An obscure state law that puts caps on the amount of tax dollars towns can spend on heavy machinery stymies efforts by Long Island municipalities to upgrade aging snow removal trucks, town officials say.
The problem was highlighted during last weekend's blizzard when dozens of trucks broke down or were stuck in snowbanks as they tried to clear roads covered by as much as 3 feet of snow.
Other factors contributed to their struggles, including a lack of coordination and delays in hiring outside contractors, but town officials said they also were hampered by a law that keeps trucks in service long after their optimal life spans.
The 1936 statute, part of the state Highway Law, sets annual caps ranging from $1 million for the Town of Brookhaven to $100,000 for East Hampton and Shelter Island. Attempts by state lawmakers to update the limits have met with opposition in the Assembly.
"A Payloader costs $250,000 to $300,000," said Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio, whose town is limited to $800,000 a year for equipment such as plows, power rollers, concrete mixers and machines for grading and scraping roads. "$800,000 doesn't go a long way to buy heavy equipment for a highway department."
Smithtown spent $797,500 on new trucks last year -- enough for three or four heavy-duty trucks. But the town has a fleet of 130 vehicles, almost half of which are at least 15 years old.
Close to the limit
Brookhaven spent close to its $1 million limit every year from 2004 to 2011 and is on track to do the same with its 2012 budget once contracts are finalized, according to a source familiar with the highway department's budgets.
Adding to the towns' woes, in recent tough economic times, repair budgets have been flat even as deteriorating vehicles become prone to breakdowns.
Brookhaven interim Highway Superintendent Michael Murphy resigned Wednesday, and Supervisor Edward P. Romaine apologized to residents for being on vacation during the storm.
Brookhaven, Islip and Smithtown officials said the storm highlighted the urgent need to replace their aging trucks.
The state limits on new equipment purchases are set by a formula based on each town's population and road mileage. The law does not apply to cities and villages. Smithtown and Brookhaven officials argue that the limits are out-of-date and must be updated to reflect current truck prices.
Smithtown Highway Superintendent Glenn Jorgensen said his predecessors could buy as many as 14 heavy-duty vehicles each year. Now he's limited to four new trucks a year.
"Our equipment purchase line has been the same since the 1970s," Jorgensen said.
Some towns in recent years have gotten around the spending limits by leasing trucks or hiring private contractors to plow roads. But some of those efforts backfired last weekend when contractors driving pickups outfitted with plows were overwhelmed by snow falling as fast as 3 inches an hour. Some contractors gave up.
"You're not going to get through this storm with a pickup truck and a mundane plow," Brookhaven Deputy Supervisor Daniel Panico said. "In a storm of this size, you can't be dealing with rinky-dink equipment."
Islip raises money for heavy-equipment purchases through bond sales, which are not covered by the law, Public Works Commissioner Tom Owens said. "A new Mac truck costs $300,000," he said. "We can refurbish that for $45,000 and get another 10 years out of it. It's a way for us to circumvent purchasing a new one in a bad economy."
Smithtown and Brookhaven officials have asked state lawmakers to amend the spending limits. The State Senate has passed a bill each year since 2001 allowing Brookhaven to spend up to $2.6 million; a bill allowing Smithtown to raise its limit to $1.2 million was approved each of the last three years in the Senate. But similar bills died in the Democratic-controlled Assembly.
"I ran into a lot of resistance simply because it involved new spending," said Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket), who has submitted bills for Brookhaven since 2001. The concern, he said, was "about how to cut rather than how to add new spending."
Englebright and other Long Island state lawmakers said the severity of the Feb. 8 storm might help them pass new legislation.
"Our hands are tied by the antiquated rule, but maybe a storm like this will give us a better argument," said Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James). "Sooner or later everything breaks down and you have to replace it."
With Lauren R. Harrison, Candice Ruud
and Patrick Whittle
LIMITED BY LAW
State Highway Law limits the amount of tax dollars towns can collect annually "for the purchase of stone crushers, power rollers, motor trucks, scarifiers, concrete mixers, traction engines or road machines for grading and scraping, equipment, tools and other implements." Amounts for each town vary and are based on population and road mileage.
Here are the limits for Long Island's 13 towns:
Brookhaven: $1 million
Babylon, Huntington, Islip: $400,000
Riverhead, Southold, Southampton: $200,000
Dump truck with plow: $155,000
Street sweeper: $250,000
Salt spreader: $24,000
Number of trucks: 130
Those 15-20 years old: 33
Over 20 years old: 30
Heavy equipment purchases, 2012: $797,500
Number of trucks: 160
Oldest vehicle: 1992 Mac truck; 65 percent of vehicles in snow removal fleet are 15 years old or older.
Number of trucks: 125
Age of trucks: Not available
Sources: Town officials