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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 27, 2006

Rough road to change can be worth the trip

"Bridging the gap"
Illustration by Forest Byrd

Old ways die hard.

Last week, Rudy Stempel, who has lived in Berne all his life, wrote us about the outstanding job the highway department has done over the years. We agree that the Hilltown roads have been kept in good shape and we always feel safe driving there, even in winter.

We know how hard highway crews have worked, especially in the midst of snowstorms, often sacrificing their personal lives to toil for long hours in difficult conditions.

But it is important not to confuse the idea of merging services with the thought that it is somehow degrading the work of local highway crews.

Under the leadership of its supervisor, Kevin Crosier, and highway superintendent, Ray Storm, the town of Berne is developing a plan to consolidate its highway department with Albany County’s department of public works.

Savings through efficiency is at the center of the merger plan.

Crosier and Storm have found that current snowplow routes are not efficient because of the network of town and county or state roads in Berne. In some places, there is no way to get from one town road to another without using county roads, which is a problem for snowplows that have to clear just the town roads, Crosier said.

Forty-seven percent of the miles driven by town trucks on the snowplow routes are on county roads, according to a report on the consolidation put together by the town of Berne and the county of Albany. Part of the expected savings detailed in the report reflects this; it estimates fuel savings at $14,000 annually.

Other savings listed in the report include equipment, estimated at $40,000; road materials, estimated at $12,500; utilities for the buildings, estimated at $6,600; and personnel, estimated at $89,920 initially and $220,550 in the future.

Crosier has promised no jobs will be lost, that the seven town highway workers will join the 10 county workers, with similar salaries and benefits.

The savings in personnel, Crosier said, would come from cutting part-time posts and overtime pay.

Other big savings for the town would be $300,000 for a salt shed and $44,000 for a fuel-storage facility; the county would save because it wouldn’t have to replace its field office, estimated at $50,000.

Some highway workers, both from the county and from the town, have understandably objected. "There’s a lot of gray area," said one, and he’s right.

But the gray areas will never be made into black and white if those involved put on the brakes now. Both further exploration and further explanation is needed.

We surveyed the leaders of the other towns in our coverage area and found that one — Supervisor Ed Clark in New Scotland — was interested enough in the idea that he has already asked his town’s highway superintendent to look into it. Another — Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg of Rensselaerville — called it a bold experiment and said it’s a possibility for his town.

There can be economy in consolidation.

All of us tend to like things as they are; change is hard to embrace and even harder to make happen.

Towns in the east, with long and proud histories, evolved as strong separate entities. In the west, counties hold sway. If other towns would consider consolidation, there would be a chance at some sizable savings.

Ray Storm is a man who, one would think, stands the most to lose if his department merged with the county’s. He’s a respected, elected official who runs Berne’s highway department well. But he’s willing to change the system because he sees a real benefit for the town.

"We need to look at ways to keep taxes down," Storm told our reporter. The cost of materials has gone up 25 to 40 percent and the county gets cheaper prices than the town on some materials, like stone and salt, because it buys in such large quantities, he said.

"The easy thing to do is ask the board for more money," said Storm; he’d rather look into money-saving strategies.

Sometimes the harder road is the better one.

We commend the leaders who have come up with a plan that, if carried out, would be the first in the state. We urge the highway workers — the men who know the roads and what the job demands better than any of the rest of us — to consider the prospect with open minds.

For example, Joe Welsh, a long-time and dedicated Berne highway worker who opposes consolidation, told our reporter, "We don’t drive over a county road without plowing it." He said, if the road is dangerous, "Of course we’re going to drop our plow."

In other words, common sense and common decency already inspire merged tasks. Why not travel down that road a bit further and consider formalizing those actions into a shared plan" It could result in a better ride for all of us.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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