Looking Ahead to Winter

After a year of blizzards, earthquakes, and hurricanes, it’s almost painful to focus on other weather-related challenges; but early preparation is always helpful, so New Rochelle is looking ahead now to the snow season.

As you probably recall, last winter was very tough on our city and on our region as a whole. I think most residents recognize that when you have record-breaking snowfall, even the best municipal operation will encounter problems — but last winter, there was certainly room for improvement.

The City’s new Commissioner of Public Works, Alex Tergis, spent a great deal of time examining our field operations and procedures, with an eye to making positive changes. Here’s what we can and will do in the short-term:

  • Guide and Track Operations — DPW is generating new route maps with priorities, responsibilities, and challenging locations more clearly defined. These route maps will also contain checklists to facilitate a seamless transition between shifts and help supervisors better monitor operations.
  • Consolidate Information — The City will establish a single phone number to which snow comments, complaints, and requests can be directed. This will help minimize the redundancy and occasional confusion that result when information is received and relayed by multiple parties.
  • Provide Better Training & Instruction — New drivers have acquired an understanding of the importance of plowing closer to the curb line and of regulating salt usage more efficiently, instructions that will be reiterated by supervisors.

These relatively simple steps should make a difference, but I want to be very candid in acknowledging that there are other serious challenges that can only be solved in the medium or long term. What are these challenges?

First, inadequate equipment. We currently press sanitation trucks into double-duty as snow plows, but these vehicles are not really designed for such a purpose and cannot be equipped with salt spreaders. Further, much of our fleet is aging and prone to breaking down. Our snow operations would clearly benefit from the purchase of new vehicles and plows.

Second, strained manpower. Like every other major City department, DPW has been reduced by attrition in recent years, with personnel levels cut as a necessary response to fiscal and economic conditions. During prolonged snow emergencies, our manpower is spread exceptionally thin, and our ability to put a full complement of services into the field often compromised.

Well, you can guess why these problems will be difficult to address in the short-term: a big price tag at a time when all cities are scraping for pennies. For now, our intent — and our responsibility — is to do the very best we can with the resources available. Plus offer fervent prayers for an easier winter!

City Employee Charged with Criminal Misconduct

New Rochelle has no tolerance for public misconduct of any kind. We expect our employees to uphold the highest ethical standards, and when they do not, they ought to be held fully accountable. Personally, as a citizen who believes deeply in community service, I feel a sense of betrayal when anyone abuses the public trust. So the criminal allegations made this week against a City employee are very upsetting.

On June 28th, the Westchester District Attorney unsealed an indictment against Richard Fevang, who, until his recent resignation, had been the City’s Fleet Manager, a mid-level position with the Department of Public Works. Mr. Fevang is charged with 22 felony counts of tampering with public records, and 44 misdemeanor counts of falsifying records and official misconduct. Simply put, he is alleged to have circumvented the competitive bidding process for awarding repair contracts on City-owned vehicles.

City officials and members of Council have been aware of this investigation since its inception last year and have cooperated fully with the District Attorney. City Manager Chuck Strome had prepared disciplinary charges against Mr. Fevang, but withheld issuing these internal charges at the D.A.’s suggestion. Mr. Fevang resigned last week as it became known that he would be charged with these crimes.

Even if the financial implications of these actions are minimal, as seems likely, the matter is serious and is being treated as such by County law enforcement and City officials.

Unfortunately, this episode has already become fodder for an election-year sideshow. Yesterday morning, my opponent in the mayoral campaign, Richard St. Paul, held a press conference in which he called for a federal investigation of the City’s finances, asserted that others were complicit in Mr. Fevang’s alleged misdeeds, and issued a variety of other charges, all aimed at enveloping the City Administration in a cloud of innuendo and suspicion. Pretty cynical stuff, even by the standards of modern campaigns, and deeply unfair to hundreds of honest and dedicated municipal employees. I hope and believe most people recognize these sorts of partisan theatrics for what they are.

(In case you are wondering: the City’s finances are independently audited every year, no federal money was involved in this matter, and there is no evidence at this point that any other City employee was complicit in Fevang’s alleged misdeeds.)

Personnel matters in New Rochelle fall under the jurisdiction of the City Manager. Nonetheless, as Mayor, I consider myself accountable for the overall performance of our local government and for its integrity. Whenever corruption is credibly alleged, I will push vigorously to root it out, and whenever reasonable measures to improve oversight and accountability are presented, I will push for their adoption. But I also have a sense of proportion and perspective — it is wrong to implicate the culture of an entire organization based on the misconduct of a single employee … and doing so undermines our ability to meet important challenges.

You can read more about the Fevang indictment in the Journal News, and Patch.

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow

As I write, the New York area is shoveling out from the second major snow storm of a still-young winter season. My personal reaction to big snow storms, I suppose like everyone else’s, has changed with life’s stages. During childhood, I waited eagerly for WVOX to pronounce those magical words “New Rochelle Schools are closed today,” thus liberating me and friends for a day of sledding and fort-construction. As an adult, I grumbled about shovelling duties, slush-encrusted shoes and travel delays. Now parenthood brings me partially about, allowing me to revisit earlier delights through my kids.

But nothing has done more to alter my perception of snow than my present job. As mayors from John Lindsay to Michael Bloomberg have discovered, fairly or not, snow removal operations make or break perceptions of municipal competence. So when a blizzard is in the forecast, my thoughts turn to the decidedly unsentimental subjects of plows, brine solution, sanitation schedules, and emergency bulletins.

Here, then, is my assessment of New Rochelle’s performance in the last two storms.

The Good

  • Crews: Our Public Works team is exceptionally hard-working. Most people do not appreciate how difficult it is to operate a plow in the wee hours of the night under blizzard conditions, and to continue doing so for extended stretches. Yes, it’s their job, but that shouldn’t diminish our regard for their efforts.
  • Overall Road Conditions: Roads were passable within a reasonable time frame, with main roads, naturally, cleared first and others taking somewhat longer. That’s not to say that there weren’t oversights and omissions, but these were generally corrected shortly after being reported. For most residents, based on comments I have received, the inconvenience of the storm fell into a tolerable range. (Let me know if you think otherwise.)
  • Communication: The City’s automated phoning service has proven quite useful in emergencies. While such automated calls can be annoying if overused, there really is no substitute for disseminating time-sensitive information clearly and widely. We used these calls to report changes in our garbage schedule, offer safety suggestions, set expectations about timing and otherwise keep our community “in the loop” on what was going on. Communication in the other direction was also good. When calls or emails requesting service were directed to my office, to the City Manager or to DPW, they were, in every instance of which I am aware, acknowledged and acted upon.

The Not-So-Good

  • Vehicles: Our DPW fleet is aging and prone to breakdowns. The need for on-the-fly repairs during a storm takes vehicles out of service and may result in slower or spottier service on the routes affected. Also, the City presses its sanitation trucks into double-duty, by affixing plows to them during storms. From one perspective, that is an efficient use of resources. But sanitation trucks cannot be equipped with salt spreaders, so instead of plowing and salting simultaneously, we have to send in the salt a little later, which is a less effective means of clearing snow and ice down to the blacktop. There’s no mystery about how these problems can be solved: M-O-N-E-Y (see my prior budget posts for more on this subject.) Bottom line: optimizing our fleet for snow removal has to be a City objective, but we are unlikely to accomplish it under current fiscal constraints.
  • Other Equipment: Our salt supply is exposed to the elements. As a result, some of it washes away entirely and some of it congeals into large chunks which clog our salt spreaders. To address this, the City is going to re-assess the costs and benefits of a salt shed. On a related note, our operation would benefit from a satellite at which salt and materials could be stored, thereby reducing travel time to and from the City Yard.
  • On-street Parking: Nothing impedes good plowing more than a parked car. I do not say this in an accusatory tone. The nature of our city and its housing stock is such that many residents have no other realistic parking options, so it’s just just a fact of life in New Rochelle. When cars are stationed on narrow roads, the challenge is even greater. The City has the authority to issue tickets and even to tow cars from snow emergency routes, but we use this authority sparingly (maybe too sparingly).
  • Shovel the Other Way, Please: Unlike the above, the following is offered in an accusatory tone. Most people, when shoveling their driveways and sidewalks or when digging out their cars, will have the good sense to toss the shoveled snow back on to their properties or to sites where the snow won’t be in the way. Other people however, toss it right back into the road. It only takes a few such guilty parties to undo a decent plowing job. Be sure to wag an accusing finger at neighbors whom you see engaged in this practice.

I could drill down to a deeper level of detail, but that is probably enough for now. Bottom line: I think New Rochelle has handled the season’s storms fairly well, given the physical configuration of the city and given our serious manpower and equipment limitations. The City’s brand-new DPW Commissioner, Alex Tergis, has been excellent in his role. With his guidance, there have already been operational improvements between the first and second storms, and Alex will be making additional recommendations, some short-term, some long-term, in the months ahead.

Well, childhood being far in the rearview mirror, icy weather is now mainly a headache. But there are still moments when you can’t help but be awed. My son Jeremy and I, for whatever reason, were both sleepless Tuesday night into Wednesday morning and found ourselves assembling Legos at 4:00 am. The storm was spending the last of its energy and tapering into a gentle fall. And there it was — a snow-scape untouched yet by any hand, tracing the line of every branch, softly illuminating the night, and with its eerie hush, compelling silence from man and dog. All the world’s flaws subdued and forgotten in a dreamland of crystal … for a little while.

New Public Works Commissioner Appointed

City Manager Chuck Strome has named Alex Tergis to lead our Public Works Department (DPW), replacing former Commissioner Jeff Coleman, who accepted a position in Cortlandt earlier this year.

DPW delivers many of the City’s most essential and visible services, including sanitation, snow-plowing, and leaf removal. It maintains our infrastructure and physical assets, such as streets, sewers, public buildings, and the municipal fleet. And DPW plays a major role in overseeing public improvement projects, such as those on North Avenue and Lincoln Avenue. Competent leadership in DPW is deeply important to our community, especially at a time when constrained resources demand that we do more with less and when public works professionals are being challenged to embrace newer and more sustainable models of operation.

Commissioner Tergis has acquired extensive experience in Stamford and Norwalk — cities that are comparable in size and general composition to New Rochelle. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in Civil Engineering. I am confident he will be an effective member of our management team.