After 45 years in the highway business, Scott Hillman, superintendent of highways for the town of Porter, is looking forward to retirement at the end of the year … although it's hard for him to imagine what he'll do with so much free time. The Army veteran hasn't had much idle time in his life. “Retirement will be something different,” he envisions.
Speculating that he and wife, Cindy, may travel, he said they're currently busy trying to complete a kitchen remodel before he retires so they have no ties keeping them from whatever they may want to do. No doubt three grandkids, two golden retrievers and a rescue dog will keep him busy.
In the meantime, Superintendent Hillman has some unfinished business with the town of Porter.
Career and Crew
The Ransomville, N.Y., native grew up in the area, where he has lived all his life. Before being elected superintendent in 1996, he worked for 22 years as a heavy equipment operator for the Niagara County highway department. Scott believes it was his knowledge of highway maintenance, fleet maintenance and snow removal methods that led a councilman and former superintendent to urge him to seek this position.
In his current role, he has drawn on his experiences with heavy equipment. For example, four years before he left the Niagara County highway department, they changed snow removal procedures, removing the wingman in the snowplow. Scott incorporated that policy in Porter. Not only does it save money, but it saves the challenge of finding people to do the job.
“We used to use farmers, but the workforce is shrinking and they have other things to do,” he said.
Snow removal is serious business in the county, which receives approximately 80 inches per season. Porter participates in a shared services agreement with NYSDOT and Niagara County for snow and ice removal. Luckily, Scott pointed out, “the heavy snow stays in the 'south towns.'” Because Porter is across from the Canadian peninsula, a land mass to the west, there's little lake-effect snow unless the wind shifts from the northeast.
Of the 12 towns in Niagara County, only a couple still put two in the plow.
“Most use one guy in the truck,” Scott said, explaining that he adapted their equipment to run with one person, positioning the mirror so they can see the equipment. He reports that the crew adapted quickly, learning to plow “by feel.”
The workforce he inherited when first elected was a “good, solid” team.
“I have always had excellent help that did a great job maintaining the roads,” he said.
He knew his first crew before taking the job and said one of them still works part-time on the mowing crew. As his team transitions to a younger group, he has had to do a lot of training.
His current crew is a young one, and they had to learn a lot. Although his deputy superintendent, Dave Burmaster, has been on the job 40 years and two joined in 2008, the rest are more recent additions. The remainder of his crew consists of full-timers
• Steve Bills, MEO;
• Jim Stone, MEO;
• Wendy Shaw, MEO;
• Scott Cudney, WSMM;
• Justin Stoelting, WSMM;
• Ramona Lockhart, water, sewer clerk; and
• Charmayne Pollow, highway clerk
• Tim Owen, seasonal labor; and
• Russ Whyte, truck driver
“It's a young workforce,” he noted. “Most came without a CDL or any snowplowing experience.”
Perhaps they were untrained, but they were not without talent. Two of his crewmembers are experienced fabricators — one with a car repair background, one from a metal supply shop, where he ran a burn tank — and their work helps make the department self-sufficient.
“If we break things, we weld them back together,” Scott said, adding that they also come up with ideas to build things.
The ability to fabricate necessary pieces saves money and attracts attention, like the custom applicator they constructed for a unique anti-icing program they implemented shortly after Scott took office.
“Now there are commercial sprayers available, but we opened a few eyes and got some attention,” Scott recalled.
Encouraged to be preemptive on icing, he selected a liquid made from magnesium chloride and organics — micro-solids leftover from beer brewing.
“Magnesium chloride remains effective in temperatures below 0,” Scott said.
Before a storm, his crews would spray the 65 miles his department is responsible for clearing (27 town, 25 county, 13 state — county winter maintenance only). In addition to working in colder temperatures, this byproduct of the brewing process doesn't pollute the land or water.
When the liquid dries, it creates a film.
“Precipitation reinvigorates it,” Scott said. “It forms a layer that bonds with the street to prevent icing. It buys extra time.”
Instead of having to plow at midnight, his crews might be able to start at 4 a.m. With two gravel and 48 paved roads — including two bridges — divided into six plowing routes, it typically takes 2.5 hours to complete a full loop.
To distribute the liquid, his crew fabricated a unit consisting of a tank, pump and spray bar with pencil tip nozzles out of quarter-inch pipe. It leaves marks in the road like a hay rake because the liquid spreads 1-2 inches.
“You can see as it dries,” Scott said.
He thought that was a benefit, but because Porter is near a large hazardous waste landfill built in the 1970s, the locals keep an eye out for spillage. “We got a lot of calls,” he said.
Equipped for the Job
Scott's crew operates out of a shop equipped with a service lift, air compressor and fabrication area that includes a plasma cutter and welder. The department's main garage, originally built in 1967 and reconstructed in 2004, houses trucks and equipment. The superintendent's office and rear shop were built in 1990 and the water parts storage area and salt storage structure, constructed in 1994 and shared with two villages and a school district, holds 2,200 tons of salt.
Although the garage and his office were redone in 2004 with new wiring, fresh paint and detailed cleaning, it all came as a result of Scott's worst day on the job. Always up by 1:30 to 2 a.m. in the winter to check the weather, he noticed a light dusting of snow on the roads one morning, so he headed to the shop. When he arrived, he thought it odd that the remote for the electric gate didn't work and that the light in the vestibule wasn't on. He noticed a 'white wave' of smoke. Relying on his experience as a volunteer fire fighter, he didn't go in. Instead, he called 911.
An investigation revealed that an electrical short on worn, exposed wires in the power lift gate on a two-year-old dump truck from the engine to the interior to the hydraulic tank. That resulted in a flare that melted the solder in the joint in a copper pipe on a new water line, releasing a cascade of water onto the truck parked below, ultimately saving the building.
Winter hit two days later, Scott said. Fortunately, a farmer nearby allowed them to park the department's equipment in his garage and operate from there all winter. The other silver lining is that insurance paid for 90 percent of work he had planned to do, such as painting and rewiring new lighting — and his office carpet was cleaned in the process.
These days, Scott and his crew can park the pickups, vans, grapple truck and Gradall excavator in the garage. One day he hopes to park a sewer jet/vac in there, too.
“The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is requiring visual inspection of 10 percent of our sewer system each year,” Scott said, making the sewer jet/vac unit a necessary piece of equipment.
Among Scott's additional responsibilities is oversight of water, sewer, parks and cemeteries. According to the NYSDEC, he has to look at the sewer system where groundwater is seeping in and remove it. That includes inspecting all houses on the market, checking to see if their downspouts and floor drains are tied into the sewer.
“It's called 'I and I' … inflow and infiltration. Every ounce of groundwater in the system wastes treatment. They want to treat only gray water.”
He's currently working on a grant application for the $400,000 needed to purchase the jet/vac that will be shared with two villages and two towns that also use the treatment plant in Lewistown.
In addition to flushing the sewers, Scott's department looks for leaks in the waterlines. They've replaced a lot of waterlines, too, but he said there will be more in the future. Although they recently completed installation of seven miles of new waterline, he mentioned a large line from Lewistown to Youngstown built during WWII that needs a polyliner or replacement with PVC or ductile iron.
“Iron lines tuberculate — develop barnacles,” he said. “The pipe size shrinks because of it. We scrape the inside to clean it out for placement of the polyliner.”
Next, they use steam to pressurize the polyliner so it form-fits to the existing pipe.
“The villages have been around for 200 years and the sewer system is about 100 years old,” Scott said. “A lot of it is made of red brick. It leaks.”
The oldest water system in the area features a steel tower that was built in the 1930s, he added. “Some areas in town still have cast iron pipes.” Those are susceptible to freeze-thaw cycles. They get brittle, can sheer and fail.
Scott's crew expanded the sewer district, creating the Lakeshore Sewer District, which added an additional 3.92 miles of sewer main and four new pump stations.
Not Quite Ancient History
Water is all around the town of Porter, in the Niagara municipality, which sits north of the city of Niagara Falls and boasts a population slightly higher than 5,000. Before the Europeans arrived, the area was the home of the Iroquois Confederacy, but they were forced to cede their lands after the American Revolution, leaving the region open to white settlement.
Named for Augustus Porter, the first judge in Niagara County, the town of Porter was created in 1812 from the town of Cambria by an act of New York State legislation, but the war slowed development by disrupting trade with ongoing conflict.
Bordered on the north by Lake Ontario and on the west by the Niagara River — the international boundary between the United States and Canada — Porter is home to Old Fort Niagara State Park, site of Fort Niagara and Fort Conti, built in 1678 to protect the interests of New France. It played a role in the French and Indian War, falling to the British during the 1759 Battle of Fort Niagara, and then served as a loyalist base during the American Revolution because its location at the mouth of the Niagara River controlled access to the Great Lakes and out to the Atlantic.
Thought to be haunted by a French soldier who was beheaded during a dual, Fort Niagara is now an attraction in the park, along with the lighthouse, built in 1872 and used by the U.S. Coast Guard until 1993, when trees impeded its visibility from the river and the lake. It's now a museum.
The park features nature trails, soccer fields, tennis courts, playgrounds, picnic areas and boat launches. Fishing and hiking are favorite pastimes in the area. Scott frequents several local dirt tracks, where he said go-karting is becoming a popular sport, but stock cars still prevail. And then, there's Porterfest, the annual music festival with local bands in the large town park.
The town of Porter is a scenic rural town. “It's mostly farmland, with little industry,” Scott said.
But it's not far from big city life. “On a clear day, you can see the Toronto skyline.”
One thing Scott would like to see before he leaves is a large equipment storage building so he can put all the equipment under cover, safe from the elements. But, as he looks back on a career that spans so many decades, his wife insists they've been married only 27 years (as opposed to 44 actual years) because he was often plowing snow or addressing other people's problems on holidays and weekends, he is proud of the relationships he forged with his crew, the town supervisors and the board.
“We have all worked together to provide the residents with good public works,” he said.
Scott is a member of the Niagara County Association of Town Superintendents of Highways, New York State Association of Town Superintendents of Highways, American Public Works Association, New York Rural Water (which services systems of 10,000 or fewer connections) and American Water Works Association.
But perhaps his biggest sense of accomplishment comes from helping residents with their problems. His best day on the job was only his third day on the job.
“I got a call from a guy with a problem,” he recalled. “He told me he's a Democrat and didn't expect me to help him, but I solved his issue the same day.”
That customer told everyone, setting the bar high for the remainder of Scott's tenure.
He said he looks forward to sleeping in past the 7 a.m. start time (6 a.m. May through August) and jokes that he'll have to buy a cell phone after turning in the company phone.
“My wife says I need a cell phone,” he laughed, “but I tell her just to walk over to the recliner to talk to me.”
Don't believe a word of it. Scott is already considering working part-time on a mowing crew. P