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Superintendent of Highways Bill Barbic and the Town of Sharon

Wed October 01, 2008 - National Edition
Mary Yamin-Garone

Seeing town of Sharon Highway Superintendent Bill Barbic sitting at his desk can remind one of an overstuffed arm chair — comfortable and homey. He almost looks too big for the tiny room, but the more one speaks with him while in his office, the clearer it becomes that the man and his “mansion” are a perfect fit.

Bill is a Schoharie County native having lived in the town of Sharon for nearly all of his 50-something years. A 1972 graduate of Sharon Springs High School, he went to work for the town that same year.

“I began as a part-time wing man for the highway department. In May of 1973 I went full-time. I worked there for six years before buying my own tractor-trailer and going on the road. When I returned to Sharon in 1995, the board approached me about becoming the new highway superintendent. At that time my kids were becoming involved in sports and school functions. As a truck driver, I only was home for a short time every night. So when they [the board] approached me about the job I said ‘yes.’ They appointed me to my first four-year term as highway superintendent in the spring of 1995, when the previous superintendent retired.”

As for those in-between years, “I helped my mother run the family business, which was a nursing home that housed 35 beds. My stepfather and I built the facility when I was 16,” Bill recalled. “After several years I realized it wasn’t my cup of tea. I was getting too attached to the people, so I went back on the road. I ran a tractor-trailer with a crane setting panelized housing for Harvest Homes for 10 years.”

In the early 1980s, Bill once again returned to Sharon. He served four years as the town’s mayor and four years on the village board.

“We sat around talking one day and someone said, “You ought to run for the village board. So I said, ‘OK,’ and it just seemed to happen. It had nothing to do with politics. I’m no politician by any means.”

Bill’s experience in the political arena made him a quick study in the budget process.

“As mayor I learned the budget process quickly. I still get those budget headaches, but now I know why. I also worked for one of the best highway superintendents, Jesse Lane. I learned a lot in six years. He still stops by and I still pick his brain. After all, he spent 30 years with the town.”

As a member of the Schoharie County and New York State Association of Highway Superintendents, Bill would like to see some changes made in their training curriculum.

“The [Highway Superintendent] Association needs to get back to basics. Over the years its program has become geared to bigger towns. Participants are instructed as to how things should be done but realistically small towns can’t afford to do things that way. I would rather see things like how to build your gravel road, how to do your ditching or what you can do to pave your roads. Things that the little guy can do. We learn more about that stuff simply by sitting around sharing a sandwich and talking with guys who have been doing it for years.”

Bill has two sons, Billy, 27, and Joshua, 26. His partner of nine years, Tina, also has two children, Eric, 30, and Cheri, 27. She understands that “Bill’s job is extremely challenging. He is very dedicated and the people love him.”

Tina occasionally acts as Bill’s dispatcher back at home when he needs to contact his crew out in the field.

In whatever “free” time he has, Bill prides himself on being a NASCAR fan.

“Dale Earnhardt Jr. is my favorite driver. Is there anyone else? Every June, Tina and I go to the Pocono 500 race with friends. She is as big a fan as I am.”

How does Bill want to be remembered?

“As the cantankerous old person I can be at times,” he joked. “I just hope they miss me. That would be the best thing. In a small town it doesn’t take long to become the ‘go-to’ guy. When you’ve been in a place all of your life and been involved in everything in the community it becomes a part of you.”

Bill chuckled again when asked about retirement. “What would I do? Who knows? I’ve been in trucks and dirt all my life. I guess that’s where I’ll stay.”

All in a Day’s Work

The highway department’s facilities include a 120- by 40-ft. six-bay garage that was built in 1964. The structure also is home to Bill’s office — such as it is — and the parts bin. There also are a 125- to 150-ton salt shed and a four-bay coal storage where “we keep our spare Oshkosh and whatever doesn’t fit anywhere else. We try and get everything under cover, especially during the winter.”

“The size of our garage used to be our biggest downfall,” said Bill. “When I first took over as highway superintendent we had trucks that didn’t fit inside. Men were putting plows on and taking them off every snowstorm. That same year we put an addition on [to the building]. A contractor framed it and we did the rest of the work, finishing off the inside during the winter.”

Bill and his crew also built the department’s salt storage shed.

“It’s an open lien-to. My dream is to one day have a real salt shed for the roughly 350 tons of salt we use each year. Our salt comes from Lansing Mine near Ithaca, New York. There is a storage facility in Fort Plain, just 15 miles down the road, but that salt comes from Lansing, too.”

As superintendent, it is Bill’s job to maintain the town’s 80 lane miles of road; 25 percent of which are gravel and the rest are paved. There also are 3 miles of seasonal road. All of that translates into four plowing routes that take about two-and-a-half to three hours for the two-man teams to complete. “I am a firm believer in having two men in a truck. Four eyes are better than two in a snowstorm.”

Bill depends on his crew of three full-time employees to serve the town’s 2,000 residents. His staff includes Dustin Graig, Gary Slater and Tom Doyle, all of whom are machine equipment operators/mechanics. Then there are the part-timers: wing men Tom Slater, Roger Edwards and Mike Bruin and driver Joe Rorick.

“I have a young crew who are new to the business but they have adapted well,” Bill explained. “They are all in their 20s. One of them came from another highway department and another one’s first winter was last year. They really stepped up to the plate with all the ice and snow. They did a great job. I know no one ever tells anyone that, but it’s true.”

If Bill could tell his men one thing what would it be? “You don’t tell people how much you appreciate what they do as often as you should. That’s the case throughout life, no matter what you do. Be sincere when you tell them. Don’t criticize someone if you don’t understand what they do.”

Case in point: “The first winter I was superintendent we had a new town supervisor who wanted to go out on the snowplow with me. It was the coldest, windiest day. You couldn’t see anything, but it was the best day for him to be in the truck. He got in and I showed him how to run the wing. We went out this back road and [we] were out for 15 minutes when he said, ‘I don’t know how you guys do it, but I’ve had enough,’” Bill recalled with a smile.

“I told him he was with me for the three-hour ride and I wouldn’t bring him back. That’s how he learned to appreciate what we do. They have no idea what it’s like. They think they do. They think it’s easy. Fifteen minutes and he’s ready to come back. I said, ‘You got in that seat. You’re there until the run is over.’ We got along well after that. It was an educational trip for him. Sometimes I wish I had a crew cab to take the entire board with us.”

Under Bill’s watchful eye, the town of Sharon’s highway department functions on a total operating budget of $248,437, which includes salaries and benefits for employees and an annual CHIPS allocation of $58,000.

Bill’s government experience as mayor and as a member of the village board taught him how to stay within that budget. “Working on the other end of the budget helped me understand things. Being on both sides makes a difference.”

To help get the job done, the department uses a modest fleet of equipment that includes:

• 1960 Double wing Oshkosh

• 1968 Single wing Oshkosh

• 1977 440 Gradall

• 1986 Mack tandem with plow and wing

• 1987 Case 1085 rubber-tired backhoe

• 1987 John Deere 770 grader with snow wing

• 1992 Ford F-700 dump truck

• 1992 Ingersoll Rand vibratory roller

• 1994 Ford tractor with mower

• 1995 International 4 x 4 with plow and wing

• 1998 Autocar — all-wheel drive with plow and wing

• 2002 Volvo tandem with plow and wing

• 2004 Volvo L-90 rubber-tired loader

• 2008 GMC 5500 with V-plow and sander (all-wheel drive)

When it comes to purchasing new equipment Bill sings the praises of the town board.

“I’m fortunate. I have a good board and we get along well. They understand that upgrading equipment saves the town money in the long run. Updating our vehicles has been a gradual process over the last 14 years. The board likes to be sure they can pay for it. They don’t like to bond. We started out with a four-year plan. We skipped on a truck and bought a new loader. Recently, we ordered a new 10-wheeler to replace a 22-year-old truck.”

The superintendent admits he isn’t averse to purchasing a used piece of equipment.

“Why spend $180,000 on a new piece of equipment when you can buy a used one that does the same job? I pride myself on being thrifty. We have purchased used rollers and graders — something you don’t go out with every day. It’s worked out quite well and we’ve saved a lot of money. When you’re talking about buying a used snowplow that’s pretty much used, well, that’s tough. To me a snowplow is like a fire truck. It has to be able to work every day of the week.”

Bill said today’s equipment has come a long way. “Everything is more advanced and easier to operate. You can spend more time in the vehicles now because of their improved comfort, whereas if you spend 18 hours in that 40-year-old truck, you’re beat. You have put in a hard day’s work.

“Unfortunately, the technology also makes it difficult for the average person to work on anything. I’m lucky that we have a good local mechanic with his own shop. There are times when we are forced to bring our equipment to him because we don’t have the necessary computers or scanners. On average it is a smooth process as far as repair but like anything electrical, it’s out in rain, sand and snow.”

Every year, the highway department repaves the town’s roads as needed and as money allows. “Each year it gets tougher and tougher. This year we are spot paving sections of bad road. We aren’t able to do a total road. The money just isn’t available. Costs have increased one-third [over] what they were three years ago. A $40,000 job is now $60,000.”

In a small town such as Sharon there is no such thing as a typical day. “You can plan and plan but when you have a small crew you can’t always do what you want,” said Bill.

This self-proclaimed glutton for punishment, however, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I love a challenge. The tougher it is the more I enjoy it. Some people would like it to be a smooth day every day of the week. Not me. I would be bored to death with that. Every day is different so if you get bored with the job there is something seriously wrong. I also don’t like sitting in my office. It’s not the office itself. I just hate sitting. I’m an outdoor guy. I prefer going out and working with my men to sitting in here any day of the week.”

In addition to the roadwork, Bill and his crew have been kept busy replacing two old town bridges. One was 35 by 20 ft. wide; the other was 35 by 17 ft. wide.

“We had an innovative way of doing the work,” Bill recounted. “The bridges were assembled in our yard here then trucked down to the site on a flatbed. The first one was on a dead end road with two houses on it and only one way to get up. The contractor arrived at 6 a.m. and by 6 p.m. the occupants were back in their homes. The larger bridge took several weeks, but that was our learning experience.

“The county wanted to do things differently but I went ahead and did it my way. Don’t make a job harder than it has to be. Instead look at the situation and ask, ‘Why can’t we do it this way? Because no one’s ever done it? What does that have to do with it?’”

With no big projects on the horizon, Bill would like to see every road paved.

“That’s the goal of any highway superintendent. Out of the town’s 80 miles of road only three still need to be paved, excluding the seasonal roads. It can be accomplished but I won’t neglect the roads that are paved just to say I did it. That is shortchanging the next superintendent.”

About the Town of Sharon

The town of Sharon (originally called New Dorlach) has lived with a dual identity for two centuries, home both to families with agricultural and rural roots, and to visitors and proprietors with visions of resorts and spas.

Sharon is one of six original towns to form Schoharie County in 1797. Its dual identity also is about ethnicity and social tradition. Native Americans were lured here by the healing qualities of the sulphur, magnesia and chalybeate springs. In the 18th century, Yankee settlers, primarily of German and Dutch background, intermingled with Native American tribes. After the Revolutionary War, migrants from New England and the Middle Atlantic followed.

Sharon Spring’s development as a mineral water spa reputedly began when David Eldredge established a boarding house near the springs in 1825. Between 1836 and 1860, several large hotels and boarding houses were built to accommodate the increasing number of visitors. By 1841, the village had become world famous as the social elite came to take the waters. Magnificent large hotels and forest-like parks graced the village landscape. During the second half of the 19th Century, Sharon Springs was home to more than 60 hotels and rooming houses accommodating more than 10,000 visitors each summer. By the early 1900s, Sharon’s indigenous Christian mix had become distanced from the summer clientele with the influx of European visitors, primarily from Judaic tradition.

Transportation — more than any other factor — directed Sharon’s economy. In the 1800s, two new turnpikes — Loonenbergh, which connected Sharon south to Athens on the Hudson, and the Great Western, which connected Sharon south to Athens on the Hudson and connected Sharon east to Albany — competed with an amazingly, technologically superior canal system. With the turnpikes and canals, New Dorlach’s residents were no longer solely dealing with small, local markets; their goods could now be transferred through middlemen to cities like New York. As farmers converted from subsistence farming to cash crops, such as wheat and hops, Sharon’s economic perspective began to change. About 40 years following the opening of the Erie Canal, the Delaware and Hudson (D & H) railroad opened a spur through Sharon, and the age of the spa was fully born.

The resources that led to Sharon’s success also contributed to its demise. The turnover of spa owners, owing to age, financial troubles and a series of disastrous fires, meant the new proprietors were not as tied to the town.

Other factors that led to an inevitable decline were of national scale. The hops market failed when Prohibition was introduced in the 1920s and the bank moratorium brought financial ruin to many local residents during the early years of the Depression. Passenger service on the D & H railroad ended in 1932, severing the artery that carried the lifeblood of the resorts.

Soon after Prohibition ended in 1934 and the Depression had ruined the finances of clientele, owners and local residents, a new form of transportation — the automobile — once again transformed Sharon’s character. The automobile may have been the biggest factor that brought the glory days of Sharon to an end. New types of accommodations, motels and motor courts, such as the Commodore, Davis Cabins and Eigen’s Point, appeared along the new route. These establishments catered to the automobile culture, emphasizing independent travel and do-it-yourself convenience, a far cry from the all-inclusive services of hotels like the Pavilion. The resorts and tourism industry in Sharon received a severe blow in 1954 when the New York State Thruway opened its new section from Utica to Newburgh and traffic on Route 20 decreased drastically.

A positive development occurred in 1994 when the Sharon Historical Society obtained a grant for historical recognition of the spa area. Approximately 180 buildings, including bathhouses, hotels, and homes, dating from the mid-19th and early-20th Century were surveyed and granted recognition as a historic district and placed on New York State’s Register of Historic Places and the National Register. Efforts to protect the unique architecture and character of the district, while providing opportunities for businesses to develop, is currently being undertaken.

Today, Sharon Springs continues to operate as a mineral waters spa with a small clientele of primarily Hasidic and Russian Jews. Throughout Sharon’s history, the town has weathered many changes and seen many economic recessions and recoveries. As Sharon’s men and women in 1820, watching David Eldredge build a rooming house down near the springs, they could not fathom that tens of thousands of visitors would flock here.

History courtesy of P

This story also appears on Superintendent's Profile.

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