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North Hempstead investigating OT in troubled landscaping project

Plantings in the median on Hillside Avenue on

Plantings in the median on Hillside Avenue on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016, in New Hyde Park. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

North Hempstead officials earlier this year authorized a plan to borrow $100,000 for two landscaping projects, including one where many of the plantings failed, and are now investigating Highway Department overtime after Newsday inquiries into the cost of the project.

Rose bushes, azaleas, and daylilies planted on a Hillside Avenue median in New Hyde Park wilted after a watering truck was out of service for a week, town officials and residents said. Plants were damaged when delivery trucks drove over them. Some of the flowers were stolen. Others suffered after a “bad batch of mulch” did little to suppress the weeds, according to accounts from residents and town officials.

Ultimately, the town paid for the plantings without borrowing, but concerns arose about the Highway Department’s oversight of the project and overtime pay.

“Upon learning of the problems and cost of the project, the Supervisor ordered Special Assistant Kevin Cronin to conduct an investigation into the matter,” Town Spokeswoman Carole Trottere said in a statement. Cronin, a former lieutenant with Suffolk County’s Internal Affairs Bureau and a former North Hempstead building commissioner, was rehired as a part-time consultant for the town in June. “The Supervisor is troubled by the way the project was handled and is anxious to review the investigation’s findings,” Trottere continued.

Supervisor Judi Bosworth on Tuesday directed the town’s Finance Director to approve all overtime submitted by members of the Highway Department. The Town Attorney’s office will be “conducting a review” of an intermunicipal agreement with New York State regarding the New Hyde Park median, she said.

Hillside Avenue, also known as Route 25B, is a state road but the median is maintained by the town. Another effort added landscaping to the median along Prospect Avenue, a town road, in New Cassel.

Town officials would not disclose how much overtime was paid related to the project. Trottere said Tuesday that “overtime was used for the project,” but that it did not include watering the plants.

Overtime pay has led to several highway department employees to have some of the highest annual pay among the town’s employees. Newsday reported in April that Highway Superintendent Thomas Tiernan had received $134,000 in overtime over a five-year period, making him the only town highway department chief on Long Island to be paid for working extra hours.

Bosworth in June hired Cronin, 64, as a $98,000-a-year, part-time administrative assistant on a “short-term assignment stationed at the highway department.” She said Cronin would help the department with an expected wave of retirements. Cronin, who resigned from North Hempstead in 2014, was credited with cleaning up the town’s building department after a 2007 corruption scandal.

Bosworth declined interview requests about the landscaping and overtime. Newsday filed a Freedom of Information Law request in August seeking records identifying the costs of the median landscape projects.

“It looked like a horror, you couldn’t even tell there were rose bushes there or were planted,” Bill Cutrone, president of the Lakeville Estates Civic Association, said, adding that “in a very short period of time,” the project that was “beautiful” had become “a disgrace.”

Rich Scordo, vice president of Eagle Nurseries in New Hyde Park, which provided plants for the project, said “the flower beds should have a weed preventer, which works to kill the weed seeds before they germinate.”

He said the town should be “a little more diligent with preventive maintenance. It will make it look better aesthetically and save the taxpayers a lot of money, so they don’t have to keep cleaning it and waste more manpower when it’s overrun with weeds.”

Community leaders in New Hyde Park for years had lobbied the town to add flowers to the medians on Hillside Ave. Civic leaders said that earlier this year highway workers planted rose bushes and hedges along the medians.

The town board in February unanimously approved the 2016-2020 capital plan, which states that up to $100,000 for the landscaping projects will be covered by “future bonding resolutions.” But officials said earlier this month they had found money in the operating budget to cover the New Hyde Park project’s cost.

Among the project costs, according to invoices provided by the town, were $1,040 for mulch from Barbato Nursery Corp. in Holbrook; $8,315 for Knockout Red Roses and Pennisetum Hameln from Vigliotti’s Great Gardens in Westbury and dwarf grasses; roses and mulch from Eagle Nurseries in New Hyde Park; and $6,296 for Evergreen Azaleas and day lilies from The Garden Depot in Coram.

The town did not provide invoices for the New Cassel project.

Officials worked this summer to remove the weeds after complaints from the residents. “The weeds took off and they just started smothering all the flowers,” Cutrone said.

“Highway crews have weeded and weed whacked numerous times,” Trottere said. She added, “no flowers were killed or smothered.”

The public outcry continued.

“There’s been more discussion about the Hillside median than almost anything that I can recall,” Bosworth said at the Sept. 13 Town Board meeting.

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