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Highway Superintendent Jeffery Baker and the City of Sherrill

Mon November 01, 2021 - National Edition
Lori Lovely – PROFILE CORRESPONDENT


Crew members Greg Pickerd and Steve Long prep Noyes Boulevard. for repair. Jeffrey Baker’s father, Buster, who at 86 “is still doing it,” according to Jeffrey. “He’s how all of us kids got our know-how and abilities.” The crew performs flood obstruction removal. Foreman Todd Esch and Howard Philo, MEO, locate underground utility with the department’s new Vac truck hydro excavator. Crews perform new water service installation. (L-R): Jeff Baker; wife, Jackie; and children, Bailee and Tyler. The department’s pole barn. The department’s green waste site transfer station. Jeff and his “baby” … Paisley. The city of Sherrill’s city hall, volunteer fire department, city court and police department. The department replaced its old 1982 vactor in 2020. “It was a good old truck,” Jeff said. Jeff and his wife, Jackie, enjoy a vacation, hiking in Vermont. Historic Noyes Park where Babe Ruth once played. The city of Sherrill highway department crew. In 2020, Jeff bought a new Bobcat mini-excavator. The city of Sherrill highway department purchased a new vacuum truck in 2020. The city of Sherrill’s community activity center where residents can bowl, do aerobics, hold group meetings and participate in indoor sports. Jeffrey Baker and his wife, Jackie. The city of Sherrill highway department’s salt storage facility. Foreman Todd Esch checks grade for Matt Stone (in excavator), while Greg Pickerd and Howard Philo backfill.

Sports teaches us many things: teamwork, a good work ethic, leadership and even innovative thinking. These are a few of the qualities Jeffrey Baker picked up from years of coaching and playing sports at both the community and college level that he uses in his position as superintendent for the city of Sherrill in Oneida County.

President of the girls' softball club, he has coached softball at Morrisville State College, football, soccer and Little League. But sports weren't the only field in which Jeffrey acquired experience and skills. He began working in sanitation — first for a private company owned by his uncle and later for the municipality's sanitation department. He credits that experience with teaching him time management and customer service skills.

His background in sanitation enabled him to envision a solution when one of his crew was retiring and the city needed a new refuse truck.

"City employees used to do garbage pickup," he said. "We used three part-timers for trash pickup, but they were aging out, so I had to staff it with full-time people."

Not only did that create staffing shortages for other work, but whoever did trash pickup needed a CDL license … and it was expensive to shift people.

Having driven a trash truck for his uncle when he had a contract with the city, Jeffrey understood the logistics.

"We did the math; it saved money to outsource," he said.

Bliss Disposal won the contract, which Jeffrey estimated saves the city about $25,000 if you figure in the cost of the new truck they no longer need to purchase.

"We were looking at a split-packer for trash and recycling. That runs about $300,000."

An added bonus for Jeffrey is that the number of calls he gets about trash has decreased to zero.

Role Reversal

Although Jeffrey has made some changes during his tenure as superintendent, he said, "We're not reinventing the wheel. There's no need to revamp things."

Some traditions continue, such as having his predecessor, Gary Onyan, work part-time on the mowing crew, just as Gary's father had before him.

"Gary's dad, Red, was a WWII veteran and retired police officer," Jeffrey said. "He mowed for the city. Gary took over when he retired. It's pretty cool, really."

Jeffrey has history with Gary Onyan, having worked for him in 1991 doing trash, and at the city's garage in 1994. Jeffrey isn't the only one in the department familiar with Gary; many of the current crew worked under him for at least 10 years. It was Gary who first suggested Jeffrey as his replacement … and who has been a good mentor since Jeffrey assumed the role.

There's no awkwardness now that the roles are reversed.

"We talk," Jeffrey said. "He lets me ask the questions."

He said when Gary's advice is solicited, it is appreciated. "He has a lot of knowledge."

While Jeffrey considers himself fortunate to have Gary around as a reference, he's gained considerable confidence in the role since being appointed superintendent by the city manager in May 2018. There have been a lot of good days on the job, but, he said, "probably the day I got a call from the city manager to meet because he was going to offer me the job" was his best day.

His success is why he trains his crew to do as much as possible.

"You have to be ready for opportunities," he said.

A "big supporter" of vocational training, he sidestepped college himself to join the workforce. Some of his other jobs included working on the department of public works crew and as a mechanic, where he picked up diverse skills that have served him well on his career's trajectory.

"If you work with your hands and your head, you'll always have a job," he said.

It's a lesson he tries to instill in his crew, although he sometimes phrases it more like "Be an asset; don't let your ass set."

It's a challenging job, but Jeffrey relishes the diversity of duties and ever-changing situations, although he admitted that preparing for the unknown is his least favorite aspect of the job. However, his success in rising to the many challenges and grooming his crew to face each new task belies his distaste for the surprises the job hands him.

On-the-Job Training

Baker's full-time staff consists of just five people:

  • Todd Esch, foreman
  • Greg Pickerd, MEO
  • Steve Long, MEO
  • Matt Stone, MEO
  • Howard Philo, MEO

Part-timers Gary Onyan (retired superintendent and Park & Rec foreman) and Kenny Cooper (Park & Rec MEO and mechanic) round out the crew. Working a year-round schedule of 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Jeffrey is close to his crew.

"They make it easy to come to work," he said, with the unspoken "but hard to decide about retiring" obviously on his mind.

He takes advantage of every chance he gets to utilize their skills or teach them new ones. For example, because some of the crew have experience with roofing, he offered to replace the roof of the courthouse in the fall.

"The city manager got quotes, but this saves money and it's an opportunity to educate the guys."

Jeffrey pointed out that he and other crew members built concession stands and put a roof on the pool house when Gary was superintendent, so this is not a novel concept.

"Once the roadwork is done, there's time [for other projects] in September and October."

Ever the coach, Jeffrey wanted to safely take down about 15 infested and dying trees in Robertson Park after Emerald Ash Borers destroyed several of them. After contracting with Bartlett Tree Service to take down some of the more difficult ones, he asked the pros to train him and the crew.

"And I watched a lot of YouTube videos," he said.

Because he didn't want to put anyone in danger, he ended up taking most of them down with the assistance of city of Sherrill Power and Light and DPW crew, but he still considers it a good learning experience for them all.

"Safety [is] very important," Jeffrey said, "so we encourage strongly PPE and site awareness for all employees."

It's another lesson in the making, as he hopes that proper procedures will carry on and that future crews will use some of the protocols he established as a guide, modifying to suit the workforce and demands.

One example that will set a high bar for those who follow behind him is Jeffrey's attention to the budget and his shrewd cost-saving measures.

"We like to cut costs for the city by doing jobs in-house when we can," he said, adding that it can be cheaper to buy equipment to do some jobs than to subcontract the work.

Equipment

Another opportunity for learning — and cost savings — comes with vehicle maintenance. Jeffrey said he likes to teach as many crew members as possible to ensure the longevity and productivity of the equipment as well as the workforce. Due to their efforts, Jeffrey's equipment "wish list" is short: an updated street sweeper and a leaf vac.

"We try to adhere to a quarterly PM schedule," Jeffrey said. "Semi-annual at minimum. The equipment gets checked regularly and maintained daily or weekly, depending on use."

Among the equipment they service are:

  • 2021 Mack vac truck
  • 2021 E-50 mini-excavator
  • 2020 F-250 quad cab Fisher SS V plow
  • 2019 Sure Trac dump trailer
  • 2018 Mack S/A, Tenco plow/sander
  • 2017 F-250 regular cab Fisher SS V plow
  • 2017 F-350 dump truck
  • 2016 Hyundai HL 940 loader
  • 2014 Toolcat 5600: V plow, blower, broom and bucket
  • 2013 JCB backhoe
  • 2012 International A/S, Tenco plow/sander
  • 2010 F-250 extended cab Fisher V plow
  • 2009 Speed Aire compressor
  • 2007 Locke equipment trailer
  • 2001 International S/A Tenco plow/sander
  • 1999 giant Vac leaf machine
  • 1998 GMC 7500 Elgin sweeper
  • 1994 trackless MT, V plow, blower
  • 1989 Morbark chipper
  • 1982 International 4700, Vactor body
  • 1974 John Deere 450C dozer
  • 1972 Vermeer stump grinder
  • 1968 Massey Ferguson 135 Vineyard

The Vactor had been used a lot for cleaning storm and sanitary sewers, but it was getting older. Using loans and grants, the city recently acquired a new vac truck. Now, Jeffrey is eager to start vacuuming the storm sewers, catch basins and lines. He also plans to catalog the piping, the direction of the lines and the outlet locations in the boxes in the catch basins with the new truck.

Jeffrey intends to use the vac truck in a multitude of applications, such as hydro-excavating for new utility poles. The power company is "pole-testing" approximately 40 poles, looking for rot in older poles. For any that need replacing, Jeffrey plans to help by using the vac truck.

"If we do it, it's quicker because we don't have to wait for utility location. We assist with water, wastewater, parks and power when called upon."

He's finding all kinds of uses for the new truck. He recently used the new truck on a water break.

"It took 25 minutes to dig a 6x8x5 hole and we didn't need to wait for the locator because we were doing it with water."

It's a piece of equipment he could have used on his worst day on the job during the winter of 2018, when the city experienced three water main breaks within a half-mile stretch.

"We went to dig in the Kenwood community [to repair the first break], when another one happened down the street … and then another break a quarter of a mile further down. As soon as we'd fix one, another one happened."

He suspects freezing temperatures and redirected water from Oneida were to blame.

"They run higher pressure than we do, and water going in a different direction upsets the pipes."

Even with assistance from Oneida, they worked on site from 2 p.m. to 3 a.m.

Kevin Mumford, wastewater department, is responsible for the wastewater treatment plant, but Jeffrey has used the vactor truck to facilitate hydro-excavating for water service and storm pipe repairs.

He also has led his crew in crafting individual tools to expedite work. For example, they added a lift motor and cylinder to the leaf machine and a water spray system for the pickup to use during pavement sealing season.

"It takes a while for the tar to set up before cars can drive on a road we're paving," he said.

To cool the sealer down more quickly, they plumbed a tank in the dump truck to spray water on the road. This enables them to do more streets without having to close them.

Projects Planned, Under Way

Some of the highway department's ongoing projects include citywide tree trimming in conjunction with the city of Sherrill Power and Light, drainage and sidewalk replacement. Jeffrey intends to start teaching his crew how to remove and install sidewalks — another job he wants to take in-house to save money.

A bigger project they're working on is street construction on Thurston Terrace, a circular drive in a residential area. Jeffrey refers to it as a "total makeover." Crews are replacing blacktop and curbing and some infrastructure.

Completed projects include street restorations, installation of enhanced bridge walls, building access roads for utilities and building walk paths in city parks.

The burden is eased somewhat by sharing services with the town of Vernon, the village of Vernon, the city of Oneida, Oneida County and the village of Oneida Castle. Sherrill joins with these other groups to maintain the roadways in the winter, do street repair, address water and sewer problems and complete vehicle mechanical repairs.

Any time saved by sharing services is devoted to planning future projects, such as the Route 5 corridor sidewalk rejuvenation project. Route 5 connects the center of the city with its outskirts. City and state are collaborating on this corridor rejuvenation, under the direction of New York State's engineering department, to add new sidewalk in the business district, lighting and drainage. Jeffrey said they're working on grant money for this expensive project.

Additionally, Baker said, "We hope to establish a storm sewer mapping and maintenance program to help prevent flooding and infrastructure failures."

It's part of his overall goal to establish a system of operation that his successors can use and streamlining procedures where applicable. For instance, he said he is "actively tweaking our snow removal system for maximum effectiveness."

Currently, the Sherrill highway department has two plowing routes that take approximately two and a half hours. They're responsible for clearing 36 lane miles — 34 municipal lane miles, 2 county lane miles, all paved. Bridges are the town of Vernon's responsibility, but Sherrill maintains three culverts in the center of town. To assist with snow clearing, the city's salt storage capacity is 300 tons, housed in a building constructed in 1969.

Family Ties

"The job can interrupt plans and sleep," said Jeffrey's wife, Jackie, referring primarily to plowing. "I understand the responsibilities that go with [the] job and my husband [is] always willing to respond."

Born and raised in Oneida, Jeffrey met Jackie, also from Oneida, at a local field day — a local fair with a car show — around 1989. The pair married in 1995 and have two grown children: Tyler, 24, and Bailee, 21. They're a close-knit family who enjoy being together.

Jeffrey and his son bought a 1992 Camaro they're restoring, and Jeffrey tries to keep up with his son's weight lifting passion.

"He keeps me in shape with weight lifting." Other hobbies include fishing, hiking, kayaking, landscaping, guitar and comedy. But he has the urge to travel.

Jeffrey and his wife have an appreciation for waterfalls and travel to see as many in New York as possible.

"We talk to locals to find unknown ones," he said. They found about eight little-known falls, thanks to a B&B host in Ithaca.

Once he retires, Jeffrey and his wife will have time to locate and visit more waterfalls. There are no set terms of office for Sherrill's highway superintendent, so he's able to choose his length of service. He's already consulted his mentor Gary Onyan and some friends while trying to decide "When do you go?" He said that, "In New York State, if you have 10 years of service by age 55, you can retire."

When he reaches age 55, he'll have put in 35 years.

Community Ties

The retirement question is on his mind, but Jeffrey enjoys his work and the community he grew up in, which he calls "Little Mayberry on the East Coast." With a population of just 3,300 and covering only 2 square miles, the Silver City, as Sherrill is known, is the smallest city in New York.

Founded in 1916 through a special act of the state legislature, Sherrill is named for Congressman James Sherman's son, Sherrill Babcock Sherman. In an unusual move, its city charter stipulates that it will be treated as if it's still a village located within the town of Vernon, which has jurisdiction over the city.

The federally recognized Oneida Indian Nation, one of the Iroquois Nations, is indigenous to the area and has maintained a reservation in the area since the late 18th Century, following the Revolutionary War, when the United States forced the Iroquois nations to relinquish most of their lands for having allied with the British, and as a result of demands by white settlers. The Oneida Nation purchased land within the city in 1997.

White settlers developed the natural waterway by building a canal with locks to Oneida Lake, increasing commercial trade by connecting the Atlantic seaboard with the nation's interior until the Erie Canal was opened in 1825, diverting traffic.

Oneida Lake is the largest lake that is entirely within New York State. Located northeast of Syracuse near the Great Lakes, its surface area is just under 80 square miles, while its average depth is only 22 feet. It feeds the Oneida River, a tributary of the Oswego River that flows into Lake Ontario. The name "Tsioqui," given by the Oneida people, means "white water," and comes from the wave action occurring on the lake on windy days.

The Oneida Nation is one of the area's largest employers. They own and operate Turning Stone Resort Casino, which features golf courses, an indoor golf dome, an RV park, walking trails, an arcade, spas, restaurants, table games, slot machines, Bingo, Keno and more.

One of the region's earlier employers was Oneida Limited, a well-known manufacturer of cutlery and other tableware. As one of the world's largest designers and sellers of stainless steel and silver-plated cutlery, the company also is the largest supplier of dinnerware to the food service industry in North America. Founded by John Humphrey Noyes and the Christian Perfectionists, a religious-based socialist Utopian group, Onedia Community Ltd. was one of the earliest joint-stock companies in the country.

Today, Oneida Community Mansion House — the former home of Noyes — is a museum and National Historic Landmark. Built in 1862, the mansion contains residential apartments and guest rooms for overnight stays. The mansion and the factory are tourist attractions.

Other points of interest include the O&W Railroad Trail, Oneida Community Golf Course, Vernon Downs Casino, Oneida Creek and Noyes Park, where Babe Ruth once played.

As rich as its history is and as lush as its natural beauty, Jeffrey values Sherrill for the warmth and friendliness of its people. "Everyone waves," he said.

It's a small community where notifications to residents are typically accomplished via phone, U.S. mail, e-mail, social media and even word of mouth.

Perhaps complicating his retirement decision, he acknowledged that the people of Sherrill are appreciative of the work his department does. "It's one thing I like about the job. We get more cheers than jeers. Sometimes, they bring us baked goods and beer." P

This story also appears on Superintendent's Profile.




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