Brookhaven highways dept. unprepared for snowstorm, officials say

A woman walks up Shell Road from Broadway A woman walks up Shell Road from Broadway in Rocky Point with a shovel. Four days after the snowstorm, the road had not been plowed. (Feb. 11, 2013) Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

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Brookhaven's highway department was unprepared to handle a storm the magnitude of last weekend's blizzard, town officials and board members said -- citing a lack of staffing and leadership, equipment shortages and old, worn-down vehicles.

The department also was hindered by high turnover among administrators, and was led by an acting superintendent who had never gone through a storm season as a manager, officials said.

The department also failed to develop a response plan before the storm, did not have a system to keep track of which roads had been plowed, was slow to solicit outside contractors to help with plowing, and even ran low on diesel fuel for its plows at one of its pump stations, town officials said.

"Nobody had any experience with this," Councilwoman Connie Kepert said. "It would be like asking me to get in a truck and plow the roads. They had no idea how to manage a storm. . . . It's inexcusable."

Acting highway superintendent Michael Murphy was a top-ranking blue-collar worker who became a deputy in March 2012. He ascended to acting superintendent early last month when former superintendent John Rouse left to become a Suffolk County judge. Murphy fired fellow deputy superintendent Lori Baldassare just after he became acting superintendent. That left the department without an administrator who had experience dealing with a major snowstorm, said Baldassare, who served in that position during the major 2010 snowstorm.

When Murphy was appointed deputy last March, winter was over, she said. "So he has never managed a snowstorm."

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Murphy was present in the days leading up to the storm, but did not work for four straight days beginning Friday, when the storm hit -- citing a toothache, according to town Deputy Supervisor Daniel Panico.

Murphy resigned Wednesday as acting superintendent, officials said, and declined to speak to Newsday through a spokeswoman.

Many streets remained unplowed this week because the highway department was slow to solicit outside contractors to help with the work, said Panico, adding he had to secure the extra help after the storm.

Assemb. Dan LoSquadro (R-Shoreham), who is running for highway superintendent in a March 5 special election, said by the time Brookhaven tried to hire outside contractors, many were committed to other towns.

Much of the department's equipment is old and worn, said Panico and other town officials. Many of the vehicles have 70,000 to 100,000 miles on them, Baldassare said. And 25 of the 125 pieces of equipment were rendered inoperable because of the storm, town board member Kathy Walsh said.

"You're not going to get through this storm with a pickup truck and a mundane plow," Panico said. "In a storm of this size, you can't be dealing with rinky-dink equipment."

Walsh -- LoSquadro's opponent in the March election -- said conservative budgeting in recent years by the cash-poor town left the highway department with insufficient resources.

In addition to the equipment problems, the highway department has about 200 workers to maintain more than 2,100 miles of roads, she said. That number is too low, said Walsh, who declined to say how many more workers the town needs.

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"We have to be just as concerned with public safety as we are with fiscal responsibility. I think we've almost been irresponsible by balancing budgets that didn't invest in equipment and personnel," Walsh said.

With Deon J. Hampton and Sophia Chang

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