NY laws hinder towns' truck, plow upgrades

A Farmingdale plow moves the first of the A Farmingdale plow moves the first of the snow from the village streets. (Feb. 8, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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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.

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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.

The Feb. 8 storm left residents of hard-hit towns such as Brookhaven, Islip and Smithtown complaining bitterly that highway crews were slow to plow their roads.

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.