12/20/13 12:00pm
12/20/2013 12:00 PM

CYNDI MURRAY FILE PHOTO | Councilman Chris Talbot was honored for his service as a town board member Tuesday.

Tuesday’s meeting was the last for Councilman Chris Talbot and Highway Superintendent Peter Harris. Both elected officials announced their retirement earlier this year and were recognized with a plaque for their service prior to the regular session.

“I have probably worked with Pete more than anyone in Town government the past 23 years I’ve been here and I have to say it’s been an honor,” Supervisor Scott Russell said. ”In all honesty Pete [your retirement] might be better for you and your family, but it is certainly not better for Southold.”

Mr. Harris, 60, remained the only elected Democrat in town government after former councilman Al Krupski was voted to the Suffolk County Legislature earlier this year, and he shocked his party in May by announcing he wouldn’t seek re-election.

TIM KELLY FILE PHOTO | Highway Superintendent Pete Harris was recognized for his decades of service to Southold Town Tuesday.

“I thought this would be easier, but I guess after this many years in the business it’s going to be hard to walk away, even though it’s my choice,” Mr. Harris said Tuesday. “It’s a 24/7 job … I had a great work ethic that was passed on to me from my parents and that I believe I passed on to both my two children. I am going to miss it. I truly love Southold.”

He served 12 years as head of the highway department. Previously, he worked 24 years as the state Department of Transportation’s highway maintenance supervisor responsible for Southold and Shelter Island towns. He started as a laborer, a job he held for three years.

Mr. Harris is being replaced in January by Republican Vincent Orlando, a former town councilman, who takes the oath of office in January.

Councilman Talbot was also honored by his fellow board members Tuesday. Mr. Talbot, a Republican, decided earlier this year not to seek re-election after serving one term on the board.

“Chris, I do want to tell you you’re a better man than me,” Mr. Russell said. “Chris did exactly what he said he was going to do; run for office, step in, make a difference and then leave. You rarely see in politics someone who sticks to his word. His approach to everything was with his uncompromising values — sometimes painful, but that is besides the point — he is a real man of integrity.”

A Southold native, Mr. Talbot championed small business, conservation and working toward a more efficient government.

“It is very, very rewarding to be able to serve your fellow residents,” Mr. Talbot said Tuesday. “I want to thank the town, Supervisor Scott Russell and the other board members for putting up with me.”

Fellow Republican and former Town Trustee Bob Ghosio will fill his seat in January.

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10/25/13 9:00am
10/25/2013 9:00 AM

Outgoing Highway Superintendent Pete Harris (left) and Supervisor Scott Russell.

Outgoing Southold Town Highway Superintendent Pete Harris suggested during a budget presentation Monday that the town switch to a pay scale for elected officials — a move he said would make more funds available for new hires and the purchase of necessary equipment.

Mr. Harris, who chose not to seek re-election this year after 12 years in office, was one of several department heads to present their 2014 department budgets at a special Town Board work session Monday afternoon.

Highway department spending, which is expected to be slashed by 5 percent next year, to $5.57 million, represents about 13 percent of Supervisor Scott Russell’s proposed $41.6 million budget. The biggest cuts in highway spending come from road resurfacing and heavy equipment purchases, Mr. Russell said. Mr. Harris originally requested that $350,000 be allocated for road resurfacing next year, but under the proposed budget would receive just $200,000, Mr. Russell said.

Mr. Harris’ request for two new $110,000 dump trucks was also chopped from the proposed spending plan, which instead authorizes $80,000 for a light-duty truck, Mr. Russell said.

“The single biggest issue I have is the rolling stock; it’s in bad shape,” Mr. Harris said Monday. “Not for nothing, this Town Board really needs to step up to the plate. When the police department needs vehicles they seem to be getting their vehicles, but when Old Man Winter hits the fan or a superstorm Sandy hits the fan, we don’t have reliable rolling stock to get these roads open.”

While agreeing the town needs to invest in highway department equipment, Mr. Russell said the department needs to inventory the equipment it already has before adding any expenditures. He said that itemizing the department’s equipment would be one of his first requests of the new highway superintendent, who will be elected in November and take office in January.

“I’m sure everything he asked for is a legitimate request, [but] my budget is focused on what we can afford,” Mr. Russell said. “Pete is very fiscally conservative, he wouldn’t ask for anything he didn’t need. But we can’t say yes to everything.”

During a separate work session Tuesday, outgoing Town Board member Chris Talbot said that in the four years he’s served, Mr. Harris has been denied a request for a heavy-duty vehicle each budget cycle. Mr. Russell said the Town has traditionally bonded for equipment if the need arises over the years.

Mr. Harris said the proposed 2014 budget is workable but added that there is room for improvement moving forward.

“It is a budget I feel that the incoming superintendent can work with,” Mr. Harris told the board. “But at this point we’re down six or seven employees from what I originally had. It’s been a challenge. Definitely there should be some people bought back on.”

One possible way of funding these expenses could be found in Mr. Harris’ final plea to the board Monday, when he suggested revising the pay scale for elected officials.

Currently, according to Town Comptroller John Cushman, pay is increased annually by adding 2 percent to the current year’s salary. Thus, in Mr. Russell’s preliminary budget the new highway superintendent would have been paid about $104,000 next year. Mr. Harris suggested the newly elected highway superintendent start at $85,000. The Town Board has since agreed to ammnd the highway superintendent’s pay to reduce the salary to a little more than $100,000.

“I personally feel that both people vying for my seat have a lot of learning to do and, as a taxpayer, I think they should start at entry level and not with a raise,” Mr. Harris said. “This is not a political statement. The salary doesn’t warrant their knowledge in my opinion.”

Republican highway superintendent candidate Vincent Orlando, himself a former Town Board member, said he believes his salary is up to the board’s discretion, but doesn’t believe the current system is flawed.

“Just because someone is leaving and someone new is coming in shouldn’t dictate salary,” he said during a phone interview Tuesday.

Democratic highway superintendent candidate Eugene “Tobie” Wesnofske did not respond to a request for comment.

Board member Jill Doherty said the town should look into adjusting the pay rates of elected officials for the 2015 budget. She suggested modeling it after CSEA’s pay scale, which is increased incrementally based on years served.

Mr. Russell agreed it’s something worth considering, but said the logistics would need to be carefully weighed.

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09/11/13 12:00pm
09/11/2013 12:00 PM
TIM KELLY PHOTO | Southold Highway Superintendent Pete Harris.

TIM KELLY FILE PHOTO | Southold Highway Superintendent Pete Harris.

Outgoing Highway Superintendent Pete Harris says some residents are abusing the town’s spring brush pickup program and he’s requesting that the town amend its policy.

During its regular work session Tuesday, Mr. Harris was joined by North Fork Environment Council member Bill Toedter in telling board members that an increasing number of people are capitalizing on the free program to clear entire parcels of land rather than just perform maintenance pruning.

“The fact is that homes have four, five, six, seven truckloads of brush stacked out in front [of one house],” Mr. Harris said. “That is taking advantage of what the program is supposed to be. If the town wants to continue the cleanup on a yearly basis we need to put some teeth into it.”

Mr. Harris suggested the town either set limits on how much brush one household can dispose of or simply discontinue the program all together.

In order to remove the excessive brush, Mr. Harris said, the town must pay tipping fees and employee overtime and, as a result, this year’s program is $16,000 over budget.

From an environmental standpoint, Mr. Toedter added, year-round residents are taking advantage of a time when seasonal residents are away to clear wetlands and bluff along the Sound. He argued that timing the program for the spring disturbs the ecosystem, specifically the mating of birds.

“The North Fork Environmental Council is concerned at this point because it’s getting out of hand,” he said. “We have hundreds of people clearing out land during nesting season.”

Supervisor Scott Russell acknowledged the problem, but said enforcing a strict limit on the number of truckloads of brush per household has proven difficult. In the past, some residents have piled their brush on vacant neighboring lots, making it impossible to issue a citation, he said.

Mr. Russell asked Mr. Harris to provide figures on the cost of the pickup program to use in working toward a solution but he discounted the notion of doing away with the program entirely.

“You mentioned clearing the bluffs but all of that is protected under town code,” he said. “Is it really just an enforcement issue? But to sever a service the public has come to rely on seems rather drastic to address some people abusing that system.”

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05/29/13 2:39pm
05/29/2013 2:39 PM

TIM KELLY PHOTO | Southold Highway Superintendent Pete Harris.

Highway Superintendent Pete Harris, who became the only elected Democrat in town government after former councilman Al Krupski was elected to the Suffolk County Legislature earlier this year, shocked his party Wednesday morning by announcing he won’t seek re-election.

Mr. Harris’ decision came just hours before the party’s scheduled nominating convention Wednesday evening.

“It’s time,” said Mr. Harris, 60. “It was a very difficult decision, but at the end of the day it was the right decision for me and my family.”

Mr. Harris is in his 12th year as head of the highway department. During the previous 24 years he was the state Department of Transportation’s highway maintenance supervisor responsible for Southold and Shelter Island towns. He started as a laborer, a job he held for three years.

Although he ran unopposed four years ago, Mr. Harris would have faced Republican Vincent Orlando, a former town councilman, in the fall.

Southold Democratic leader Art Tillman said he’s sorry to see Mr. Harris go.

“He ran a good department under a lot of budgetary constraints,” he said. “He’s a good man.”

Mr. Harris says his crews more than rose to the challenge, especially during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, Hurricane Sandy last fall and this past winter’s blizzard.

“I’m very proud of the job I’ve done,” he said. “I only hope whoever follows in my footsteps can do as good a job as my staff and I have done in the last 12 years.”

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