HOW DO YOU TELL a Republican road from a Democratic one? It’s not a knock-knock joke. It’s a question.
When the subject is narrowed to local roads, the answer becomes clear: There is no way to know the political party of the highway superintendent just by taking a drive.
For sure the job of highway superintendent involves politics. By one estimate at least 80% of the towns and villages in New York State elect their superintendent of highways. There are over 900 towns statewide, so that’s a lot of officeholders. Most town highway superintendents are elected to a two-year or a four-year term. They have to work within the budget their town board approves, but otherwise the superintendents run their highway department the way they see fit.
If snow doesn’t get cleared lickety-split, if potholes linger, voters know who to call. The highway superintendent’s line on the ballot no longer matters. What matters is how quickly the highway super gets the problem fixed. In my experience, rural town highway superintendents easily win reelection. They end their careers with voluntary retirement so they can get some sleep.
But the traditional relationship between independent highway supers and town boards may be undergoing a change. The town boards in a handful of local towns have asked or soon will ask voters to approve abolishing the position of independently elected highway superintendent and replacing that position with an appointed highway chief who answers to the town board.
In a special election last month voters in the Town of Austerlitz rejected the opportunity to abolish the elected post of highway superintendent. But just a few weeks earlier voters in the Town of Taghkanic approved a referendum making the highway superintendent an appointee of the board.
This Saturday, June 19, Germantown voters will face a similar choice. Like Austerlitz, the incumbent Germantown highway superintendent is not running for reelection. The departure of the highway superintendents helps explain the timing; right now the posts will be vacant come January 1, 2022.
Those towns that opt for an appointed superintendent of highways need some time to choose a candidate. And there’s the argument that the Town Board will have more flexibility in choosing an appointed highway super; the basic qualification is being a New York resident. Elected highway supers had to live in the township.
What’s not yet clear is exactly how much the towns will have to pay to attract the new crop of qualified candidates. Also, exactly how big is the pool of applicants who know how to fix a plow and manage personnel while attending to the town’s budget? And how well prepared are town boards to manage their highway superintendents?
The towns that are leading the way deserve praise for their willingness to experiment with new ways to address managing the rural roads and associated services. But not everybody is enthusiastic about the switch from elected official to town employee. Alex Gregor, the highway superintendent of Southampton on Long Island, is president of the NYS Association of Superintendents of Highways. He had nothing good to say about the switch.
Does the calendar make special elections to approve appointed highway supers necessary? Mr. Gregor calls these special elections “sneaky,” and advises putting the proposal on the general election ballot. “You’re asking people to give up their right to vote,” he says.
Is having an appointed highway super a more efficient way to manage town? “It all comes down to control,” he says. He describes his elected colleagues as “the most approachable” public servants in local government, adding, “We actually do something.”
These proposals on the highway superintendents are the latest round in the effort to shrink local government services and the cost to taxpayers. Soon there will be more. It might work some places, others not so much. What it will accomplish is distracting the public from the obscene and destructive profiteering of the very wealthiest people in the nation—those who pay no income taxes at all. We could pave a lot of roads if they paid their fair share.
Germantown voters, don’t give up your vote. Insist on knowing what this will really cost.