Either Walter’s way or the highway supe’s way?

02/15/2012 5:00 AM |

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | Highway Superintendent George Woodson.

Editor’s note: This is a newer version of a similar story that ran last Thursday. It has been edited for clarity and updated information.

Riverhead Highway Superintendent George Woodson was criticized by two Riverhead Town Board members last week for his refusal to use highway crews and equipment to knock down old buildings and help clear land for all-purpose ball fields at the Enterprise Park at Calverton.

The job would cost $120,000 if the town were to hire private contractors to do the work but just $60,000 if the highway department
lent its excavator and some manpower and kept everything in-house, said Councilman George Gabrielsen.

Mr. Woodson has come under increased criticism in recent weeks from both Mr. Gabrielsen and Supervisor Sean Walter, though the rest of the
all-Republican Town Board has largely supported the Democratic highways boss.

In an interview after last Thursday’s public work session at which he was being criticized —  a meeting he did not attend — Mr. Woodson
insisted the recent feuding between him and the two board members, especially the supervisor, boils down to “politics.”

But Mr. Walter said the bickering is mostly about drainage, and that Mr. Woodson needs to put drainage issues higher on his list of priorities before Mr. Walter will vote to transfer money into the highway department’s accounts for other projects, such as cameras at the highway yard and a recently requested pole-framed barn expected to cost $77,000.

“I wish nothing but the best for George Woodson and the highway department,” Mr. Walter said. “But we’ve had drainage problems in this town for 10 to 12 years, way before he was highway superintendent. I cannot in good conscience transfer money for him to build a pole barn when the week earlier he said he only had $25,000 for drainage and he had $30,000 to $40,000 worth of drainage projects to do.

“I’ve been asking for a long time to prioritize those drainage projects and clean up the sumps. We have to do it. I’m just holding him accountable.”

In recent weeks, Mr. Walter has refused to support Mr. Woodson’s request for security cameras at the highway yard, where vandalism has reportedly taken place. Mr. Walter said he’s been asking Mr. Woodson for the priority list of drainage jobs in the town and wants that before he approves money for the cameras.

Still, the five-member Town Board approved transferring $12,000 to the highway department budget at last Tuesday’s meeting, by a 3-2 vote, with Mr. Walter and Mr. Gabrielsen opposed. While he can spend his allocated budget as he sees fit, Riverhead’s highway superintendent cannot make budget transfers— only the Town Board can do that.

That transfer came as “pay” for Mr. Woodson’s department’s demolishing a burned-out home on Kay Road in Calverton.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said Mr. Woodson’s department has done some jobs for the town that are outside the department’s scope, such as demolishing the Kay Road building and the old Weeping Willow Motel.

She said the board had a deal with Mr. Woodson to get him the cameras and GPS units for his highway vehicles in exchange for doing those
demolition jobs.

But Mr. Walter said the jobs took much longer with the highway workers than it would have if the town had bid them out.

When asked further last week about the public criticism he received for refusing to help with the EPCAL ball fields — which included not allowing a department excavator to be used to demolish some old buildings at the site — Mr. Woodson said, “Sean should have thought about that before he blasted me last week when he said he could have gotten a contractor to do the [Weeping Willow and Kay Road] job better and faster.

“We saved the town money and then he blasts us,” Mr. Woodson said. “Would you want to help them out after they haven’t paid you and then they blast you?”

Last week, Mr. Gabrielsen estimated that renting an excavator would cost the town $15,000. But Kent Testa of the engineering department has since been able to rent a machine for only $8,000, and town workers were using it to demolish the buildings at the former Grumman picnic grounds at EPCAL Wednesday.

Councilman John Dunleavy has said he would like to see the highway superintendent have more control in setting his budget.

“We have to have a cordial relationship with the highway department because we’ve been asking him to do a lot,” Mr. Dunleavy said last Thursday.

The amount of money in the highway department budget is determined by the Town Board, which adopts the town budget in November. The town clerk, assessors, justices and tax receiver are also elected officials whose budgets are determined by the Town Board.

As for the feuding, Councilman Jim Wooten said he believes the supervisor is being political in his recent criticisms of Mr. Woodson.

And Ms. Giglio said that asking the highway department to do the clearing and demolition work at the EPCAL park would be one more non-highway job that could interfere with completion of drainage and other projects that are highway department functions.

Mr. Woodson said of the drainage priority list: “We’re working on it.”

tgannon@timesreview.com