November 30, 2021

Legislators look to make more cuts in highway budget

Under the knife, again

Kevin Conlon/City Editor

Leif Birdsall, a heavy equipment operator for the Cortland County Highway Department, points out Thursday the bent frame of a box recently removed from a dump truck after it bent from corrosion caused by salt. The department is falling behind on replacing equipment as it struggles to hold down costs.

Although Cortland County Highway Superintendent Charlie Sudbrink has already cut $490,000 from his 2020 budget proposal, legislators are trying to figure out if there’s anything else that could be cut to help the county’s budget woes.

“Is there any other wiggle room?” asked Legislator Chris Newell (R-Cortlandville), the chairman of the High- way Committee during a special budget meeting Wednesday.

Legislator George Wagner (R-Marathon, Lapeer), chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee, seeks a 7% cut.

Sudbrink said other than cutting from the salt fund, jobs or insurance, there was really nowhere else to take money.

The $12.26 million budget proposal is down from the $12.73 million budget approved for 2019. The budget includes road machinery and road maintenance costs. The county airport, Dwyer Memorial Park in Little York, the land fill and recycling center, which are overseen by the highway department, are located in other parts of the budget.

Sudbrink already cut his budget $490,000 — the cost of two trucks he says he needs. To buy those trucks Sudbrink said he was going to use some of the state highway aid provided to the county. The money can be used for road construction or equipment purchases. That leaves about $1.5 million for road projects.

“We need the trucks,” Sudbrink said. “You need these trucks worse than what the roads need repaired? Could they go another year?” asked Legislator Donnell Boyden (R-Homer, Preble, Scott).

“Trucks definitely can’t,” Sudbrink replied. “We’re having frame rails give out on guys when they’re dumping right now.”

Sudrink said an employee was working in Marathon recently and had one of the trucks about three-quarters of the way up when the frame gave way and could have flipped the truck had the worker not quickly lowered it. The county used to buy two trucks a year in a rotation, but reduced that to one truck a year three years ago. The department has more than 20 trucks and added a 13th snowplow route to make roads safer.

“We’ve got to stop,” Sudbrink said. “We’ve got to go back to the two years or else we’re going to end up having an accident.”

Sudbrink said he also wouldn’t cut positions unless the Legislature orders him to.

“There’s a lot of departments that have grown in years but the highway has shrunk and we still have the same amount of road to take care of every year,” he said, noting fewer workers means fewer completed projects and delays in plowing roads in the winter.

Newell asked if the department needed to budget for as much salt next year, noting the roads didn’t always need to be bare. Sudbrink said he increased the amount of money budgeted for salt after having to come to the committee in February to ask for more money for salt.

Sudbrink said Thursday the department has budgeted for only 13,500 tons of salt, but has used an average of 15,000 tons a year over the past five years, dipping into surplus funds to cover the difference. He said the proposed 2020 budget includes the more realistic estimate of 15,000 tons of salt.

“The taxpayers in New York state expect them to be clean,” Sudbrink said.

“You’ve still got to go to Budget and Finance (committee) and I’m looking for 7%, think about it,” Wagner said.

“That’s good because yesterday it was 13%,” said Legislator Ron VanDee (D-Cortland).

Boyden said he didn’t know where Wagner was going to cut another 7% in Sudbrink’s budget.

VanDee said the 7% can always be cut but then what happens if they have to give that money back next year because the department needed it.