have to save money all the time,” he said, “so it's important to work smarter, not harder.”
Efficiency is imperative and can be integrated in many ways, from work schedules to procedures to products. Mike is currently in the process of changing products for dust control in order to improve efficiency and effectiveness. “We're going to a liquid dust control,” he summed up.
Cutting costs is always uppermost in his mind. Despite a seemingly healthy operating budget of $1.6 million, Mike said there have been cut-backs.
“They took away our extreme weather money and our CHIPS was flat this year.”
It Was Destiny
When a boy growing up in New York tags along with his father in a CW Green Inc. construction truck, it's probably no surprise that he would grow up to love operating heavy equipment. Mike did just that, spending 18 years as a heavy equipment operator for the city of Ogdensburg. Using excavators, dozers and loaders, he performed water and sewer work for the municipality. He was also a paver operator, building and paving roads. “That was my main job,” he said.
Not only was it good preparation for his role as highway superintendent in Lisbon, but it was also his favorite part of the job, then and now.
“I love equipment and I like making roads,” he said. “I'm like a kid playing in a sandbox.”
Mike still likes making roads. He's hoping to pave the 17 miles of dirt roads that his crews are responsible for maintaining.
“I'm trying to blacktop all the dirt roads to save money,” he said.
Blacktop pays for itself in a few years with reduced maintenance, he explained. It's also safer than dirt. “Dirt is dangerous to plow and snow doesn't melt well on it, so it's slippery.”
The Road to Get Here
Mike grew up on a dairy farm in Lisbon. Although he liked the work, he realized while still in high school that farming didn't look profitable unless you had a big farm. He decided to join the military with a friend. After training at Camp Lejeune, he was posted to Okinawa for a year before returning to Lejeune to finish his four-year enlistment in the Marines.
“It changed me,” he said of his service. Although he was “always patriotic,” serving in the military gave him a new appreciation for life. “It taught me respect.” It also enhanced his natural inclination for organization.
“The guys joke that I have OCD,” he laughed. “I like things neat; that makes it easy to maintain and track equipment. I like things to be clean. I take pride in that.”
After his discharge, he spent 18 years operating equipment in Ogdensburg, seven miles away from his hometown. He was promoted to supervisor, but would hold that position for only two years because an old friend approached him about the job in Lisbon. Mike's predecessor, Tim Dow, had been superintendent for 22 years, but planned on retiring. “I knew him all my life. He asked if I was ready. I guess it was time to return home.”
Home is a community of a little more than 4,100 residents in upstate New York on the Canadian border with Ottawa, Ontario. Situated on the St. Lawrence River, its Number One attraction, according to Mike, it's a mecca for fishing. Nearby Waddington, N.Y., is host to Bassmasters, an annual fishing competition.
Officially formed in 1801, Lisbon is the county's first town, created even before the county was established. Prior to that, it was part of a land purchase that encompassed much of northern New York. Irishman Alexander Macomb, an affluent New York City merchant, bought the property in 1791 when the state released it for public sale after the Iroquois ceded it. He and his partners sold it for development.
The former Lisbon Railroad Depot, now a museum, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as are the Lisbon Town Hall and United Presbyterian Church. The nearby Adirondacks are a draw for nature lovers, but Mike said it's the river that the area is most known for.
It was in this community that Dow promoted Mike during the campaign and helped him win the election. Under the system in 2018, he will serve a two-year term, but a new four-year term limit was recently passed, so if Mike wins the next election, he'll have a longer second term.
“It's hard to do a four-to- five-year plan if you're in office only two years,” he said by way of explanation for the change. “Money is tight and you want to see plans through.”
Mike shouldn't have any problem seeing his first project through. The salt barn, a 72 x 150 three-sided building, is expected to be completed by mid-summer. The survey has been done and the sand has been moved in preparation for construction behind the shop.
Mike consulted engineering firm Tisdale Associates, a small, local firm he knew before. He will hire a contractor, but the contract, which has yet to be let to bid, will specify in-kind services.
“We'll help excavate and do other work to save costs,” he said. Nevertheless, he added, “It's an expensive project.”
He's able to offer help because all his full-time staff are motor equipment operators and mechanics.
“Everybody does a little bit of everything,” Mike said. Of his nine full-time crew members, two have been there 28 and 18 years, respectively. During the summer, he adds one college student to the crew.
Staff members include:
• Brent Brenno — 18 years
• Mark Hyde
• Mike Ledwith
• Steve Planty
• Rob Winters — 29 years
• Scott Kiah
• Adam Duvall
• Chris Delorme
• Travis Perkins
A new barn isn't the end point for salt-related changes made by Mike. Local roads are treated with a salt-sand mix in the winter. Salt from Innovative Solutions is treated with an enhancement to help it perform in temperatures as low as -18 degrees, as opposed to untreated salt that is only effective to 23 degrees. Mike explained it as a biodegradable molasses-based liquid. By increasing the amount of treated salt in the mixture, he was able to cut the amount of mix in half. They used 1,000 tons this past year.
“We didn't have to use the grader once for hard pack last winter,” he said.
Each of the six plow routes is roughly 25 miles one way, with a total of 235 lane miles making it the second-biggest coverage area in the county. In previous winters, a whole load of the mix was spread, but last year, only half a load was necessary to do the job.
“That cuts the number of passes — reduces labor, fuel, and wear and tear on the trucks,” Mike said.
Another project in the works is the replacement of a deteriorated 100-year-old concrete box culvert in a navigable stream.
“It failed, so it's already closed until we install a bottomless arch.” With DEC permit in hand, he said they're ready to begin work.
Equipment and Buildings
The department operates out of a 40 x 91 shop with seven bays so all the trucks fit inside. There are six mainline trucks for plows — five Macks, with the oldest dating back to 2001 and 2002, and the newest to 2018, and one 2019 Western Star.
“We got two trucks in two years because the others are so old,” Mike explained.
His goal is a 12-year rotation.
“That's what I'm shooting for. We can't afford to change them all at once.”
In addition, he'd like to have a couple spares, but said it's hard to get the board to understand the need. “Trade-in value on a 15-year-old truck is 30 cents on the dollar, but on a 12-year-old truck, it's 70 cents on the dollar. Rotation saves money in the long run.”
The shop is an old block building constructed in 1957. The 50 x 30 wood barn recently received a facelift on the front: metal siding, one-inch insulation, a new sign and paint to “freshen it up,” Mike said.
A small parts room was added onto the shop last year, but a new town barn to hold all the trucks and have room to work without moving equipment out is on Mike's wish list. “When a truck and plow are parked inside, you can't walk around them.”
The department also uses the old, original town barn built in the early 1900s. The barn houses the backhoe and pickup trucks and has a little office where Mike works. One feature on the interior that he doesn't want to disturb is the writing on the walls. Names and messages are scrawled on the walls, such as: “too much snow, shut down.”
Big equipment is parked outside, including a 1990 Cat excavator, 1975 Cat dozer, 1981 Cat grader, 2001 Gradall – purchased from the county, bush hogs, a screener, a 2015 backhoe and two 2015 front-end loaders.
In addition, Lisbon partners on a paver with two other municipalities. Paving their own roads saves money.
“Our crew runs it whenever we need to,” Mike said. “We also share maintenance costs.”
He proclaims it's one of the best moves the town ever did, and credits Dow for doing it five years ago.
Sharing equipment and services with nearby communities benefits everyone.
“We couldn't get anything done if we didn't share services,” he said, estimating that 90 percent of their paving is done without hiring a truck because they share equipment with other municipalities.
That said, he is talking to the board about a lease-purchase option on new trucks. “If I could get one more new truck for a spare, then I could start rotating. Trucks are most important.”
Technology and Old-Fashioned Customer Service
Despite the seeming emphasis on attaining new equipment, Mike is impressed by the condition and performance of the town's older equipment, and credits their strict maintenance schedule.
“We pride ourselves on maintenance. Everyone greases their own trucks.”
Oil changes are done at 7,500 miles, or 3,000 miles for the pickups: no excuses. To help keep track of maintenance records, inspections, parts inventory and other important data, they use a computer. “Adam Duvall is the straw boss on that,” Mike said.
You might say that bookkeeper Kari Blair is the straw boss on the town's website and Facebook page, where they keep the community updated about closures, construction and other important issues. “I update the website and Facebook page with photos — I love pictures!”
Mike is diligent about communications ever since a complaint from a resident came in about not getting notification about paving in his neighborhood. He took it to heart and addressed his perceived short-coming by amping up communication efforts. “You can never make everybody happy,” he said. “But I try.”
Communicating with his crew is done largely via cell phone, although they do carry two-way radios in their trucks.
“Everyone uses cell phones these days. Technology is a wonderful thing,” he said. He'll soon be adding to his list of cutting-edge technology when he replaces the traditional time clock with thumb readers. “We have them, but haven't installed them yet.”
Mike's enthusiasm for what he does is evident. “I love my job!”
He loves it so much that he joked that his wife complains that he never takes time off. Married for 25 years to Susan, a home daycare provider, he responded that he's “not much of a traveler. I went around the world in the military, I'm never going to do that again. Besides, we have a beach here.”
It's a stressful job, especially when politics is involved, and he's not home much in the winter, but in the summer he goes home for lunch to see his wife and help with the children. “We're the best we've ever been,” he said of his marriage.
He spends time with his own children too: Morgan, 22, an RN at a hospital in Ogdensburg and Cole, 18, a high school senior. But it's his bulldog Oscar whose photo is in his office — a slight to his other four dogs more so than to his human family members.
He confessed that his son's name came from the racing movie “Days of Thunder,” an indication of his love of stock car racing — although it may be surprising that his son isn't named Dale after Mike's favorite NASCAR driver, Dale Earnhardt. He also likes truck shows, but has his eye on two-wheeled vehicles as well. “My dream is to have a Harley.”
When he's not working, he joked that his hobby is mowing the grass. “I'm not a fancy kind of guy.” But, he said, “I'm excited about what we do here.”