Highway Superintendent Frank Petramale and the Town of Ulster
Lori Lovely – PROFILE CORRESPONDENT - October 2023
For 35 years, Frank Petramale has been employed by the highway department of the town of Ulster in Ulster County.
Before he ran for highway superintendent in 2008, he served as road maintenance leader for eight years — third in line in charge of the department. Even before that, he was on another rung of the ladder of employment with the town. "I started as an MEO and worked my way up the ladder," he said.
Frank decided to run for the position because the superintendent and deputy superintendent were both going to retire. But the convivial town employee had some hesitation because a good friend and coworker also planned to run. "I didn't want it to ruin our friendship," he said.
Instead, he reported that "it was actually a very friendly election process for both of us." When Frank won, he made his friend and opponent the deputy superintendent. "We worked well together until he retired."
Working as a Team
Working well with others is one of Frank's gifts. Showing consideration for the community, he altered the summer schedule after consulting his crew. "We used to start work at 6 a.m. in the summer. I thought that was too early to start work in the neighborhoods, so I met with the crew."
After talking it over with them, he adjusted the start time to 6:30 a.m.
It's just one thing he discusses with his crew. In addition to gathering in the lunchroom as a group to get their daily orders, bringing communication "to another level," the superintendent tries to fit in two workshop meetings every month. Over coffee and donuts or a pizza lunch, the crew can discuss any issues of concern.
"It allows me to bring everyone up to date on future projects, equipment purchases or anything else that's on my mind," Frank said.
Meetings weren't done for years, he added, but he likes to "keep the guys well-informed." It also gives the crew a little "social time."
They operate out of a 200- by 100-ft. concrete block and metal garage built in 1991. A portion of that floor space — 2,500 sq. ft — is separated for the mechanics' shop and parts and supply storage rooms. There also is a 2,400 sq.-ft. addition of the town's building, planning, assessor's office, and there is office space for the highway superintendent, deputy, road maintenance leader, administrative assistant, bathrooms, locker room and storage rooms.
Communicating With Crew, Community
In addition to Frank, the Ulster highway department has 18 full-time employees:
- Charlie Freer, deputy
- Chris Kohler, road maintenance leader
- Mathew Bechtold, shop foreman
- Paula Perpetua, administrative assistant
- Four HMEOs
- Seven MEOs
- Two mechanics
There also are five seasonal workers — four of whom do daily mowing, weed whacking and brush cutting.
"We normally have 8-10 seasonal employees, but we didn't get the number of applications we normally get," Frank said.
Their seasonal roster includes their first female seasonal employee, Kelsie Kohler, this year. She works in the office, updating the stormwater maps. Most seasonal employees work from the end of June to September.
All employees work 6:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Monday-Friday, year-round. In the winter, Frank puts up a sign-up sheet for volunteers to work the 3 p.m.-11 p.m. shift and the 11 p.m.-7 a.m. shift. He usually gets four guys to work it, rotating every two weeks. Their pay scale is based on union contract, with shift differentials.
To facilitate communication on the job, there's a high-band radio system with mobile units in each piece of equipment, with desktop base stations in most offices, and several portable radios. Most of the portables and all the mobile units are Kenwood, Frank said. "We have a service contract with NYCOMCO in Poughkeepsie."
Software in the shop connects to the equipment and vehicles to aid in data sharing.
"We have mobile units [tablets] in the superintendent's, deputy's and road maintenance leader's vehicles that can remote into our office computers," Frank said. This enables working from their vehicles in the field.
All stormwater information is in a database. They use a program for daily assignments, driveway applications, road excavation permits, tree removal requests and maintenance of vehicles and equipment.
To reach the community, they use Facebook and the town website, placing notices on both sites, especially in the winter when bad weather is coming.
"We also track work order requests and all phone messages, using Microsoft Office. We return every call, most of the time within 24 hours."
Ulster's highway department also communicates with all the surrounding highway departments, working with them as part of multiple shared services contracts.
"We use them for paving projects and any other time we need them," Frank said, adding that they send trucks or equipment to anyone that requests assistance.
Services are not the only thing Ulster shares. The highway department shares two pieces of equipment. The towns of Ulster, Woodstock and Hurley jointly own a 2009 LeeBoy 8515 paver and a 2019 Volvo DD110C roller.
Excited About Equipment
While Frank takes a lot of satisfaction in facilitating communication, he may be most proud of his equipment program.
"Prior to my becoming superintendent, our equipment was in rough shape," he said. Since assuming office, he has replaced every single piece of equipment.
In 2008, he established a capital equipment plan. Most equipment is on a 10-year replacement rotation.
"For the last 16 years, with the support of the supervisor and town board members, we've been given the money each year to do replacements. Each year we update the plan and make necessary changes."
Under the previous superintendent, the town board didn't set aside money for equipment. Instead, when new equipment was needed, they'd set a $1 million bond. Today, Frank said, the department is all paid up and the town won't issue more bonds for new equipment.
The highway department just received a Western Star 4WD that's been on order for a couple years. Due to long lead times, Frank knows he needs to plan ahead, so there are two more on order. He'd also like to get a larger bucket truck to replace the one they have.
"It only goes up 24 feet. It works well, but we need a bigger truck. This would save thousands every year."
Another cost-saving measure he carries out is having the crew do about 98 percent of regular maintenance in-house. He designed a computer program for maintenance of all equipment so they can track each vehicle by hour or mileage. All equipment is serviced regularly.
One piece of unique equipment is an under-the-guiderail cleaning attachment that goes on a Bobcat. This equipment was designed and built by Chris Kohler and Mathew Bechtold to compete in the Build a Better Mousetrap contest run by Cornel Local Roads Program, where it was judged runner-up. "It's extremely helpful," Frank said.
The grader blade attachment cleans 6 to 8 ft. deep along the shoulder of roads, clearing built-up sand that accumulates under the guardrail and prevents water run-off.
Projects Today, Yesterday, Tomorrow
The long list of equipment — along with a budget of $3,420,000 — is put to use on projects around the town.
"Most of the department is working on the second phase of the sewer main project," Frank said, adding that they're getting ready to start a paving project at the end of August.
"We generally wait until later in the year. This way, most other municipalities are done paving and we can use their assistance hauling blacktop through our shared services agreement."
It doesn't hurt that the cost of blacktop generally comes down later in the year.
Frank said he wants to be "a little more aggressive" with paving projects in the upcoming years. "The blacktop is just not what it used to be," he said. "It doesn't last 10 years on most roads. That's a problem if you want to use your CHIPS money."
His CHIPs budget is $217,237. Additional funding for road maintenance includes:
- Pave NY: $51,188
- EWR: $42,334
- STR: $28,096
- POP: $34,125
Altogether, his crew maintains 252 roads, all paved. That's 70 center lane miles. "By the time we're finished blacktopping, we'll be getting things ready for fall leaf pick up, and then for winter."
In the winter, they run 10 plow runs with 10 single-axles and seven one-tons for the smaller dead-ends and development areas. "We're usually done in three hours." To help keep the roads clear, they use salt and a salt/sand mix.
Ulster's salt sheds hold approximately 4,000 tons of salt, but Frank said they typically keep 1,800 tons of straight salt, 300 tons of salt/sand mix and 100 tons of stone dust for water breaks in the winter, with a spot reserved to store 10 tons of cold patch. The salt shed was built in 2019 by Legacy Solutions, partially funded by a state grant that Frank said "covered at least half of the cost."
Like most highway departments, Frank's crew does much more than just maintain the roads.
"We handle all major construction projects for sewer, water, parks, transfer station, town hall and any other department that needs assistance," he said.
Fortunate to have a good-size crew that gets along, he added they generally complete projects on time and under budget.
Other projects on the Ulster radar include a large culvert project. Having recently learned that the state's bridge/culvert program denied Ulster's request for funds to cover the cost of the repair, Frank said he'll look for other funding sources or issues bonds to cover the expense.
There are more drainage projects awaiting his attention.
"I still have a couple of drainage projects I'd like to take care of," Frank said. "Some residents have been waiting a while. No one likes water on their property."
Drainage issues are the most common request, the superintendent confirmed.
"We do quite a bit of drainage work annually. Torrential downpours are a nightmare."
In fact, he said that stormwater and drainage complaints comprise his least favorite part of the job.
Brinnier and Larios in Kingston does 99 percent of the engineering work and project reviews for the planning department. They are currently working on project reviews and have done all the engineering and design work for a forced sewer main project that the highway department and the sewer department are in the process of installing. Frank pointed out that the water and sewer departments are separate from the highway department and that each has its own superintendent and crew.
Another task assigned to the highway department is maintaining and staffing the transfer station, which is open two days a week. Other work includes mowing and trimming three mini-parks, one park with a boat ramp, three cemeteries, and the town hall.
"We also do major work at the town hall, highway complex and anything the water and sewer departments need a hand with," Frank said. "We have done water main installation and are currently doing a sewer project."
Ultimately, Ulster Is Home
Just an hour and a half north of New York City, Ulster, with a population of 12,500, is the economic hub of the county of the same name, generating more revenue than neighboring towns.
Until 1879, it was part of the town of Kingston, but due to protests over political corruption and misrule, the Ulster County board of supervisors carved out 29 sq. mi. between the banks of the historic Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains to form a new town.
Due to its proximity to Esopus Creek, Rondout Creek, Sawkill Creek and Lake Katrine, it's a boater and kayaker's paradise. The town has a DEC boat launch on Creek Locks Road on Rondout Creek. Frank and his crew maintain two parks on the banks of the Hudson River. One has a pavilion and playground. Post Park also has a handicap-access fishing platform.
Woodlands dotted with hiking and biking trails including the Rail Trail attract outdoorspeople, and three mini-parks around the town with playgrounds and basketball courts invite residents.
According to Frank, the state of New York purchased and has started work on the Sojourner Truth State Park in Kingston and Ulster, with 500 acres along the Hudson River shoreline. Built on the property of former brickyards, cement plants and stone quarries, it will feature a paved rail trail.
A dedicated town resident, Frank has been with the Ulster Hose Co. #5 Fire Department — the busiest volunteer fire department in the county, running approximately 1,800 calls a year — for 42 years.
Although he was born and raised in Ulster and has lived there his entire life, Frank and his wife, Sheryl, like to travel to warmer climes. In fact, they spend two weeks a year in Aruba every year. On his travels, he finds inspiration for his woodworking hobby.
Married 35 years, the couple had two children: Tyler Joseph, who passed away at age three, and Kyle, now 34. Their son and his wife, Kelly, have a son, Tyler Vincent, age four.
Sheryl said she is very proud of her husband's accomplishments.
"Frank loves his job and I believe he is one of the best highway superintendents the town of Ulster has ever had. Frank has an open-door policy with his employees. The respect is mutual. He always listens to anyone's concerns, whether they are an employee or town resident, and he does his best to come to a solution."
Running for Re-Election
Frank usually does come up with a solution, as evidenced by the response of the community.
"Sometimes the residents send a letter of appreciation or food," he said. "That makes me feel good when I walk out the door at the end of the day, knowing your guys get the recognition they should."
Modestly, he gives credit to his crew.
"I know most superintendents like to brag about their employees, but our crew is truly the best. These guys have handled some of the most extreme weather events we could have ever imagined. On Feb. 4, 2022, we had an ice storm that was basically centered over our town, leaving 3/8 inches of ice on the trees. This brought down trees and wires on basically every town, state and county road within the town of Ulster. Our crew worked through the night side-by-side with the electric company, trying to get one lane open for emergency vehicles."
The cleanup lasted four months.
His crew also showed up on Frank's worst day on the job. About 15 minutes after the town transfer station closed, the pager went off for a structure fire.
"By the time I got there five minutes later, the entire roof was burning," he said. After getting clearance from the insurance company, they cleaned up the debris that night and the transfer station was open for business.
On his first day as highway superintendent, Frank realized he had worked hard for this day for a long time. Now, after 35 years on the job, he said, "I'm pretty happy with all the work we have done and all the projects we have completed."
The work he's done goes beyond the town's boundaries. Frank has served as secretary of UCATS (Ulster County Association of Town Superintendents of Highways) for 14 years and is a member of the New York State Highway Superintendents Association.
The years have gone by fast, he said. "When you work in the highway field, there are a lot of times you have to leave the house, regardless, if it's dinnertime, Christmas, birthdays or any other family event. It's hard to call the guys in. If you don't have a family that supports you in this position, you will not be successful. I am fortunate to have that support. I would like to thank the residents for electing me for four terms."
His current term ends Dec. 31, 2023. "I am running for re-election Nov. 5 — and possibly my last four-year term," Frank said. "I thank all the residents who have supported me." P