File photo: Peter Blasl

A town-wide hiring freeze put in place by Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar after the COVID crisis struck in March will be lifted to allow Highway Superintendent George Woodson to fill two vacancies created by retirements nearly seven months ago.

The decision to allow the highway superintendent to fill those positions was made at Thursday’s work session, after Woodson complained to the board that his department is so short-staffed it will not be able to handle plowing next winter — especially if the town adds additional roads to the roster of town highways the department is responsible for maintaining, as the town board was about to do at last week’s regular meeting on Tuesday.

Woodson said if the town adds roads within the Calverton Enterprise Park — a resolution to do that was tabled last Tuesday on the motion of Councilman Frank Beyrodt, who said Woodson had expressed concerns about it — his crew wouldn’t be able to handle plowing those roads without merging some existing plow routes. That would cause long delays in getting some areas of town plowed after a snowfall, he warned.

“I’m already short-staffed,” Woodson told the board. “How can I be expected to add roads to my list if I don’t have the personnel to do the job? Why am I not being allowed to replace retired employees?” Woodson asked the board.

“The money is already in the budget,” Woodson said.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said the funds may be in this year’s budget but because of COVID, “the budget is under” and “now we’re operating on a shortfall,” she said. Also, state aid for 2021, including highway funding, is going to be cut, Aguiar said.

Woodson said in an interview afterward that the he and the personnel committee conducted interviews to fill the vacancies and offered jobs to two people in February, but neither accepted the position. Then the pandemic hit, he said, “and everything was put on hold.”

He said he’s been trying ever since to restart the process to fill the positions, to no avail.

The town personnel officer kicked the request over to the supervisor’s office, where the deputy supervisor told him the positions couldn’t be filled because of the hiring freeze.

“I had the money in the budget and it will save money, hiring two new guys at a lesser salary,” Woodson said.

Then when he saw the water and sewer department hiring people, he asked again. “I was told they were ‘essential’ positions,” Woodson said.

“How is plowing roads not essential?” he asked.

To make matters worse, Woodson said, he had a third retirement earlier this year and anticipates another by the first of the new year.

The highway department had 32 employees last year, before those retirements — a smaller crew than the department had in the mid-1980s, when Woodson first joined the highway department as a laborer, the superintendent said. The department had 45 guys back then, according to Woodson.

In 1985, town highway crews were responsible to maintain 150 miles of roads. Today, they take care of more than 220 miles of town roads — without taking in the new roads at the enterprise park or the roads in a Baiting Hollow community that the town is in court over whether it has responsibility for them.

“By the time this all goes through, it will be September or October,” Woodson said, which barely allows time for training before winter, he said.

“You just don’t hire somebody today and put them in a five-ton truck tomorrow,” he said.

Woodson said he does not object to the town taking in the roads in the EPCAL subdivision, as long as he is able to fill vacancies in his staff.

The dedication as public roads would end a long fight between the town and the developer who in 2001 purchased the the 491-acre “industrial core” of the former Grumman site.

Riverhead officials have been wrangling with the developer over the condition of roadways and site improvements since the town gave final approval the “Calverton Camelot” subdivision in March 2006. The final approval was given subject to the completion of road and site improvements on the site, performance of which was secured by a $3 million letter of credit. A dispute over the performance of those improvements escalated to the point where the town declared the developer in default and in 2012 the parties ended up in court.

Everything has been settled, with road and site improvements completed to the satisfaction of the town’s engineering consultant.

Town Attorney Robert Kozakiewicz said the town is legally obligated to take the roads as public highways, since the town engineer has certified that they now meet all town specifications.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.