It's time to slow down, said Patrick Steger, highway superintendent of the town of Niles, who was first elected to the office in 1988. His current term doesn't expire until 2023, but he hopes to retire in the spring of 2021, leaving the department in the capable hands of his deputy highway superintendent, Roger Slater.
“I'm going to be 65 in April,” Patrick said. “It's been a great job, but it's time to slow down.”
There's more intention to his plan than merely a desire to begin taking life a little easier. Always thinking of others, Patrick plans to time his retirement to allow Roger to receive a pay increase while filling in for him until a special election in the fall.
“By keeping him in the deputy position, if he loses the election, he still has his position in the highway department,” he said — whereas, if the board appointed Roger to fill out Patrick's term, he risks losing his job if he loses the election.
Patrick's forethought and willingness to put others' well-being before his own have made him a successful superintendent and will form the basis of his legacy. They are lessons learned at an early age on his family's dairy farm near the town of Locke, prior to their move to Niles in 1975. Those lessons were emphasized in his family life, due to stepson Nick, a graduate of Le Moyne College, who is afflicted with Muscular Dystrophy.
Although Nick lives independently in Elbridge, Patrick and his wife, Denise, are heavily involved in his care, with Denise filling in for nursing staff as needed.
“She has had to give up some nice jobs over the years to take care of him,” Patrick said, adding, “Needless to say, vacations are pretty much non-existent for us.”
That doesn't stop him from having fun. The father of five (Danny, Patrick, Nick, Rachel and Joey, who passed away in 2006 at age 21) enjoys taking Carter, his two-year-old “pride and joy” grandson for tractor rides. The proud grandfather has watched his triplet granddaughters (Brianna, Bailey and Brooke) grow up into beautiful 19-year-olds. Other hobbies include deer hunting and riding his Harley.
In fact, before COVID-19, Patrick organized a yearly motorcycle ride for his highway workers, friends and family.
“We had riders from Cayuga and Cortland counties [who] would meet and ride north, southeast or west through the state to wherever the best barbecue could be found,” he said. “We had as few as five bikes, to as many as 25.”
Whatever the route and however many riders showed up, he made sure the last stop was the ice cream shop.
In addition to being treasured for his fun-loving and generous spirit, Superintendent Steger will be remembered for his innovation. In 2020, the Niles highway department won the Innovative Project category and was voted best overall innovation in the Federal Highway Administration Build a Better Mousetrap Competition for its “Beaver Pipe Cage” culvert protector.
This national competition recognizes creative solutions to problems that local and tribal transportation workers face. Sharing ideas and inspiration with other municipalities, the contest rewards concepts that are transferable, affordable and effective.
They first submitted the cage to the Cornell Local Road Program “Build a Better Mousetrap” competition, where it won second place in the state competition. Funded by Cornell University, the Federal Highway Administration and the New York Department of Transportation, the program recognizes local public agencies that pioneer innovations that improve transportation performance through its annual competition, and, in turn, submits entries to the national contest.
The national competition highlights innovative solutions to everyday problems, including the development of new tools, equipment modifications and processes that increase safety and efficiency. Entrees are judged on cost savings, benefits, ingenuity, effectiveness and ease of transference. The Beaver Pipe Cage was judged as displaying “exemplary ingenuity.”
The Beaver Pipe Cage is a reinforced, detachable barrier designed to prevent beavers from plugging culverts with debris, without hindering water flow. It enables easier culvert maintenance.
The idea was a solution to a problem. Town employees had to demo a beaver's work every few weeks because it plugged up a culvert. Patrick's crew of three converted his concept into reality. When the prototype collapsed, they regrouped and reinforced it with old galvanized signposts. Apparently discouraged by the contraption's successful implementation, the beaver has reportedly moved on, unharmed.
Because they used inexpensive materials available to most departments and since in-house construction is simple, it's a transferable solution that could benefit other municipalities. Patrick indicated he's fielded calls from other states interested in the Beaver Pipe Cage.
Making His Mark
A modest man who once stocked shelves at a grocery store, Patrick hopes to have made his mark on the department. Under his guidance, the department has rebuilt many roads using geotextile and new gravel, double-sealing one year, and then paving the following year. When he took office in 1988, the town had 17 miles of macadam roads and 21 miles of gravel roads. By 2020, they had 30.04 miles of macadam and 7.44 miles of gravel.
“We have another 15,000 tons of millings to pave with,” he estimated, “so we will continue the paving projects.”
Not only has he managed to pave a lot of roads, he's done so economically by using free millings from NYSDOT projects. The combination of 75 percent millings and 25 percent new 1 and 2 limestone mix with 7-1/2 gallons of emulsion/ton, compared with 14-15 gallons has proven to be a “large savings,” he said.
“The millings already have asphalt in them, so when we use them, we only have to add half as much asphalt emulsion to make the mix stick together,” he said.
The combination of this savings and only having to add 25 percent new stone has allowed him to pave twice as much roadway each year. In addition, using his $93,630 CHIPS allotment (out of an annual budget of $628,000), as well as Pave NY and Extreme Winter Recovery state funding has helped extend the town's road reconstruction and paving program.
His knowledge of road building, laying pipes and heavy equipment operation came first from the farm and later from working for Memphis Construction for four years prior to his job with the town. To this day, road reconstruction, paving and chip sealing roads are his favorite duties on the job.
The Job, Team, Paperwork
Unsurprisingly, Patrick's least favorite aspect of his job involves an ever-increasing amount of paperwork.
“In my younger days, I was more hands-on, but now there is more paperwork involved with the job,” he said.
He still takes care of the smaller things, such as sign replacement, culvert inspections and lawn and roadside mowing. Niles is responsible for all the town roads: 66.94 lane miles, or 37.48 center lane miles. Of those, 7.44 are gravel and 30.04 are paved. Of that total, his department is responsible for mowing 34.14 miles of county roads. In addition, he said, “I get involved with culvert replacement and fill in with truck driving when needed.”
He also does the hiring — with the help of a highway committee made up of two board members who participate in the interview process.
“We try to find someone in town that can do most anything highway-related, whether it's truck driving, equipment operation or turning wrenches and welding,” he said.
He's careful about new hires, wanting to ensure they'll fit in with his seasoned crew that includes Derek Coningsby Jr. and Robert Kimball, with a couple extra part-time staff available when the weather gets bad. When it comes to training new employees, he said “everyone has a little input.”
“My men all work very well together. They pretty much know what has to be done and always find things to do. I am pretty laid back, and as long as the employees give me an honest day's work, all is fine. They are a great bunch of men to work with.”
Those honest days are Monday through Thursday, 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the summer and Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the winter — plus, they pick up Fridays 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. during the winter.
After he retires, Patrick anticipates missing time spent with his employees as well as employees from the other towns.
“They all work great together. They always had their own crazy stories to make each other laugh. That, I will miss.”
He also expects to miss the outdoor projects. He's still making plans for future projects and has been putting money into a capital account for a large culvert that will need replacing in the near future.
And then there's snow removal. They have three plow routes, each of which takes 2-1/2 to 3 hours to complete.
“We plow 21.69 miles town roads and 12.15 miles of county roads,” he said. “Six miles are contracted, with the town getting paid $5,759.50 per center line mile and 6.15 miles are swapped with the county.”
The 6.15 miles he plows for the county is a swap because the county plows more than 6 miles of the town roads.
“They plow an area containing town and county roads and we do an area containing town and county roads. That way, the trucks aren't following each other down the same roads. “Most of the time, we do one-man plowing.”
When there's a high wind blowing, a wing man is added for safety, Patrick said. Sometimes, there's simply no way to keep the roads open.
Niles has a municipal agreement with the local towns and Cayuga County beyond plowing.
“We share equipment and manpower as needed,” Patrick said.
Cayuga County does their heavy equipment hauling when needed.
“We all work together very effectively to get our work done.”
As his wife observed, Patrick is a kind, dedicated and honorable man who seems to get along with everyone.
Memorials, Waterfalls in the Finger Lakes
In 2020, the department took on a new duty: mowing and brush removal at the Millard Fillmore boyhood site. Just outside the hamlet of New Hope is the boyhood home of Millard Fillmore, the self-educated 13th president who ascended to the office after the death of President Zachary Taylor in 1850.
As the last Whig president, Fillmore is most known for signing into law the controversial 1850 Compromise, which included the hated Fugitive Slave Act. Though personally opposed to slavery, Fillmore was a constitutionalist and viewed this as a compromise to keep the Union together, but it was extremely unpopular and essentially ruined his political career. After completing Taylor's term of office, Fillmore didn't campaign for the presidency again until 1856, this time with the Know-Nothing party, but was not elected. One of his little-remembered successes was the opening of trade with Japan. Another often-forgotten fact is that he was the first president to install a bathtub in the White House.
His rags-to-riches story began with his birth in a log cabin and witnessed his rise to become an attorney, a four-term Congressman, vice president and president. In 1976, the township of Niles erected a small memorial and park, with a replica log cabin and picnic grounds, to remind others of the American Dream: that through hard work, it is possible to overcome poverty and hardship to achieve any goal.
There's a tribute to another famous American nearby: the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Cayuga County in Auburn. The Underground Railroad conductor who led more than 300 slaves to freedom moved to Auburn in 1859, at which time she purchased a home from U.S. Senator William Seward. She stayed in the city until her death in 1913. She is buried in Auburn's Fort Hill Cemetery, about a mile from her home.
In addition to its noteworthy historical connections, Cayuga County, southwest of Syracuse in the Finger Lakes district, is a picturesque nature-lover's paradise. There's the Frozen Ocean State Forest: 754 acres of land situated on one of the highest points in the county, perfect for hiking, cross-country skiing, hunting and more.
More hiking trails can be found in Bahar Nature Preserve & Carpenter Falls. In 2008, a Land Trust conveyed 36 acres to New York State, creating the Carpenter Falls State Unique Area. The remaining 51 acres of land downstream toward the lake continue to be managed as the Land Trust's Bahar Nature Preserve. Along the Skaneateles lakeshore, suitable for canoeing and kayaking, trails wind up the ridge to breathtaking views.
Of the four falls, 90-ft. Carpenter Falls is the most spectacular, pouring out of a massive overhanging limestone caprock into a deep pool. Angel Falls is a 62-ft. overhanging drop and cascade into a deep pool popularized as a swimming spot.
Niles itself is situated between Owasco Lake to the west and Skaneateles Lake on the east, two of the Finger Lakes. At just 43.4 sq. mi. and with a population of only 1,240, the town has retained a rural feel.
Originally part of the Central New York Military Tract that reserved land for veterans, the area was first settled in 1792. Niles was officially created in 1833 when it separated from the town of Sempronius.
Once home of New Hope Mills pancake mix, which was produced in an old mill with a water-powered grinding stone that is still there, Niles might be considered a sleepy little town nestled in a scenic part of New York.
There was one night Patrick didn't get any sleep in Niles: Jan. 13, 2012 — his worst day on the job. “I remember getting a call at 10:30 p.m. on Friday that the garage was fully engulfed with fire.”
Three years after moving into a new garage, a fire broke out, presumed to have resulted from an electrical short in a 10-wheeled plow truck. By the time the fire department was alerted, the garage was fully engulfed in flames. Firefighters from six county fire departments spent the night trying to douse the flames, but were unable to save the building.
No one was injured, but pretty much everything else was a total loss.
“Pretty much everything needed to operate was in the garage,” Patrick said.
It was a $1.5 million fire loss to the town including the building, tools and contents, trucks and loader, he estimated.
They borrowed trucks, a loader, a few hand tools and a jack to get by for a while. Despite having a detailed inventory, it took the crew a lot of work to figure everything that was lost and determine replacement values for it all.
“The important thing is to have a very good inventory of everything and make sure the insurance values on the buildings, heavy equipment and trucks are up to date,” Patrick said.
His equipment inventory today is highly detailed and includes the year purchased, condition, original cost and replacement cost. Some of the equipment on that list includes:
• 2013 International Workstar 7600 SFA 6x4
• 2018 Western Star 4700 SF
• 2013 International 6x6
• 2016 Ford F550
• 2018 Ford F350
• 1998 John Deere tractor
• 2014 New Holland 4x4 tractor
• 2014 Vermeer mower
• 2015 Cat generator
• 1996 Champion grader
• 2019 Cat loader
• 2012 Hotsy
• 2001 Volvo excavator
There also are generators, assorted attachments, lawnmowers and small tools, all carefully documented with current condition and expected lifetime.
“We try to update the pickup and F550 every three to four years,” Patrick said. “Ten-wheelers are on a 10-year cycle.”
The crew performs routine service on the equipment, as needed.
He has an F550 budgeted for 2021, and a 2013 International Workstar for 2022. He would like to have a roller. Since selling their old one for safety reasons because it didn't have a roll bar, they borrow one from neighboring towns, when needed.
The department built a new 84 x 60 garage after the fire and moved into it in January 2013. The old garage is now used for cold storage. A 40 x 70 salt barn has capacity for 1,200 tons.
“Half the barn holds a 4:1 salt/sand mix and half the barn has straight salt,” Patrick said. “At the end of December or January, we have to reorder salt to restock.”
Talk of the Town
To communicate with one another, the crew uses a county radio system with multiple work channels. They also have CB radios in trucks and equipment, but resort to “cell phones when nothing works,” Patrick said.
“When I first started in 1988, in the winter I would check the road conditions, then have to go to the garage or back home and get on the telephone to call the men in to work,” Patrick said.
Now, the call is made from the road if he can get a cell signal.
With cell phones, a camera is always available also.
“Handwritten ledgers were done to keep track of the budget, daily log, maintenance, etc., but now everything is done on the computer.”
The department uses Williamson Law Book for payroll, vehicles and maintenance, roads, culverts, bridges, signs, assets, daily journal, budgeting and equipment inventory.
To communicate with local residents, Patrick issues a first-of-the-year newsletter and posts to a local Facebook page to alert residents when work will cause delays in commuting. Because communication is a two-way street, he makes himself available to listen to his constituents. Fielding few complaints over the years, he said he works equally hard for everyone and tries to solve any problems that arise.
Listening is what launched his career. His neighbor was a member of the Republican committee who talked to him about the job in a coffee shop one day.
“The rest is history,” he joked. “Being elected for this long, I guess I did something right. I went in thinking this would be a one-term job, but it ended up being a career.”
You might say his marriage followed a similar path. He met Denise through a Pennysaver dating ad as part of a dare. They met for coffee in Cortland.
“And the rest is history,” he said. After all these years, he said, they still enjoy spending time together, “so, hopefully, after retirement, she won't get tired of having me around.”
With no special plans beyond “taking it easy” and spending more time with his wife and family, the dedicated superintendent, who also served as vice president of Cayuga County Town Highway Superintendents Association for 12 years, president for eight years and on the executive committee of NYS Association of Town Superintendents of Highways since 2019, is looking forward to slowing down.
Patrick will have a different kind of memorial to extol his name than the 13th president or the Civil War-era abolitionist. Looking back at his accomplishments over the past 33 years, he said humbly, “I hope the Niles community feels the highway system is better now than when I started in 1988.” ? P