Meet Dahn Bull, the not-your-typical highway superintendent for the town of Clifton Park.
From the way he spells his name to his age (he's 31.) to his background, Dahn Bull is different. And his deputy is a woman.
Unlike most supers, Dahn came to the highway department via a different path. Born and raised in western New York, Dahn earned a degree in political science and biology from SUNY Fredonia. He worked for the Chautauqua county executive and the Department of Public Works before relocating to Clifton Park.
“I moved here seven years ago and started working with Assemblyman Jim Tedisco (now state senator) as his legislative director. I did a lot of bill drafting and community relations. Then I went to work as the communications technology director for the town of Clifton Park, where I worked closely with the town supervisor.”
So, how did Dahn get that coveted top spot?
“I was appointed to fill the vacancy in November 2016, when then-highway superintendent Ric Kukuk retired. I wasn't a stranger to the department or the town. I had been the communications director and the IT network administrator and liaison for community development. I worked with Rick closely over the past two years, assisting town residents with road and storm sewer improvements and coordinating sanitary sewer and water districts throughout Clifton Park.
“We worked together on technology projects and website conversion and revamped the entire town network and servers. I was involved a lot with the community. That was my plan coming here. Stressing the importance of reaching out to the community and being involved in residents' issues. I want to communicate with them so they know what's going on and usher in a new era.
“I want to be part of the solution in this infrastructure problem. I know it's not my background … but I'm an individual who looks at the big picture and who can use the tools and people at my disposal to assure the department is more prepared and safer in the future. I always think back to when I was five-years-old sitting in my sandbox, making roads and building castles. Now I'm a highway superintendent. I have bigger digging tools and a bigger sandbox. It's something I originally looked at as a job and it's not. I enjoy it. I like coming to work. I like these projects. I like getting dirty. I like getting in the trenches and I like knowing I'm making our town better. Making my home better.”
It's not all work and no play for this highway superintendent.
“I love spending time with my family and friends, enjoying the great outdoors. I love hiking, kayaking and camping. One of my favorite places to kayak are the Vischer Ferry Nature Preserve and right off the Rexford Bridge. The Mohawk River is one of the greatest gems in this area. It's beautiful. Quiet. All you hear are birds and bugs.”
Dahn is a member of the Saratoga County Highway Superintendents Association, captain/Youth and Family Services and active in the Capital Region MDA.
Come November, Dahn is up for reelection.
“Fortunately, there's no competition. It's a nice feeling. It helps me focus more on the job instead of worrying about going out and knocking on doors. I feel better, more confident that I'm doing my job the way I should be and not trying to save my job.”
On the Job
The highway department's main building houses its administrative offices and some larger pieces of equipment. There are eight bays, where most of the trucks are kept. The original highway department building is where you'll find the rest of the trucks and summer equipment.
“We have three year-round mechanics bays. I'd like to extend them into four so this entire building is a mechanics shop. We'd be able to have multiple projects going at once.
“Our salt shed holds about 2,400 tons. It's small because of our location. We're constantly keeping an eye on it. We play it close to the vest and order throughout the year. It's tough because you have 12 weeks at the beginning of the year and 8 at the end and you never know what's going to happen. We had a week in February when we were using salt every day. I kept looking at the salt shed and thinking if we don't get six or seven truckloads, we're going to be in trouble. Our fiscal year runs January to January. We budget 32 weeks for spring, summer and fall and 20 weeks for winter.”
As superintendent, it's Dahn's responsibility to maintain the town's 450 center-lane miles of road; all of which are paved. That translates into 22 plowing routes that take between three and four hours to complete.
Dahn fondly recalls his first winter.
“When I started, I was told if you have a bad winter, you'll have a dry summer. And if you have a wet summer, you'll have a good winter. We've had a wet summer and a bad winter. We had about 12 ice storms. When people think ice storm, they think trees covered with ice, trees down in the road, power lines down. My worry is icy roads. We had 12 events where we had to go out and keep ice off our roads. It's tough because all winter, we were hovering in the mid- to high 20s to low 30s. The precipitation came down as rain, sometimes as slush and sleet and other times as snow. Sometimes I'll spend 10-15 hours waiting for whatever's falling from the sky to end so I can determine what action we need to take.
“We had taken action when it started misting. The roads were just cold enough that when the mist landed, it created a sheet of ice. My job is to be able to interpret what's happening with the weather, what the meteorologists are saying and make that tough call because if I don't get out there in time, all the roads are covered in ice. If I get out there too early and nothing happens, I just spent thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars on nothing.”
Several months ago, Dahn was tested again. He was faced with one of his biggest challenges to date.
“There was an old cement box culvert under Plank Road, one of our main roads. Years ago, that box culvert cracked right down the middle and buckled. For years, every rain storm pulled more dirt through the crack. We got a call that there was a little hole in the middle of Plank Road that went down four feet. We started chipping away and the next thing we know, that hole is four feet down and 10 feet wide.
“It was a big project. We had to shut it down for a weekend, tear out the old culvert, put the new one in and then get everything back up. I'm very proud of that moment. We found the problem at 11 a.m. on Friday and had the old culvert out, the new pipe in and the road covered by 2 a.m. on Saturday. It was passable Saturday, Sunday and Monday. On Tuesday, we regraded and paved it in about six hours it was open again.
“There was minimum down time. When the sinkhole first started, we ripped everything out, put the new culvert in and rebuilt the road. We let the crusher run and the number two stones settle over Saturday and Sunday. I came back Sunday to put down more crusher run. We filled potholes through Monday, tamped everything back down and regraded it, put down binder and asphalt and reopened the road.”
Three months later, Mother Nature reared her ugly head.
“Between 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. on July 17, we had almost six inches of rain in some parts of town. We got hit hard. It was blowing hard and then just stopped on us. It kept raining. I think every other collar in the town popped, blew out and created a sink hole. The next day was miserable. We're still cleaning up.”
Dahn's staff includes highway maintenance supervisor Jim Strozyk; mechanical maintenance supervisor Ron Croce; and deputy superintendent Ellen Martin.
“I'd be nothing without her. When I worked in the town supervisor's office we had a vacancy and Ellen was looking for a position. She started working part-time. We worked together for quite a few months on many projects. She already understood how much of a madman I was. There was an opening here, she applied and came here part time. I knew coming in Day 1 that I wanted her to stay with me. We worked so well together and got so much done the right way. I'm happy she stayed. I'm happy she's here. If not for her, I wouldn't have my head on my shoulders. My mom told me, “You need a good woman to take care of you.” That's what she does and I'd be lost without her.”
Dahn depends on his crew of 34 full-time employees to serve the town's 37,000 residents.
“We're a big department compared to many of the other towns. People working here have 25 to 30 years in. They're good at what they do. They know how to do it. So, when I talk to them, I don't question what they're doing. I'm not going to say, “You're not doing this right” because they do a great job.
“I'm implementing a cross-training program. There was a lot of compartmentalizing. So and so was good at this. So and so was good at that and that person was stuck at that job. Whenever X happened, Mr. X had to do it. We're in the process of taking people who are interested in the job and putting them in that job with Mr. X so they can see how it works. They can learn the ins-and-outs and actually practice on the project so they're more comfortable in the future. I'm at a point now where if a project takes an extra day so someone can learn to use the mini-excavator, I'm okay with that. Now we have someone who's confident in using it. The more they use it, the faster the job will be. That's fine with me because at the end of the day, as a department, we're better off.”
Under Dahn's attentive eye, the town of Clifton Park's highway department functions on a total operating budget of $5.6 million.
“Our CHIPS funding is about $467,000 for the year and then we allocate $400,000 for paving. This year, we're doing a huge paving project. The town board earmarked an additional $1 million, so we'll be paving about 20 miles of road. It's the most paving we've done in the last 20 years. Asphalt prices are good right now. We had a very competitive bidding process and we'll cut costs by having our guys flag and help the crews.”
In these fiscally-challenged times, Dahn is one of the lucky ones. He doesn't have trouble budgeting for equipment.
“I wish I had the ability to say, 'I want three new sweepers, a bigger excavator and nine plows.' That would be great. It's not going to happen but it's my responsibility to pinpoint where the highest priority is and get it taken care of. We have 26 plows. I wish we had more of a buffer because some were built in the late '80s, early '90s. Fortunately, we have mechanics and welders to keep our older vehicles running and operable and doing their job.”
Nine months into the job, Dahn admits he was surprised at how much he didn't “see” what the highway department did. “Even down to late night, early mornings of winter. It's 3 o'clock in the morning and I'm driving around checking. I never really thought about that. The freak weather events, where it feels like the world is coming to an end and nobody notices. One day, 8 a.m., we did a salt run. The roads got real slick fast. We did a salt run, came back and the sun came out. It warmed up to about 42 degrees and it was humid. Our roads were so cold that water started condensing on them. Some were covered with a quarter of an inch of ice. You never would have noticed it because it was a beautiful day. The sky was blue. The sun was out. The air was warm and our roads were covered in ice.”
As his first year at the helm winds down, what has been Dahn's biggest challenge?
“Every day has its difficulties. Whether it's people calling in who are unwilling to listen to what some setbacks and solutions are or dealing with someone here in the department. Our guys are great but occasionally, when you've been working till 2 a.m. in the middle of a snowstorm, you get tired and punchy. I've been working the same hours and have to broker a peace between two divided nations. That's difficult when you've been working so hard for so long.”
Would he change anything?
“Not too much. I wish we had longer days. I wish we didn't have budget constraints. I wish I could hire a few more guys. With every two or three hires, we have another crew. We can do a little more and I can refocus our efforts somewhere else. We're not understaffed but we could do more with more. We always want to do more with less. I want to do a lot more with a little more. That's the only setback.”
An Eye on the Future
Dahn already is thinking about the future and storm water trunk lines.
“There are several of them anywhere between 18 and 36 inches of culvert pipes that are deep underground. Those aren't cheap projects. We have to manage that chaos and try to knit two or three a year. Some of those pipes are between 16 and 20 feet underground. Some are 30. My fear is that we have projects where there's an 18-foot pipe underground and the nearby homes are 50 feet apart. How do you manage that situation? We've been lucky so far. We haven't had those types of projects or problems but there are areas where that exists. We're fortunate in that most of these pipes are of manageable sizes.
“We're also rebuilding some washouts, underground storm water management systems. Our infrastructure was put in during the '60s, '70s and '80s so some of them are 35, 55, 65 years old. All that galvanized and aluminum pipe is degrading. That's a reality we have to deal with and we can't replace 20 miles of pipe in a single setting. We have to manage the issues at hand and work with the tools and products we have. We're switching everything over from aluminum galvanized to plastic because plastic will last thousands of years. Hopefully, if the plastic fails it's something that's relatively close like the joint between the pipe and the catch basin and we don't end up digging up tons of road and dirt. That impacts people's lives.”
Dahn also has his sights set on implementing an ARC GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping system.
“Highway departments have been reluctant to use it. I think that's because technology is intimidating. ARC GIS is where we can start cataloging our infrastructure. Using GPS, I can catalog every pipe, catch basin, culvert, road, traffic sign and bridge. I can catalog pictures and my own notes about that bridge. In a town of our size, it's going to take years to do but it's a good tool that will help us better manage our infrastructure.”
Fast forward to the future. How long would Dahn like to stay on as highway superintendent?
“As long as the voters will keep me. I think in terms of someone coming into the job, with the baptism by fire mentality. Day 1 we had an ice storm. Day 2 we had another one. That was followed by a rough winter and a wet summer. I'll work hard and stay focused on being here to respond to emergencies and maintain and improve our roads and storm water. I have no problem doing that as long as the residents will have me.”
About the Town of Clifton Park
The first inhabitants of the region were Native Americans who lived along the shores of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers. The area was referred to as Canastigione, or “corn flats,” because the Mohicans and Mohawks grew corn near the Mohawk River plain.
During the period of European colonization, Clifton Park shared a similar history with its neighboring town, Halfmoon. In the mid-1600s, European settlers moved north of Albany and Schenectady and established farms and homes in both the Clifton Park and Halfmoon regions.
By 1710, people were able to travel across the Mohawk River by using the Dubach Ferry. The ferry was operated by Cornelius Claus Vandenberg, one of the region's earliest settlers. In 1727, a rope ferry was set up along the river by Nicholas Fort.
Another early settler was Nicholas Vischer, who built a house near the Mohawk River in 1735. His son, Elder Vischer opened a rope ferry in 1790, and the area became known as Vischer's Ferry. Another descendent of the Vischer family, Nanning Vischer, was a captain in the American Revolution and was buried at the Nanning Vischer Cemetery in 1813.
After the French and Indian War ended in 1763, more settlers began to move to Clifton Park and Halfmoon because of the promising farmland. Of particular note, Alexander Macintosh lived in the area with his family around this time. He was the father of John Macintosh, who became famous for the apple called “Macintosh Red.” Alexander Macintosh's tombstone is dated 1807, which is one of the earliest in the cemetery located at the site of the former Grooms Methodist Episcopal Church. Some people even refer to it as the Macintosh Cemetery.
Halfmoon, which was once a part of Albany County, became a “mother” town of Saratoga County in 1791. In 1828, Halfmoon and Clifton Park split apart, and Clifton Park kept the name of the 1708 Clifton Park Land Patent, which was originally granted to early land speculators. Clifton Park held its first town meeting in Grooms Tavern in 1828. Read more about Grooms Tavern and other historic sites below.
The Town of Clifton Park continued to grow after its “separation” from the Halfmoon region. Ephraim Stevens, the first Clifton Park town supervisor, operated a hotel at Stevens Corners in the 1820s.
The Erie Canal opened in 1825, bolstering commerce and increasing accessibility to the region and the world. Aqueducts at Crescent in Halfmoon and Rexford in Clifton Park brought the Erie Canal across the Mohawk River, and they extended through 13 miles of Saratoga County. The remnants of the Rexford aqueduct system can be seen today.
Until the mid-20th century, Clifton Park was an agricultural town. Early industries in Clifton Park included farming, dairy farms, ice harvesting and apple orchards. There were also saw mills and grist mills all along the Mohawk River.
Furthermore, churches of all denominations appeared throughout the area, creating an anchor for families settling in the region. Clifton Park's hamlets featured small, one-room schools. In 1950, the schools were incorporated into the Shenandoah Central Schools, along with other schools in the surrounding region.
Construction of the Adirondack Northway (I-87) in the early 1960s linked Clifton Park to the capital city of Albany as well as other cities and towns along its route, creating an easy commute for residents of this small community. Bridges across the river replaced the canal system as the main transportation corridors.
Clifton Park continues to operate as a community for all seasons, welcoming a new, vibrant chapter in its history, offering not only a bustling business environment, but indoor recreation, outdoor fun, apple picking, ice skating, libraries, historic sites, arts, and entertainment.
(History courtesy of https://www.cliftonpark.com/about/history/)
This story also appears on Superintendent's Profile.
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