Joseph Nicoletti Jr., White Plains DPW wizard, saves city millions with 'environmental innovation'

Joseph "Buddy" Nicoletti Jr., City of White Plains Department Public Works commissioner, talks about recycling oil out of used oil filters at the DPW City Garage on Brockway Place in White Plains. (April 11, 2013)

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White Plains is saving hundreds of thousands of dollars every year by restoring old municipal trucks, cars and machinery through a recycling program spearheaded by city Department of Public Works Commissioner Joseph "Buddy" Nicoletti Jr.

The 22-year DPW veteran said about 25 percent of the city's fleet of 400 vehicles are restored trucks that are now gleaming relics of the '80s and '90s. Once deployed, they stay in service for at least 15 years, and city cars keep humming at least 10-12 years.

"See that body? It doesn't look like a piece of junk. We just wore out the chassis," he said as he pointed to a stripped-down salt spreader under repair at the city's cavernous central garage and machine shop at 77 Brockway Place.

With an annual budget of about $35 million, Nicoletti said and his staff of 250 city employees probably have saved taxpayers millions of dollars since the 1990s with countless solutions that most people wouldn't notice. But look up while walking on a city street and you might find an LED bulb with a 15-year life span that is part of an ongoing project to replace the sodium light fixtures in all 6,000 municipal streetlights. Look down and chances are that the sidewalk is edged in maintenance-free granite curbing that will endure for half a century, instead of the typical concrete that crumbles and needs patching every few years.

"Buddy has a strong reputation throughout the region for his environmental innovation," said Nina Orville, executive director for the Southern Westchester Energy Action Consortium, which unites municipal green advocates from 10 villages, towns and cities in the lower end of Westchester County.

Orville said he is an amazing resource.

"He is somebody who other municipalities will often turn to learn from because he is very often willing to take risks testing out new technologies," she said. "He is every committed to environmental sustainability and also has a real focus on cost-effectiveness, which is a powerful combination."

Engines on four wheels are the special passion for this son of an auto mechanic, who by the age of 5 could name every car that passed before his eyes. A typical example of the city's approach is its snow loader, which would have cost $200,000 new. Instead, White Plains bought a used dirt loader for $18,000 from the state of Maryland. City mechanics redesigned the tractorlike vehicle with a new conveyor belt so that snow is scooped and immediately dropped into a dump truck following right behind it -- sparing both pedestrians and drivers the headaches of navigating piles of plowed snow.

In his trademark fedora and vintage suits purchased on eBay, Nicoletti, 61, has been known to ruin a good pair of pants because he can't resist tinkering in the metal shop. He also serves as city engineer.

Together with the DPW duties, his department is responsible for designing and maintaining all White Plains infrastructure, including roads, bridges, storm drains, sewers, parking garages, buildings, pools, parks, ice rinks and tennis courts.

Savings come from projects like retooling air-conditioning systems, restoring old backup generators and buying reels of hydraulic hoses by the miles for use in in-house repairs. Even the machine shop equipment was bought antiquated and then refurbished, Nicoletti said.

And then there are the vehicles to maintain, including about 80 police cars, 28 fire engines, more than 100 dump trucks, five aerial bucket trucks and even street sweepers, according to Nicoletti. He expects the trucks in the fleet that run on natural gas will be used for at least 20 years "because they're so clean-burning. By nature, they last a long time because of the lack of emissions and soot in the engine."

The city owns electric cars, too.

With so many opportunities to experiment with new ideas, "It's like you can't keep your hands off things. You're always trying to make something better," said the mechanical engineer, who drives a 1995 green Jeep that he has outfitted with a Mustang's V-8 engine.

The White Plains-born married father of two grown children admitted that his Valhalla home contains probably the only two pieces of motorized machinery that he doesn't like: the lawn mower and vacuum cleaner. But he says his fondness for buying tools means that his wife has a very short honey-do list.

As the son of a second-generation auto mechanic, Nicoletti grew up in the gas station of a father who remains his greatest inspiration. If there were no cars to repair or weld, his dad would ask him to dust quart-sized cans of oil stacked on a shelf.

"There was always something to do, and I never forgot that," Nicoletti recalled with the smile that crosses his face at every mention of his beloved father, who died of lung cancer several years ago. "Now it's hard to just sit. So I'm ruined."

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