Chris Stanton challenges Middletown Highway Supervisor Biruk

By Pauline Liu
Even before the nor’easter struck the Catskills last Saturday, the subjects of snow removal and budget cuts have been heating up the Middletown highway superintendent’s race. The incumbent, John Biruk, is Democrat-Independent who will be facing off against Republican challenger Chris Stanton next Tuesday.

For Biruk, who’s spent 17 years on the highway crew and two years as superintendent, it’s all about experience. Born and raised in Halcottsville, the Roxbury Central School graduate came up through the ranks of the highway department. He was handpicked for the job by his predecessor and mentor, Bill Russell, who stepped down half way through his fifth term.

Biruk spent 2010 as Russell’s appointed replacement and was elected to serve a one-year term for 2011. Now he’s seeking a four-year term as superintendent. “The best training is job training,” he said. “To train for this job, it took years of preparation. It’s not something you train for overnight.”
The highway department was put to the test by the autumn nor’easter, but their boss, Biruk said they did “just fine.” “They hooked the snowplows up to the trucks the day before,” said Biruk.

Quick response
“I give them an hour to get ready, but they got here in 15 minutes and they were backing out of the garage 25 minutes later.” A total of 13 trucks hit the roads to provide snow removal for the town. The crew worked four hours on Saturday and three-and-a-half hours on Sunday, all of it in overtime. As for salt, salt and grit, Biruk says about 375 tons of it was used in order to get the roads cleared over the weekend.

If Biruk’s challenger has a familiar last name, that’s because Stanton’s father, Bill, is the mayor of Margaretville and his mother, Maryann, is a retired nurse. The younger Stanton is running on a platform of saving taxpayers’ money, especially when it comes to snowplowing.

“A lot of people think there’s way too much snowplowing going on, when there’s not much snow, which puts wear and tear on the trucks,” said Stanton. “We used to wait until it was this deep (he gestures, showing a height of five to six inches) before they’d even plow.”

Variety of jobs
Stanton explained that he is a Gulf War veteran who graduated from Margaretville Central School. He has held a variety of jobs, including construction worker and truck driver. Stanton has been working as a laborer with the Margaretville Department of Public Works for the past year. Asked if he would be able to have plows and sanders ready in an hour, Stanton was confident. “Why not?” he asked. ”I used to be able to get a plane off a flight deck in 10 minutes. Really, why not?”

The October snowstorm has already put an expensive dent into the highway department’s winter budget. In order to keep Middletown’s tax levy for next year at zero percent, the town board agreed to across-the-board contractual spending cuts of 13.5 percent to every department, including highway.

According to Biruk, the contractual cuts will mean doing without $46,000 worth of road material, including salt, sand, culvert pipes, paving material, signs and sweepers. The town board is proposing a $17,000 reduction in the department’s 2012 winter budget as well as thousands of dollars in cuts to its payroll, which has Biruk concerned for his crew. He explained that the cutbacks are equivalent to 20 percent of the highway department’s 2009 budget. “We’re spread to the wire,” he said.

Stanton is proposing that the highway department can same money by stocking up on salt, cutting back on overtime, and hiring teenagers as temporary workers during the summer months.
“How about buying salt in the summer time, instead of in the middle of winter?” he asked. “Stock up in the summer time.” To save on overtime, Stanton suggests changing the winter work schedule from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. to 4 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Wants to cut OT
“Since the people are in at 4 a.m. anyway,” said Stanton. ”Overtime is a killer, we need to cut back on overtime and make better use of daylight in the wintertime,” he added. Stanton also says the highway department could save money by hiring teenagers for summer jobs, instead of using the same three retirees.

Biruk explained that 100 tons of salt was purchased in August, but the town doesn’t have much storage for salt and it doesn’t store well.

“It becomes hard and clumpy over time,” he said. “It doesn’t break up into nice, fine salt.” As for the winter work schedule, Biruk said he plans the schedule around the school bus schedule.

“I think of the school buses as our mass transit,” he said. “If the school buses are delayed because of snow on the roads, we have to deal with what I call, ‘the Mad Mommy Club,’ because parents will complain. We have a responsibility to keep the roads safe.”

Long-term savings
According to Biruk, some town highway crews with earlier work schedules find themselves returning later in the day to remove snow just in time for school dismissal. Lastly, Biruk defends hiring retirees for summer jobs, explaining that the town has a lot of training invested in them, so he feels he is actually saving the town money by making use of their expertise.

Since both candidates have been busy with flood related clean up in recent weeks, they admit they haven’t had much time to campaign. However, with just days left before voters go to the polls, the highway race is now well underway.