By Marcello Iaia
WESTERLO — Amid a recent reshuffling of town officials, Keith Wright, was chosen by an all-Democratic town board on Dec. 4 to fill the vacancy left by retiring Highway Superintendent John Nevins.
The maintenance of all 54 miles of town roads is the responsibility of Wright’s department and, in a rural Hilltown like Westerlo, he is focused on keeping them drivable during the winter and overseeing repairs of damage sustained last year during Tropical Storm Irene.
Wright, a Democrat, grew up in Feura Bush, just south of Slingerlands, where he started working as a meat cutter at Falvo’s Meat Market when he was a teenager. He can still bone an animal with ease — deer being his favorite to hunt because it becomes so varied in his kitchen.
“You make cutlets out of it. You can make roasts out of it; stew,” Wright said last week, listing his preparations of heart and venison. “You can do the steaks the same as you do beef, or veal, or anything.”
Wright, 57, said he has enjoyed his 18 years with the Westerlo Highway Department for similar reasons, most recently working six years as foreman.
“You could be putting pipes in in the summertime, blacktopping, cutting brush, ditching — just, so many different things,” Wright said of the work he still does out on the roads as superintendent, with eight other workers. He oversees an additional employee working at the town landfill.
While Wright still likes the outdoors and rural environment he enjoyed at Lake Onderdonk as a child, he said he hates the winter. He spends his free time in his preferred season, the summer, training his Labrador retrievers to hunt duck and pheasant.
The process of coordinating Westerlo’s road repairs with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the State Emergency Management Office has taken more than a year since Irene washed out several roads in August 2011. The town is in the Basic Creek watershed.
Federal funding for projects repairing damage from tropical storms Irene and Lee is 75 percent, with the remaining 25 percent covered by the state.
Getting through all the paperwork, collecting money, and finishing projects — paving on Tan Hollow Road and Lobdell Mill Road this spring, and installing two culvert pipes on Boomhower Road — is his main concern during 2013, Wright said.
Both Tan Hollow and Lobdell Mill were severely washed out and have since been filled in and their banks restored with large rocks. Wright said the eight highway department workers he oversees are not capable of such large projects, which are done by Callanan Industries, Inc. At the September town board meeting that followed the storms, Nevins said repairs to the two roads could cost close to $1.5 million.
Callanan quoted over $100,000 for installing the culvert pipes along Boomhower Road. Paving for Tan Hollow, from bridge to bridge, Wright said, would be $140,000, and $17,000 for Lobdell Mill. The fill and new culvert pipe on Lobdell Mill will cost roughly $360,000.
“Our ditches and the streams were all fixed from Irene, so everything held up real well when we had that heavy rain,” said Wright, of storms last month.
Without snow for most of 2012, Wright said, highway workers have recently been occupied in the garage, making sure their trucks are mechanically ready for the winter months. Many of Westerlo’s trucks are recently purchased and built for snow-plowing, a $240,000 expense in the $965,000 highway budget.
As he resigned from his seat in November, Councilman Greg Zeh said the town should look into shared services as an untapped area of savings large enough to keep tax increases from exceeding the state-set 2-percent cap the board voted to override for 2013. Zeh suggested the title and job description of the highway superintendent be changed to a commissioner of public works that would include oversight of the Westerlo water system, parks, and building maintenance.
“How are they going to maintain that [services] with a tax base that is not growing rapidly, but with costs that are continuing to grow?” Zeh asked rhetorically in November.
Wright said he has not had any conversations about shared services with Nevins or board members.
“I think it’s good the way it is, as far as doing things in the wintertime,” said Wright. “The county can’t go on our roads with their trucks and we can’t go on theirs…because we use sand, salt mixture, and the county uses just straight salt. There’s no way you can put that on the town roads, it’d just tear them right up.” The town’s mixture is a third salt.
Current practice is common courtesy, Wright said, when it comes to equipment and plowing between county and town road crews.
“We’ve got an excavator; if they need it we’ll go and dig a pipe up for them — do anything we can to help them out…. If we need a truck or something, they’ll send over a truck,” said Wright.
Aside from finishing the town’s recovery from storm damage, Wright said the highway department will keep busy with routine resurfacing of roads and clearing ditches.
“Our roads, for town roads, they’re in good shape,” said Wright.
No major changes or initiatives are planned, Wright said, adding that he wants to focus on making things “as smooth as possible.”
“There’s only a certain amount of money that we have, so you’ve got to work within your budget and get as much done with whatever money I have,” said Wright.