A Riverhead Highway Department plow at work during a storm. File photo: Peter Blasl

The Riverhead Highway Department will be getting the two new dump trucks highway superintendent George Woodson requested last spring, but they won’t be arriving until the end of next month.

The town board on Tuesday authorized the purchase of two Kenworth T370 dump trucks for the highway department at a cost of $360,000, to be purchased through a cooperative municipal purchasing agreement and paid out of the highway department’s fund balance. The trucks will be equipped with sanding and plowing equipment.

Woodson said he first put in a request for the trucks in April, to replace two old dump trucks that are “pretty much rotted out” and no longer fit for use. He said he needed to replace the old trucks for this winter season and wanted to have them delivered by October, to allow time to install necessary equipment, such as radio equipment and to train drivers on the new vehicles.

“It can take four or five months for them to build a truck,” Woodson said. “They’re not necessarily stockpiled.”

When Woodson didn’t get a response from the town to his request for the new trucks, he met with the town board June 4 to discuss it. The meeting became extremely contentious, with Supervisor Yvette Aguiar and Councilwoman Jodi Giglio questioning whether the highway department needed the two new dump trucks and chastising him for, they said, not properly following established purchasing procedures.

By June 4, Woodson had already ordered a third vehicle without first obtaining the required purchase order from the town purchasing agent.

Giglio told Woodson he had not submitted an annual vehicle inventory to the town financial administrator and the supervisor and did not included the vehicles he wanted to purchase in his 2020 budget request.

Woodson denied that he failed to submit the inventory and argued that the truck and equipment purchases were being paid for with highway reserve funds, not current-year tax revenues. That’s why they weren’t included in the equipment line of the current operating budget, he said.

“I’m having a little difficult time here transferring three quarters of a million dollars in a blanket amount,” Aguiar told Woodson. “Every purchase should go before the board and be approved by the board,” she said.

Giglio told Woodson she thought the town bought five or six dump trucks in 2019, which he said was wrong. He complained that if he’d known they were going to discuss past years’ purchases at the June meeting he’d have done some research and come to the meeting prepared for the discussion.

The supervisor said she’d researched highway department truck purchases and told Woodson he’d purchased 10 dump trucks in the previous two years.

Woodson told Aguiar she was wrong. “I did not buy 10 dump trucks over the past two years. That’s absurd,” Woodson said. “You should have just asked me,” he said.

According to the town board’s meeting minutes in 2018 and 2019, the town board authorized the purchase of five dump trucks during that time period: a new dump truck and a used dump truck in 2018 and two new dump trucks and a used dump truck in 2019. The total cost for the five vehicles was $672,547.

Giglio objected to Woodson spending fund balance on equipment.

“If you have extra money it should go back to the taxpayers,” Giglio told Woodson.

“Who are you? You’re not the highway superintendent,” Woodson shot back. He said when he has unspent funds in his budget due to mild winters, he sets them aside to use for needed vehicles and equipment, which prevents him from having to raise taxes to cover their cost, Woodson said.

“I’ve been doing this for 12 years. I know what I’m doing,” Woodson said. “I don’t know how many of you have even been to the highway department,” he told board members. “You don’t know the overall workings. You’ve had this paperwork for over two months now,” he said.

The discussion went downhill from there, with Woodson and Giglio arguing back and forth and the highway superintendent complaining that the board should respect him as an elected official.

In the end, the board agreed to immediately authorize the purchase of two mowers Woodson said he needed for the summer season. It also agreed to approve the purchase of the one dump truck the highway superintendent had already ordered in March.

But the board did not agree to authorize spending for the two dump trucks he requested.

Under state law, highway funds cannot be spent for any purpose other than highway improvements and maintenance but the town board must authorize any expenditures.

Woodson complains bitterly about being “micromanaged” by people who have no idea how to run a highway department.

“People that don’t know anything about it should stay out of it,” he said. “The more people you get involved, the more things get screwed up.”

Highway trucks lined up at the town’s highway yard on Osborn Avenue ahead of the storm on Wednesday. Photo: Peter Blasl

Woodson and members of the town board have had a fraught relationship, going back several years.

He has been at odds with the board over responsibility for the loose leaf pickup program, which he argues is not a highway function and should not be done by the highway department at its expense. He also argues that the pickup interferes with the department’s ability to put up snow fencing along open fields, to prevent adjacent roads from drifting over. Last month, Woodson agreed to pick up leaves “for the last time,” he said, because the town board wanted to continue the program but had not made other arrangements.

The town board in 2015, over his objection, agreed to take in as town roads about a dozen private roads in a Baiting Hollow community. The highway superintendent actually sued the town board over that dispute and the case is still pending in court.

In September, the town board, again over Woodson’s objection, approved taking in as town highways the roads in the Calverton Camelot subdivision at the Calverton Enterprise Park. The subdivision was approved by the Riverhead Planning Board in 2006, but the roads were not approved by the town’s engineering consultant until May of this year. The town board was set to accept the roads in July, but after Woodson objected, saying he would not consent to the action until the town board filled highway department staff vacancies and procured the trucks and equipment he’d requested. In September, the town board, saying it faced potential legal action by the developer, passed a resolution accepting the roads. Woodson said he refused to sign off on it and will not maintain the roads accepted without his consent. He said he does not intend to plow the EPCAL roads. Now, he said, the town attorney is threatening to take him to court to compel him to do it.

“I still don’t have the trucks and I don’t have the staff,” Woodson said. “Until I do, I’m not agreeing to take on any new roads.”

Since the June 4 work session, Woodson said, the purchase of the two dump trucks was delayed by bureaucracy, including a procurement officer questioning his judgment about why he wanted the particular model truck he sought to purchase.

Woodson said he’s got a fleet of 32 trucks for sanding and plowing town roads — two for each route. Some are smaller trucks and some are bigger, depending on the area they’re used in, he said. He also has four large heavy-duty trucks and three snow blowers.

Woodson said he tries to replace trucks on a schedule, buying at least one new truck every year.

“I don’t like getting behind,” Woodson said. “I like having all my stuff in order.”

“With proper maintenance these trucks should last 10 years,” he said.

“But you never know what happens, especially in cold weather when trucks are out pushing wet, slushy snow off the roads,” Woodson said. The conditions are sometimes brutal and the trucks and equipment get “beat up,” he said.

A plow truck gets an emergency repair Wednesday after a transmission line failed. Photo: Peter Blasl

The delay in buying the two new dump trucks authorized by the board this week means lighter-duty trucks may have to be used in areas where heavier equipment is needed, Woodson said. “That means they get beat up,” he said.

Woodson said the spending authorization got pushed back so late in the year that the 2020 trucks were no longer available to purchase and the town has to buy 2021 models.

“That’s costing me an extra $10,000,” Woodson said.

Board members on Tuesday expressed satisfaction that the purchase authorization followed proper protocols.

“The purchasing agent has confirmed that the proposed purchase meets all the criteria set forth in the town’s procurement policies, so I will vote yes,” Giglio said.

“I concur,” said Aguiar before casting her vote. “It did go through the procurement officer and I understand the money’s coming from the fund balance, correct. Is Bill here?” she asked, seeking confirmation from the town’s financial administrator William Rothaar. “Perfect. He’s got the money in it and good luck,” Aguiar said, before voting to approve the resolution.

“Can they get ‘em by tomorrow?” Councilman Tim Hubbard jokingly asked, referring to the winter storm that, as of Tuesday afternoon, was forecast to dump as much as a foot of snow on Long Island.

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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.