Unlike many town highway superintendents who are elected to their position, Donald R. Chambers, as all county highway superintendents, was appointed to a four-year term.
In December 2004, Don began his term when the previous highway superintendent retired.
Don has always been interested in public service and when the opportunity to work for the county was presented in 1999, he was ready to start his public service and leave the engineering consulting field.
He began his career with the Cortland County Highway Department as a senior engineer. In 2003 he was promoted to the the position of supervisor of solid waste and the superintendent of highways in 2004.
Since taking on the mantle of superintendent, Don has set his sights on three major projects: updating equipment, putting roads on a 20-year reconstruction rotation and a bridge/large culvert replacement schedule.
“We had a lot of tired equipment in our inventory and the county legislature has invested heavily in bringing our fleet up to date. The department gave the County Legislature a road map of what to expect in the coming years and thus far, they have agreed to meet our county’s equipment needs and highway needs,” said Don.
The department enacted an equipment replacement plan, which anticipates the maximum service life of equipment and plans purchases of the new equipment. Accordingly. Cortland County often purchases its equipment from State Contract unless it has a specific need and the equipment on the State Contract does not meet its specs.
Recently, the county purchased a new tracked excavator. Excavators are not included on the State Contract so a bid was put out and the machine was purchased locally. However, Don has found that purchasing standard items such as trucks and loaders from the State Contract is generally the most economical approach.
Don has found that when dealing with the purchase of materials by bid, it generally works to the department’s favor. The County Highway Department extends its material bids to the other municipalities within the county, so they may also take advantage of the cost savings.
“The purchase of fuel is one example of materials put out for out bid. The county is able to beat the state’s bid fuel cost by purchasing locally. To obtain this price savings advantage the department specifies that only orders of 9,000 gallons will be made and the total amount will be made in one fuel drop. Purchasing in such large volumes, allows the county to make its fuel available to other municipalities and county departments,” Don said.
Highways and Byways
Although Cortland County is rural, all 248 mi. of roadway are paved and maintained by Don and his crew. Since taking office, Don has put the county’s roads on a 20-year rotation so that every road in the county is reconstructed within 20 years.
When the snow falls, Don and his crew plows almost all of their roads. In addition, they plow approximately 110 mi. of state roads located in Cortland County.
In total, the highway department is responsible for plowing approximately 350 centerline road miles comprising 14 routes, with each route taking nearly three hours to complete.
The Cortland County Highway Department also is responsible for 60 bridges within its jurisdiction. The county was forced to close and replace one of its bridges damaged by the federal flood disaster in April 2005. The department designed and constructed the replacement 70-ft. span structure with only minor subcontracting of specialized items, such as pile driving.
The county-owned Bidwell bridge deck-finishing machine was utilized in the placement of the concrete deck of the structure. The highway department can perform nearly all aspects of bridge construction.
The department plans to replace another bridge with county forces in 2007 and another structure in 2008 with contracted forces.
The county’s infrastructure is quite old and large culverts have become a growing concern.
“Back in the 1930s, a significant flood caused tremendous damage to the area and inflicted a significant loss of life. Roads and large culverts throughout the county were destroyed. Following that flood, much of Cortland County’s large culverts were completely replaced. Unfortunately, in some cases many of those large culverts have not had a lot of attention paid to them since,” explained Don.
In June 2006, floods again impacted the county. The area was declared a federal disaster area and led to the closing of several roads. The highway department staff was called on once again to repair the extensive damage.
Highway Department Staff
For a rural county, Cortland’s highway department has similar responsibilities to that of a department of public works and is rather large with 60 full-time and 14-part-time employees, which includes five engineers in addition to Don.
“One of the reasons the county superintendents often are engineers is that towns and villages within the county that face a significant job, such as bridge or large culvert replacement, do not have the resources to bring in engineers. Quite often, they will rely on the county for that type of support. The county’s engineering department assists in surveying and laying design of jobs for other local municipalities,” Don explained.
“We also have a designated safety officer who meets with the staff in various departments and makes sure that all OSHA requirements are adhered to,” he said.
In addition, Don’s staff includes Robert Buerkle, deputy superintendent; Diane Bean, fiscal officer; Dave Hicks, fleet supervisor, Dave Barber, general foreman and Steve Ryan, assistant general foreman.
“I am very proud of all the members of my department and the great job my department does to serve the needs of the public. In addition to snow removal and general highway maintenance the department produces projects as complex as constructing roads and bridges,” said Don.
Don’s operating budget is $10.651 million with an additional $3 million average from federal aid.
The CHIPs allocation of more than $1.1 million is utilized to fund a portion of the 20-Year Capital Plan for roads and bridges
The highway department also is responsible for the maintenance of the administration building, three maintenance buildings, a salt storage shed and Dwyer Park. The department also operates a landfill, which handles 26,000 tons of garbage each year as well as a solid waste recycling facility. The operation and maintenance of the local airport also comes under its jurisdiction with Buerkle serving as airport manager.
To keep abreast of projects and available funding, Don attends the CNY Regional Planning Board meetings. When he is able to obtain new grant money or see the completion of a project, it is a good day.
In Retrospect and On the Horizon
In 2002, the maintenance department took possession of a brand new facility, which enabled the seven mechanics to work on county vehicles with modern equipment. The highway department built a new recycling facility in 2004, after the previous one was lost to fire in 2002. In 2003 the highway and the solid waste departments were merged.
The APWA Project of the Year Award recognized Don’s department for its complete rehabilitation of 5,500 ft. of Main Street in the City of Cortland.
All utilities including water, sewer and drainage were replaced and ornamental street lighting was installed. Street Scape or stamped concrete was used to enhance sidewalks.
This particular effort required the cooperation between Cortland County, the City of Cortland and the Town of Cortlandville. The project was a good example of municipalities working together to achieve a common goal.
Don and his crew have a few major projects in their future, which includes the replacement of a large number of culverts in the county. Some are as large as 20-ft. in span. Other projects are the Jennings Creek Bridge and Page Green Phase III, which are “on the drawing board” while Page Green Phase II is currently under way.
Ups and Downs
Since becoming Cortland County’s highway superintendent, Don naturally has had both good and bad days. His best day is when there is a highway or bridge reopening signifying the completion of a job well done. Another “up” day for Don is when he receives new grant money for projects that will help him better serve his community.
On the other hand, a not-as-good-a-day is when he might have to deal with a personnel issue or injury.
When not on the job, Don enjoys spending his free time with his family as well as boating and four wheeling.
Don grew up in St. Lawrence County but has lived in Cortland County for 12 years. He lives with his wife Wendy and their 15-year-old son, Christopher.Wendy is very proud of her husband and his accomplishments and doesn’t hesitate to say so.
“I am very proud of my husband. He is an honest man with an abundance of knowledge and a lot of integrity,” she said.
Cortland County History
Cortland County is located west of the center of New York State, south of Syracuse and north of Binghamton, boasting a population of approximately 49,000 residents. It is predominantly a rural county and is considered the southeastern gateway to the Finger Lakes Region. Its county seat also is named Cortland.
The county was named in honor of Pierre Van Cortlandt, president of the convention at Kingston that wrote the first New York State Constitution in 1777 and the first lieutenant governor of the state.
The area that is now Cortland County was within Indian Territory until the American Revolution when it became part of the Military Tract, in 1781. To encourage settlement, the state constructed a road from Oxford through what is today’s Cortland County to Cayuga Lake in 1792 to 1794. This, and the construction of privately financed roads, were the major impetus to its settlement.
Eastern New Yorkers and New Englanders, wanting new land to farm, welcomed the opening of this frontier.
Amos Todd, Joseph Beebe and Rhoda Todd Beebe made the first white settlement in the county in 1791, emigrants from Connecticut who paddled up the Tioughnioga River from Windsor, to live near the head of navigation in the Town of Homer.
Following them came a flood of settlers who, in 1808, petitioned the State Legislature for county status. Thus Cortland County was created from the southern half of Onondaga County as part of the Boston Ten Towns on April 8, 1808.
The first settlers were primarily of English and Dutch descent and most had been born in the United States. By 1855, 10 percent of the residents of the city were Ireland-born. The influx of northern Europeans began in the 1840s and continued in smaller numbers into the 20th century.
The settlers transformed this heavily wooded region into tillable acres supporting mixed crop agriculture. They grew wheat, corn and potatoes, cut hay for the livestock, and made small quantities of maple products. Potash from wood ash was their first cash crop.
Along the Tioughnioga River at Port Watson, now within the Cortland city limits, a planned community developed, and between 1800 and 1840, “arks” loaded with local products floated down river on the high waters of spring to Harrisburg and Baltimore. This was a one-way trip for these flatboats.
With the opening of the Erie Canal, river shipping declined. The canal and shortly, the railroads, began hauling cheap western grains, which eventually competed with those of local farmers. As more land was cleared, acreage devoted to animal husbandry greatly increased.
The soils and climate produced lush pastures and abundant hay crops suitable for the raising of cattle and sheep. By 1845, dairying was well established with most milk being made into butter and cheese and shipped out to the eastern markets. Shipments of livestock were made to those markets in the early 19th century, as well.
Between 1830 and 1860, most of the towns of the county reached their highest populations. Beginning about 1870, most rural town populations declined as farm boys were attracted to city opportunities, and some responded to the opening of far western lands.
As the city industrialized, large numbers of Italians began arriving as opportunities for work existed in the factories and for the railroads. Small numbers of Ukrainians, Polish, Greeks and Lebanese came between 1890 and 1920. African Americans have been in the county in small numbers since the 1790s. Asian families arrived in the late 1960s and 1970s. The county’s overall population has increased each recent decade, as there has been a notable shift from urban to rural non-farm living.
The county’s industrial history goes back to 1789 when the first gristmill in the county was established in the Town of Homer. Clearing forests gave rise to saw mills, asheries and tanneries. Distilleries, carding mills, cooperages, carriage and harness makers’ shops, gunsmiths, blacksmiths and tinsmiths could be found in major communities. An ink factory was founded in Homer and a shoe peg factory in Little York.
With the coming of the railroad in 1854 and a second one in 1872, Cortland industries were assured of easier access to raw materials, fuel and new markets. The establishment in Cortland Village of two national banks and a savings bank provided a broader credit base.
These factors, coupled with the nationwide demand for more goods, spurred transformation of small shop enterprises into the county’s first large-scale factories. Taking the lead was the Cortland Wagon Company, which became the largest and best known of a dozen or more firms making horse-drawn vehicles or accessories. The firm fell victim of the automobile.
Wickwire Brothers turned from the hardware business to the manufacture of wire cloth, drawn wire and nails, fencing and even steel for making these products. Although the area’s largest employer during most of the 20th century, the firm was forced to close in 1971, the victim of the times.
Today, Cortland County is noted for the production of CNC milling machines; medical instruments and components; textiles; electrical components; plastic consumer goods; components for NASA and a variety of other goods and services. International exporting is an integral part of many of the corporations in the area.
The county’s present reflects its past. Agri-business flourishes yet the number of farms has declined while acreage per farm and yield per acre have increased. Continued growth in the service and light industry sectors is contributing to the growing strength of the central New York region. Cornell University, Syracuse University, SUNY Binghamton and Ithaca College are all within a 35-minute drive from the City of Cortland.
Outdoor recreation is an important employer in Cortland County all year long. Woodlands, streams and lakes lure hunters, fishermen, campers, hikers and water sports enthusiasts. Public and private golf courses and swimming facilities exist.
In winter, skiing at one of the three ski centers brings people from along the eastern seaboard, and in the summer family activities make use of the scenic hills. Ice fishing and snowmobiling, as well as skating at SUCC’s indoor ice arena and cross-country skiing are available.
The Suggett House Museum is located in the 1882 Italianate home of inventor and real estate developer, James Suggett. The Kellogg Memorial Research Library, connected to the Suggett House, is the center for an extensive archival and genealogical collection.
The 1890 House Museum is a grand limestone mansion built by Chester F. Wickwire, wire manufacturer, at the height of the “Gilded Age.” The Homerville Museum, and the Farmer’s Museum provide tourists with a varied look at the community.
The Marathon Maple Festival annually hosts thousands of visitors and the June Dairy Parade is the largest of its kind in the state. Court House Park is the site of the Veteran’s Memorial Park and the annual Pumpkinfest.
Cortland also has been home to notable figures including the Hall of Fame Baseball Manager John J. McGraw and former New York State Gov. Nathan Miller. P
This story also appears on Superintendent's Profile.
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