Brookhaven highways debate morphs into blizzard discussion

Councilwoman Kathy Walsh and state Assemb. Dan Losquadro Councilwoman Kathy Walsh and state Assemb. Dan Losquadro answered questions from an audience of about 65 people at the Longwood Public Library in Middle Island. (Feb. 18, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

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A planned debate Monday night between the candidates for Brookhaven highway superintendent turned into a lively discussion on the department's recent performance during the blizzard.

The candidates, town Councilwoman Kathy Walsh and state Assemb. Dan Losquadro (R-Shoreham), answered questions from an audience of about 65 people at the Longwood Public Library in Middle Island.

The debate was planned before the Feb. 8 blizzard struck but took on an added urgency after residents complained of unplowed streets for days and lack of leadership in the highway department and town government.

Some questions submitted by audience members to moderators criticized the department's slow response plowing roads after the storm. The candidates were also asked how they would prevent a repeat in the future.

Walsh, an independent who is running on the Democratic line for superintendent, responded that while budgets should be fiscally responsible, "We need to go to the people and be honest with what we need.

"The storm has showed us we need a lot more resources," she added.

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Losquadro also said the highway department should be better funded. "I feel the highway department needs to be higher on the priority list for the Town of Brookhaven," he said. With recent budget cuts, "the ability to hire back low-cost laborers was not put in the budget."

Town officials, including Supervisor Edward Romaine, who was on vacation during the blizzard, have blamed the highway department for snow removal problems. They said the department was not prepared to handle a major storm, citing problems with planning, seeking outside contractors, internal staffing and leadership, equipment shortages and old vehicles.

Acting highway superintendent Michael Murphy was on sick leave from Friday through Tuesday during the blizzard and snow cleanup. He resigned Wednesday, and town officials appointed John Cappella acting superintendent.

Some highway department employees attended the debate to say they were tired of being scapegoated.

Before the debate, highway general foreman Thomas Gilbert said one issue is that the department's budget has been cut for several years, hindering the purchase of new equipment.

"This was a department that was heralded in superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene," Gilbert said. "The blaming was unfair."

He said storms can't be predicted.

"Was it as bad as people made it out to be? No," Gilbert said of the storm, which dumped nearly 30 inches of snow in Brookhaven, left hundreds of motorists stranded on the Long Island Expressway and blocked roads for days. "But it was a very difficult storm."Both candidates said the highway department needs to better track its vehicle inventory. "The town does not have the ability to track in real time its resources," Losquadro said, while Walsh said the GPS tracking devices currently installed in town vehicles are "not

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sufficient, and no one was monitoring it."

Walsh pledged if elected, she would strictly limit highway management vacation requests during the winter. "All the key players should have been at town hall the moment this storm was starting to get out of hand," she said.

Losquadro said he would have contracts with outside plow contractors who pledge to work for Brookhaven first. "A lot of these contractors weren't being called by Brookhaven until Monday," he said.

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