RUTLAND TOWN — After 21 years as road commissioner, Byron Hathaway is getting done in January.
Hathaway said Monday that the job has changed quite a bit since was elected in 2000, and will likely continue to evolve.
When Hathaway started as road commissioner, the terms were for a single year. Voters later changed it to three. Hathaway has suggested to the Select Board that it give voters the option to make the position appointed, thereby allowing it to recruit from outside Rutland Town. He said people with the necessary engineering, communication and administrative skills are difficult to find.
Hathaway, 68, was a dairy farmer with his parents and brother up until 1986.
“At that time, we went on the government’s whole-herd buyout program and essentially went out of business,” he said. “We subdivided a portion of the farm and created 16 building lots. My brother went into the home-building business, I went into the excavating business and I did that from the fall of ’86 to 2000.”
It was in 2000 with the retirement of Road Commissioner Marshall Fish that Hathaway saw an opportunity. He’d been working on and off for Fish for several years and knew the town’s roads. His sons opted not to follow him in the excavating business, and faced with the need for expensive reinvestments in equipment, he decided to run for the town job.
“Tony Flory ran against me that year, in 2000,” said Hathaway. “He said, ‘Well, I just want to keep you honest.’ So we had a little campaigning, I won, and I’ve been elected ever since then. That was the only time I’ve had to run against anyone.”
When he started, the job was mostly a hands-on position. Throughout the course of two decades, between Agency of Transportation (AOT) requirements and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) events, at least half of it is now administrative work.
Some of these changes were brought about by Hathaway himself.
“I’ve started writing things down,” he said. “Marshall had all the stuff in his head, that’s gone. For instance I’ve started putting together a little bit of a packet here to give to the next guy. Here’s a list of all the town roads and what year we paved them so we can have some idea of how long a road has been paved. We’ve got some roads that are going to last 15 or 20 years, others need to be paved a little more often just because of heavy traffic and that sort of thing.”
One of his early moves was to spend $900 from a miscellaneous account on a used laptop for the highway department. He was scolded by the Select Board for this, but 20 years later, FEMA only works through digital records and state officials only respond through email.
“So I started computerizing things, paving bids and things like that,” Hathaway said. “You can look back and see the various different paving bids for quite a number of years. I started tracking our salt use, and I’ve got a lot of data accumulated on that. We ended up putting scales on the loader to be able to weigh every load that goes out, so I know where the salt is going.”
Better record keeping had led the town to use 1,500 tons of salt per year versus the previous 3,000. Hathaway said at $60 a ton, that’s a large sum of money being saved.
The highway garage itself came to be under Hathaway’s tenure. The project began on paper in 2003 and didn’t break ground until 2015.
“When I came on, there was nothing. Marshall Fish had shovels and that kind of stuff all stored at his place, and I had to move that stuff from his place to my place. I cleaned out a couple of stalls in my old free-style barn and that’s where we stored our stuff,” he said.
Walt Tripp, a Rutland Town Highway Department employee of 30 years, took his lunches in his truck, according to Hathaway.
“That’s not a workplace, you know?” he said.
The summer he was elected, Hathaway and the crew took a corner of the salt shed, which had electrical and telephone service, and used concrete blocks to rig up a small office space where they could do paperwork and store equipment. Several concrete blocks were used to keep the salt from caving in a wall. It may have violated a few safety regulations, said Hathaway, but at least there was a water bucket where the crew could wash their hands after using the portable toilet.
In 2003, voters approved $20,000 for a scoping study on a new garage.
“We got it all permitted, and it was a good thing, but then they wouldn’t let me build it,” Hathaway said. “So it sat until we had a change of personnel on the Select Board.”
The town eventually secured funds for the new facility, which now sits in Northwood Park.
“It’s been a nice place to keep our stuff,” said Hathaway. “You’ve got a place to drive a truck under cover, and thaw it out. Before that we were storing the truck in the salt shed; the loader was always in the salt shed. That loader had never seen anything but a salt shed for most of its life, it got washed once in the spring. The little town truck we had, I was driving that home and keeping it at my house.”
After former Town Administrator Joseph Zingale left in 2017, the highway department took on water and sewer duties. This was on top of sidewalk plowing, which had largely been contracted to the city. Hathaway said he was able to grow into these roles and responsibilities over time, but whoever fills his shoes next will have a great deal to manage.
One of Hathaway’s best learning experiences turned out to be among his disappointments.
In his second year as road commissioner, a group of residents came to him to see about refurbishing the covered bridge by East Creek. Doing so would require state grant money. Hathaway said he applied for the funds and was denied. He asked someone from the state why, and was given some pointers on what the AOT is looking for in grant applications.
“I sat down the next year and rewrote the entire grant by myself, up there in that little hole in the wall, and I sent it in and I got a grant for $20,000 to do the scoping study on that bridge,” he said. “I turned right around the next year, wrote another grant for the actual construction and refurbishing of the bridge and was awarded a grant for $350,000. And the selectmen turned it down.”
The town’s match on the grant would have been $35,000, he said. The covered bridge, built just before 1850, would have become what’s now called a pocket park.
“The old people in town that had used that bridge, had grown up with that bridge, could have had that to have looked at and reminisced about; most of them are all gone now, and the old bridge still sits there. It’s right beside the road by East Creek. It looks like an old barn, but it’s not.”
The bridge itself had a twin, built after the river rerouted and washed away in 1947 when the Chittenden Dam failed and took with it East Pittsford Pond.
The experience taught Hathaway much about the paper side of his business, which would become more important as floods and related disasters required FEMA money to address.
“My first FEMA event was in 2000. We had a big, heavy rain storm in December and the flashboards on Glenn Dam broke and flooded Route 7,” he said. “It was Sunday, nobody was around except John Flory, and we had 2 feet of water underneath the traffic light down there at the Post Road intersection, and cars were hitting that at 50 mph.”
He decided to close Route 7, fearing for motorists’ safety.
“Well, apparently, the only person that can close a state highway is the governor. So, I found that out,” said Hathaway. “Anyways, we survived that, and we got FEMA money.”
He said that every three to five years he’s had to deal with FEMA about something, and the federal entity has steadily become more particular about documentation.
“The next one was a snow event,” Hathaway said, referring to a storm sometime in 2004. “It happened right around Town Meeting Day. There was snow, we plowed our snow, they came and paid us for plowing snow for that event. That was really weird.”
He also recalls the “nor’icane” of 2007, a storm combining elements of a hurricane and a nor’easter. The road crew had plowed snow the night before. Hathaway got up early to check on the roads. The wind began blowing, he got a call around 4 a.m. about a tree blocking East Pittsford Road.
“I climbed into the loader and pushed it out of the way, and I never got out of that loader until 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” he said. “It was just one call after another, trees coming down everywhere.”
While Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 caused enough damage statewide to be remembered for decades, Rutland Town itself was largely spared, sustaining about $20,000 in damages.
“The biggest thing was the Route 7-Post Road intersection,” he said. “That’s right in the floodplain and the floodplain is 3 feet higher than the road down there, so that whole thing floods. And the mud, my God, the mud that was down there, that was the biggest cleanup, was the mud.”
Hathaway said his retirement comes at a good time, since winter work largely revolves around maintenance, giving the newcomer time to get their head around upcoming projects and learn the job.
He said he’d been toying with the idea of retiring for a few years now. A town official talked him into running for this term.
“There’s a lot of factors that go into a decision,” he said. “I’m not sure I’m as effective as I want to be, just because I’m 68 years old now. Talk to anybody this age, and they’ll tell you we can still do things, we just don’t do them as fast as we used to do them, you know? And maybe we’re not quite as effective. I don’t want to leave this job with people thinking, ‘Jesus, he should have retired six years ago,’ that kind of thing.”
He said there were a few executive sessions with the Select Board that left him feeling like it might be time to move on, and then came the death of his brother, Gene Hathaway, last year.
“He just got nailed with leukemia, and boom, in 100 days he was gone. That kind of gets you thinking, it started the whole process,” said Hathaway.
His thinking led him to notice that his work on the road crew was coming at the expense of his family and home life.
“This highway department, I’ve got to get away from that, I’ve got some stuff at home I want to get done while I’m still healthy,” he said.
Soon, his grandchildren will be old enough to drive a tractor, and Hathaway wants to be the one to teach them.