“If you're a highway superintendent or family or spouse of one, you know how physically and mentally draining, thankless and unappreciated/under-appreciated the job can truly be,” said Nicole Evans, proud wife of Highway Superintendent Daren Evans in the town of Delhi.
Making taxpayers and his crew happy is the best part of the job for the local boy who gets a good feeling knowing he has served them well. Evans, born and raised in Delhi, has based his life on public service for the community he loves. “It certainly doesn't happen all the time, but when it does, it just makes the day go so much better.”
When it doesn't work out that way, despite his best efforts to serve the community in which he still resides, Evans turns to his “wonderful and beautiful wife,” without whom he said he would have a nearly impossible time getting through the obstacles that the job and life in general throw at him.
“My family is definitely the glue that holds me together,” he said, emphatically. When the work day is done, it's all family time. “I can honestly say [that] my life away from work is all about my family. I want to do everything with them.”
Married in 2017, the couple welcomed twin boys Ethan and Carter a year later. “I waited quite a while in life to settle down,” he reminisced, adding that his patience was worth the wait and he has no regrets, because his life choices have made him the person he is today. “I did nothing but work and volunteer until I was in my late thirties. Never really travelled anywhere and always was around for whatever had to be done.”
Life in Delhi
He did some traveling for his first job after earning an Associate's degree in Landscape Contracting from the State University New York at Delhi. Numerous subcontracted jobs at Catskill Landscaping Corp in Delhi meant a lot of traveling out of town for up to a week at a time.
Later, he went to work for a friend. John Pawlikowski, owner and operator of Pawlikowski's Excavating and Logging, who offered him a position.
“I jumped on that opportunity because I was always interested in heavy machinery and this gave me the experience that I needed,” Daren said. He claims Pawlikowski taught him everything he knows.
He acquired knowledge in the operation of heavy machinery and large trucks, as well as grading and drainage. Most importantly, he added, he learned to work hard and do the work correctly.
That training and experience served him well when he began working for the town of Delhi highway department in 2004 as a heavy equipment operator. After 10 years in that position, he became deputy highway superintendent until his temporary appointment as highway superintendent.
Appointed in 2014 to fulfill the term of the previous superintendent, who had resigned halfway through his first term, Daren had the choice to run for election for one year, then run again the next year for his own four-year term. He ran unopposed and is now in his second four-year term, which expires in 2024.
He ran for superintendent because he loves his community and has always wanted to do anything possible to serve his fellow residents.
“I also figured that I could not disagree with the way things were going to be done if I wasn't going to step up and do it myself when the opportunity arose — whether or not my way is always the correct way,” he laughed.
Daren also served as fire chief for the Delhi fire department for seven years and is past president of the Delaware County Firefighters Association, a position he left when his children were born.
“I still am an active member of the fire department and dedicate as much time as I can to that service,” he said, adding that when his sons get a little older, he hopes to be more involved. “At this point, it is just not fair to my wife to have to take care of them alone.”
The community he humbly serves is in the east-central part of Delaware County and has a population slightly more than 5,000 residents, many of whom can trace their lineage back to the original pioneers.
The home of SUNY Delhi, which Daren attended, Delhi traces its roots back to post-Revolutionary Scots-Irish settlers who came to the Catskills from lower New York State and New England. Named after the Indian city, Delhi acquired its unconventional pronunciation thanks to founder Ebenezer Foote, who coined it when his rival and co-founder, Erastus Root, beat out Foote's suggested name of Mapleton, exclaiming, “Delhi, Hell-high! Might as well call it Foote-high.”
In the early 18th century, Europeans arrived on the region's numerous waterways or overland through the Catskill mountains and pushed the Mohawk tribes out, settling in the rocky and forested hillsides and narrow valleys. Because the terrain was so mountainous, it was difficult to transport goods. Settlers were forced to develop a subsistence economy, even after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, which diverted trade. The resultant isolation slowed population growth.
Trains and cars spurred the tourist industry in the secluded town where artists and craftsman still reside. One alluring tourist destination is the 1797 Federal-style Frisbee House, host to early local politicians. Much of the quaint character of the area remains, making Delhi the perfect setting for the 1959 novel My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.
Desire to Serve
Daren and crew of six full-time staff and one part-time member work five days a week: 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in winter, 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in summer. Because his crew is as committed as he is, Daren could rely on them while he donned his fire chief duties during an emergency blaze at the Village Pizzeria Restaurant one day.
Interrupting his morning routine to conduct a smoke investigation, Daren discovered flames at the back of the 19th-century building in the middle of the village. “It was the worst situation that could happen in the village and was always everyone's fear,” he remembered. Luckily, the department had prepared for such an incident.
No one was hurt, but one of the two buildings that had caught on fire was a total loss, despite the efforts of the Delhi fire department, other mutual aid fire agencies and several businesses and residents, all of whom Daren credits with saving the village from ruinous disaster.
“It was a very stressful day,” Daren concluded, but he said having a competent highway crew taking care of business on the roads alleviated much of his stress. The crew consists of full-time staff John Maney, Donald Howard, Robert Burgin, Adam Atkinson, Matthew Davis and Shawn Ackerly, and part-time Highway Clerk and Deputy Highway Superintendent Brian Rosenthal.
Since he took office, Daren and that steadfast crew have completed several projects, the most time-consuming of which was the creation of a five-year highway maintenance plan for all paved and unpaved roads.
“By setting up this plan, the costs of materials, labor cost, equipment cost and prices for any rental equipment and/or contracted jobs can be projected from year to year — and years down the road — to aid in budget decisions each year and plan for future budgets.”
After the five-year plan went into effect, the Delhi crew began shimming or resurfacing and sealing with oil and stone approximately 40 miles of paved roads. Daren said many of the roads were in terrible condition when he first took office. In fact, he laughingly said the road conditions made him think extra hard about his decision to run for office, knowing it was going to be hard work addressing them.
Prior to resurfacing, they replaced nearly all of the cross culverts, most of which were either rotten, collapsed galvanized pipes, too shallow or undersized, on the majority of paved roads. They also replaced many driveway culverts to improve drainage away from the roads so that the resurfacing projects would have better results.
“My crew has done a tremendous job,” he said. “They are a very dedicated group and I enjoy working with them. The town has been very fortunate to have their passion for road work and desire to serve.”
Currently in the fifth and final year of the road maintenance plan for resurfacing almost 50 miles of paved roads, Daren remains hopeful about finishing shimming and sealing 10 miles of paved roads this year — if, he emphasized, Mother Nature cooperates and the funding stays in place.
After they finish resurfacing the existing paved roads, the superintendent wants to start paving the gravel roads.
“The maintenance cost is very high on many of the busy gravel roads,” he said. “We have to rework some of them two times a year because of all the heavy traffic.”
Some of the gravel roads see heavy truck traffic during the summer months. The cost of gravel and calcium, as well as the time spent on them, consumes funds and valuable time in each year's budget and schedule.
Daren disclosed that the biggest question he's asked by the residents is, “When is my road going to get paved?” Hating to disappoint them and confessing that he would like to see all the roads paved, he said, “It's hard to explain to them how the town has to rebuild and maintain [the] paved roads we already are responsible for before we can make more!”
While he believes they're heading in the right direction, he knows it won't happen overnight. Until then, he begrudgingly acknowledged that “the gravel roads are extremely hard to plow,” and blames the difficulty on more frequent winters with above or borderline freezing conditions that don't allow the roads to freeze.
When it does snow, the Delhi crew is responsible for plowing 78 center lane miles of road, only about 29 of which are unpaved. The seven plow routes take about four hours to complete. Using very little salt, they rely on a large pile of grit to treat roads in the winter.
“Most of our surrounding towns do not use much salt on the roads, either, so the transition at the town lines is easy to handle,” Daren said.
What little bit of salt that they do keep on hand for extreme icy conditions is stored at the local NYSDOT yard in their salt storage facility. Daren must keep track of the amount that the town of Delhi purchases and how much they use. Because the building they used as a salt shed is in no condition to store salt any longer — and is too small for the amount they need anyway — Daren believes the arrangement with NYSDOT works well. “By having the salt stored at the NYSDOT yard, it's in better condition, so it does not get wet or harden up too much.”
Weather dependence is the bane of a superintendent's existence, and Daren is no different from his colleagues in that aspect. “I hate rain!” he said.
Rain makes outdoor work more difficult. While he claims to still enjoy snow, now that he's the highway superintendent, he realizes the cost of it.
“It really is a strain on a town's budget.”
A firm believer in being out on the roads when it's snowing, he's come to see that it is one of the most important parts of a highway superintendent's and the highway department's job, so he has learned to accept it and plan for it.
But the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to make new plans this year. To keep everyone safe and comply with social distancing, he scheduled split crews: half the crew was on for three days and the other half came in for two days to finish the week. Each week, the crews switched schedules. Safety is the top priority, Daren said, and he works to ensure that everything possible is being done to keep the general public, the highway employees and all of their family members healthy and safe.
Tools of the Trade
Daren does all this with an annual operating budget of $499,500 for highway repair — $179,500 of which is Delhi's annual CHIPS allocation. This year they have about $180,000 set aside for equipment purchases, which is considerably more than usual, but some of that has to go toward the purchase of a new vibratory roller to replace an older second-hand unit that Daren said is “well past worn out.” The rest of that money will go toward the bond payment for the 2019 Western Star and for the updated loader on the Buy Back Program. It's a tight budget to maintain the fleet he's in charge of, and it leaves little room to replace equipment as it ages out.
The highway garage, built in 1988 with funding from the Marcy/South Powerline project that went directly through the town, features seven truck bays, two work bays with an attached two-story office area with a boiler room, two bathrooms, an employee breakroom and the highway superintendent's office. They share the building with the code enforcement officer, who has an office upstairs. Daren compares it favorably with the former highway garage he described as an “old barrel factory.”
The same Marcy/South project also paid for a new fire hall, which Daren said was desperately needed to accommodate the increasing size of modern fire-fighting apparatus.
A three-sided pole barn on Sherwood Road has 10 bays for storing seasonal equipment. It's also where the winter grit pile is kept, along with stockpiles of gravel, headwall stone, cobbles and assorted other materials, as needed. The building and lot were purchased years ago from a local contractor, who moved into a new, larger facility. Before the town moved into it, the barn was used to store most of the equipment used on construction of the powerline during the Marcy/South project.
While some of the fleet stored in those buildings is fairly new, a percentage of the equipment is approaching 20 years. Daren would like to change that, but, like many superintendents, doesn't have sufficient funds to update his fleet, especially because “new equipment costs so much more today than it used to.”
A $75,000 grant from Sen. John Bonacic's office a few years ago was used as a down payment on a much-needed 2019 Western Star 10-wheel dump truck/snowplow/sander that cost almost $210,000. Daren said the following grant went toward a new swimming pool, so he hopes the next grant application can be used toward the replacement of another piece of the aging fleet.
“Since I've been in office, I have been able to update the fleet with the purchase of our 2018 Hitachi excavator,” Daren said, noting that it took a lot of convincing the town board. The excavator was a crucial purchase, taking some of the workload off the 2007 John Deere backhoe. As the only machine the town owned, it did all of the digging jobs. Adding the excavator increased productivity.
A new one-ton pickup truck with snowplow was purchased on municipal bid in 2015 to replace a 1992 half-ton pickup truck with no plow. A 2015 International TerraStar dump truck with plow and sander replaced a 2006 GMC 5500 that caught on fire and was totaled. Daren also acquired the 1973 American LaFrance fire truck from the fire department a few years ago and rigged a spray system on it to serve as a water truck — the town's first. It is sometimes used to clean out plugged culvert pipes.
That's only the start. Daren said they need to update and replace some of the trucks, especially for winter use. The three 10-wheelers run all year long, which adds a lot of wear and tear.
“Unfortunately, we still run three single-axle trucks (two of which are used as backups) that are set up for only wintertime use,” he said.
These older trucks were second-hand purchases by the town. Daren would like to combine them with newer trucks that could be used year-round; it would be more practical and take up less storage if he could eliminate at least one of them, he reasons.
His wish list includes a newer tractor to replace the 1985 open-cab tractor used to run the York rake and mow roadsides, because it would be safer for the employees and provide dust control.
Another item Daren dreams of is a newer force feed loader for loading trucks while cleaning out ditches.
“We used to have an old force-feed belt loader, but the repairs were not worth the machine, so we let it go to a neighboring township who had one of their own that they could [combine] to make one operating machine.”
Delhi has an agreement to use it when it's available, but Daren knows it would be more practical to have their own again. Unfortunately, he admitted, they are very expensive to buy new.
The town works closely with the village of Delhi to share services where feasible. The town has loaned their larger trucks, grader and larger loader on occasion. In return, the village helps with traffic control and a vac truck street sweeper for certain locations where they cannot sweep material off the roadway.
“We also work closely with the neighboring towns, supplying trucks for paving and sealing jobs, and they do the same in return,” Daren said.
Sharing equipment with neighboring towns and villages is one way to reduce costs on heavy equipment. Participating in Caterpillar's buy-back program for a Cat 938M wheel loader is another.
“It works well for us with our budget constraints,” Daren said.
They budget for an updated machine every two years. Because of the quick turn-around, they usually have to do only one full service, which saves maintenance costs.
Because they don't have a mechanic, the crew tries to do all maintenance in-house, but Daren said it's hard to find time with so much work to do on the roads.
“Of course, with some of the newer equipment, we cannot always diagnose the exact problem.”
They grease regularly and check fluids on each piece of equipment and the trucks daily, but bigger repairs have to be outsourced.
Talk of the Town
Delhi's highway department has a “pretty decent” two-way radio system, with radios in each piece of equipment and two base radios. While the crew does use cell phones when appropriate, Daren pointed out the “very strict” cell phone policy that limits cell phone use to when vehicles are stopped unless the driver has a hands-free device.
Considerable communication is done via e-mail. Daren also uses the department's computers to record expenditures, billing, employee time, budget information and to update the Highway Maintenance Plan.
Communication with the residents often occurs in a more casual manner.
“I'm around a lot,” Daren said. “By living in a rather small community your whole life, you get to know lots and lots of people, so you get to interact and communicate with them relatively easy.”
He listens to their concerns and lets them know about upcoming projects and progress on ongoing ones.
As hard as he tries to keep in touch with the residents and make them happy, the superintendent acknowledged that sometimes “you can't please everyone.” Those are the days he admits that his job can be “really trying.”
Witness to all the hard work, the planning and preparation, the e-mails and phone calls, and the sleepless nights when there are storms or downed trees blocking roadways, his wife wishes the public was aware of what she calls the “unseens.” Those calls at 1 a.m. aren't visible to the general public, she said.
“My husband quite literally puts his blood, sweat and tears into his job as highway superintendent,” Nicole said in praise of his dedication and determination to fulfill his duties. “He takes pride in his workmanship and loves the town.”
A member of the NYS Association of Town Superintendents of Highways and the Delaware County Association of Town Superintendents of Highways, Daren takes his responsibilities seriously.
Ultimately, they both concede that, although the job can be demanding, it also can be very rewarding.
Designing and building a screen to sort the frozen chunks out of the winter material before it's loaded onto the trucks was one of those rewarding moments. Prior to Daren's innovation, loading and sorting of the frozen material required lengthy effort with the loader bucket and an employee standing on top of the sander body while loading or repeatedly climbing up to remove the frozen pieces from the grates on the trucks. Not only was it time-consuming, it was dangerous. The screen enabled them to eliminate the grates from the top of the trucks and keep employees safe on the ground.
Eager to do a good job and keep his townspeople happy, Daren is still setting goals. One is to replace two large culverts next year, he said. Projects like these may not get a lot of attention from the taxpayers, but their superintendent knows that addressing issues in a timely manner can avert a major problem. Inevitably, that's what his job is all about: serving the people of Delhi and keeping them safe. P