Highway super: My department is not overstaffed

Enterprise file photo — H. Rose Schneider

Westerlo council members Richard Filkins and Amie Burnside at the dais during a March 2019 board meeting. The two council members introduced 19 resolutions to the board on June 18, 2020, mostly related to budget cuts, which served as a rebuke of Supervisor William Bichteman’s own proposed cuts.

WESTERLO — As the Westerlo Town Board looks to make cuts because of expected shortfalls in sales-tax revenues, Democratic Supervisor William Bichteman has long pointed to the highway department as an area ripe for paring because, he said, the department was overstaffed to begin with. 

Two weeks after the town board voted, on June 11, to authorize Highway Superintendent Jody Ostrander to lay off two of his approximately seven workers, Ostrander told The Enterprise he doesn’t agree with Bichteman’s assertion that “the two positions are superfluous and we don’t need them to support the town.” 

When asked for a response, Bichteman told The Enterprise he had nothing to say except that he “has his convictions” about the town’s highway department.

The vote was controversial, with Republican board members Amie Burnside and Richard Filkins strongly opposing highway cuts alongside Republican councilman Matthew Kryzak. After reviewing town finances, Kryzak was swayed to vote in favor of the layoffs. 

Kryzak’s vote gave Bichteman and Democratic councilman Joseph Boone the majority needed. 

In an apparent protest of Bichteman’s guidance of the town since he announced on May 19 that Westerlo was in dire financial straits as the economic shutdown meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus had pummeled sales-tax revenues — which cover 40-percent of the town’s 2020 expenses — Burnside and Filkins surprised the board at its June 18 meeting with 19 resolutions, most related to expense reductions. 

The board voted only on a resolution that appointed Deputy Clerk II Karla Weaver as acting town clerk, following Town Clerk Kathleen Spinnato’s sudden retirement from the post. (See related story.) The other 18 resolutions were tabled so the other three board members, along with the public, could review them before resuming discussion at the July 7 budget workshop meeting.

In a prepared statement read at the meeting before the resolutions were introduced, Filkins said the proposals would save the town approximately $200,000, which, along with the foregone highway layoffs, would close the roughly $300,000 gap that Bichteman anticipates the town is facing. 

The cuts appear similar to the cuts include suspensions of board salaries; reductions in hours for some full-time employees; reduction of library staff; and reduced spending for the town museum, library, and cemeteries, among other entities.

The most notable cuts are to Bichteman’s office, which contains two administrative staff — a full-time clerk and a part-time assistant clerk — in addition to Bichteman. The resolutions propose that the assistant clerk, who makes $22,400 annually, be laid off, and the full-time clerk’s hours be reduced to 32 hours per week. The supervisor’s clerk makes $44,850.

The part-time position is new this year, and Bichteman has said that the support is necessary for his own work. 

“I don’t type well,” Bichteman told the board on June 18. “I’m not going to do the payroll. I’m not going to do the retirement system. That’s not my job. My job is to manage the town. That’s what I’m good at.”

“I can’t emphasize this enough,” he said. “We can cut and cut and cut. But this town has to function.”

Filkins, in his statement, also pointed out that Bichteman, who claimed at the June 11 special meeting that the highway department serves only 364 residences because only that number are situated along town roads, was wrong in his estimations, based on updated data that Filkins and Burnside received from Ostrander.

Bichteman used his number of residences to estimate that the highway department pays $3,418.13 per residence in road upkeep. But with the correct figures, the cost is $2,152.59 per residence, Filkins said.

Rhetorically, Filkins asked the board, “What other numbers could be untrue?” 

Bichteman told The Enterprise after the meeting that his numbers came from surveys sent out for the town’s comprehensive plan, which were sent out according to tax roll information. 

“I had this conversation with Jody about why our numbers are apparently different,” Bichteman said, adding that it’s not a significant issue because he had calculated the cost per residence for illustrative purposes. 

Ostrander told The Enterprise that his workers counted the number of highways along each road. 

“He could not — and neither could I — account for the fact that there are apparently multiple properties owned by the same person,” Bichteman said. “That could be responsible for some of the difference between them. I’m sure it’s not all of it. So you could have three houses in a row all owned by the same person, but my questionnaires were only sent to one person [as opposed to each residence].” 

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