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Highway Superintendent Stephen Van Tassel and the Town of Canaan

Lori Lovely – PROFILE CORRESPONDENT - April 2024

  (Photo courtesy of the Town of Canaan)
The town of Canaan highway department also assists four nearby towns (Chatham, New Lebanon, Austerlitz and Ghent) and Columbia County with various projects. On his computer, Stephen Van Tassel created a replacement schedule spreadsheet for all the trucks and equipment and is in the process of finalizing a culvert inventory list for every road in town, as well as bridge structures that don’t qualify as bridges under NYS Bridge regulations. The town of Canaan highway department. The town of Canaan highway department’s 2012 Kobelco ED150 excavator sits on the department’s new Felling trailer and is headed to a culvert replacement job on Cemetery Hill Road. 
Seen here is the department’s 1985 Ford tanker truck acquired by the Canaan Protective Fire Company for $1. It’s primarily used as a water truck to spray down roads or wet down material before being hauled out.
Seen here is a culvert replacement project on Cemetery Hill Road. Pat Doyle is operating the department’s 2012 Kobelco ED150 excavator (L) and Peter Fitzpatrick, town of Austerlitz highway superintendent, is operating his department’s Kobelco excavator. Peter is assisting the town of Canaan highway department on the job. The town of Canaan highway department’s salt shed stores 4,000 tons of mixed sand and salt with enough room to fit a few hundred tons of straight salt and stone. Decorated for the holidays.
All of the town of Canaan highway department’s equipment purchases come out of the capital equipment expenditure account.
The town of Canaan highway department. (L-R) are Patrick Doyle (Clover), Doug Wadsworth, John Mesick (Beansy) and Stephen Van Tassel. Stephen Van Tassel has put rubber edges on the blades that go over the gravel more easily than traditional plow blade edges. Seen here is the department’s new 2023 Felling 22.5-ton trailer primarily used to move its 20-ton 2012 Kobelco excavator.
A new item in the department’s fleet is this 2023 Chevy 3500 HD, which is primarily Stephen’s plow truck that he takes home and uses in all storms.

Elected to office when he was just 24 years old, Stephen Van Tassel is New York State's youngest elected highway superintendent. While he views that fact as both an advantage and a challenge, it's clear that he brings a fresh perspective to the position.

During his first two-year term, the young man from Canaan has resurfaced 2.5 mi. of blacktop roads around town and paved the aprons off county and state highways to smooth the transition from dirt to blacktop — standard tasks for a highway superintendent.

But he's done more. He's modernizing the department. As part of a more tech-savvy generation, the young superintendent is transitioning the department from paper to computer programs.

"Our generation uses different types of equipment," he said. "It's our way of doing things."

The previous superintendent didn't use a computer, but Stephen acquired a new one in 2023 for himself. The highway clerk also has one in her office. It's a break with tradition for the superintendent to be so hands-on with what many consider office work.

"They relied on the highway clerk to perform any and all computer-related tasks needed for the superintendent job," he said.

Spreadsheet Central

On that new computer, Stephen created a replacement schedule spreadsheet for all the trucks and equipment and is in the process of finalizing a culvert inventory list for every road in town, as well as bridge structures that don't qualify as bridges under NYS Bridge regulations.

While Canaan actually has seven bridge structures, the state of New York recognizes only one.

"They don't consider six of them bridges because they're not long enough," he said. "They're all designed like a bridge, but some don't qualify because they're not over 20 feet."

According to his spreadsheet, one was built in 1910-1915, one in the ‘50s or ‘60s, three in the early ‘70s, one in 1981 and one in 2019.

"Some are reaching their life expectancy. Three have a wooden deck with I-beams that are rotting — and they're undersized for big trucks."

This spreadsheet also lists the health of each culvert. Although he has installed several "beaver deceiver" devices — a design created by the town of Ghent highway superintendent to deter beavers from plugging up culverts and thereby reduce flooding — Stephen pointed out that "metal rots after 30-50 years." Therefore, a lot of them are reaching their life expectancy now.

Having already replaced several large culvert pipes that have been in the ground for 40-plus years, Stephen is in the process of locating undersized culverts and those that are covered in mounds of dirt. The town takes care of culverts under residential driveways, which significantly adds to the total. One highway report from six to seven years ago claims the town has six miles of culvert.

Another spreadsheet Stephen created tracks and compares salaries for his position and the hourly wages for each crew position throughout Columbia County. This helps him to better understand the pay rates in every town.

"When I first took office, my salary was cut due to my lack of experience," he said. "I found out after the election."

But this is not a self-centered project. He's working on a competitive wage for his crew.

"It costs $4,000-$9,000 to go to school to get a CDL," he said — a qualification for the job. It's hard to find employees to fill low-paying positions when it costs so much to qualify. "We hired a guy two years ago, but he left after a year and a half due to the pay."

Still a man down, Stephen said they're currently on the second round of interviewing applicants.

Cast and Crew

Until a new person is hired, the Canaan highway department is operating with three full-time employees: Doug Wadsworth — foreman and 48-year member; Patrick Doyle — MEO2 and 20-year member; and Jon Mesick — MEO2 and 24-year member. Work hours in the summer are 6 a.m.-4:30 p.m., and in the winter, 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Christine Wemple serves as the part-time highway clerk.

"My favorite part of the job is working with the crew every day, completing the tasks at hand, whether it's clearing the roads after a storm or paving a road in the summer," Stephen said. "We work hard to improve the town every way we can for the safety of the traveling public."

Together, he and his crew designed and built a shoulder material spreader that attaches to a skid steer, making shoulder work easier and more efficient.

As closely as he works with his crew, the Gen Z boss recognizes that he's inexperienced in management. "I'm managing people my father's age," he said, observing that they operate differently than his generation.

Nevertheless, to keep communication flowing, they use 12 two-way, low-band Motorola radios that are divided between the trucks, equipment and three base station locations with towers.

"Only three to four pieces of equipment and trucks can communicate with each other throughout the town," he said. "This is why we are in the process of upgrading to new high-band radios in 2024."

He's also looking for portable hand-held radios for flagging purposes.

Double Duty

Being down one person and one big truck, the five plow routes that usually take three to four hours now take 4.5 to five hours. It snows an average of 69 days in Canaan from October to May, with an annual accumulation of almost 41 in. That means there are plenty of days — and nights — when the crew is out plowing.

The last large snowstorm was the biggest since the late 1970s, dropping 30 in. of snow. It was Stephen's first as superintendent, and one of his worst days on the job because he got stuck on a secondary road in a dead zone with no cell service, no radio communication and only two houses on the road, with no one home. It forced him to walk 10 minutes up a steep road, where he was fortunate to find one of his crew, who pulled him out.

Another thing slowing them down is that 40 of the 95.12 lane mi. they maintain are gravel.

"Gravel roads take longer," Stephen said. "The roads are soft, so we can only go 10-20 mph."

Fortunately, the forward-thinking superintendent put rubber edges on the blades that go over the gravel more easily than traditional plow blade edges.

While only 8.51 mi. are paved, Stephen collaborated with the county and a paving contractor to pave four intersections along a lengthy section of County 5. After finding out the schedule for paving the county road, he got quotes to pave 50 ft. to 150 ft. where the dirt roads meet the new blacktop at the intersections. "We only paid for the blacktop because the machine was already there doing a county job," he said.

The Canaan crew dug 3-4 in. down into the dirt before the paving contractor laid down thick blacktop so it won't crumble. Stephen said it's easier to plow the intersections now. It also keeps the salt from spreading to the dirt and causing mushy depressions in the road. "The farther out the dirt roads are away from the county roads, the better."

It's that sense of cooperation that fuels the department under Stephen's leadership. His crew helps out the town park and the cemeteries around town with various tasks, such as taking down trees or supplying gravel for the roadways.

They also assist four nearby towns (Chatham, New Lebanon, Austerlitz and Ghent) and Columbia County with various projects, such as paving, large culvert projects, hauling, borrowing machinery and ditching roads. "We haul for state jobs and pave with them," he added.

It doesn't end there. Stephen wants to expand Canaan's municipal agreements. "I am looking into adding towns and neighboring counties onto our intermunicipal agreement for 2025."

County-Wide Cooperation

Working with other towns and counties could benefit the Canaan crew, who don't have a shoulder conveyor, yet. Other essential equipment Stephen feels they lack includes a skid steer-mounted broom, a skid steer shoulder conveyer, a skid steer stump grinder, a rear-mounted shoulder conveyer on a truck, a three-point-mounted large leaf blower for a tractor, a dirt road roller, a four-wheel-drive tractor with boom mower and a sander for their F550.

It's a substantial list that he'd like to add to their inventory, consisting of:

  • 1985 Ford C8M tanker
  • 1988 John Deere 310C backhoe
  • 2001 Vermeer BC1230A chipper
  • 2005 Case JX1090U/w Alamo mowers
  • 2006 John Deere 772D grader
  • 2007 International 7600 dump plow with wing
  • 2008 Gehl 6640E skid steer
  • 2008 Kubota KX161-3 mini-excavator
  • 2012 Ford F550 dump with plow
  • 2012 Kobelco ED150-2 blade runner excavator
  • 2015 Mack GU7 tandem dump plow with wing
  • 2018 Mack GU712 dump plow with wing
  • 2019 John Deere 624L loader
  • 2020 Mack GR42F dump plow with wing
  • 2021 Kubota SSV75 skid steer
  • 2023 Felling FT-45-2 LP plus 22.5-ton trailer
  • 2023 Chevy Silverado 3500HD

And it runs concurrently with his replacement schedule list. "In ‘05 to ‘07, there were four or five pieces of new equipment," he said. "They're now hitting the 18-year mark."

Several are failing or need replaced, he added.

He's been discussing a replacement schedule with vendors and neighboring towns, knowing his "budget is not huge." His total annual operating budget is $851,752, plus $160,000 in CHIPS allocation. By saving and rolling money over, he was able to purchase four to six pieces of equipment with CHIPS funding.

"In 20 years, this department never bonded anything," he said with pride. "We buy outright, except for a John Deere grader that we had a payment plan with the dealer to buy."

Nor have they leased equipment. All purchases come out of the capital equipment expenditure account. But that account is getting a little thin, especially now with a dump truck that went down and needs $15,000-$20,000 to repair. "We'll have to figure out where to get that money," he said.

Once he figures out the finances, he plans to replace their 2005 Case JX1090U boom mowing tractor, 2012 Ford F550, 2001 Vermeer chipper, 1988 John Deere backhoe, 1985 Ford C8M tanker firetruck and the 2007 International 7600 plow truck. It's a lot, but in a short time, he has already replaced trucks that have reached their prescribed life expectancy, as well as smaller equipment in and out of the shop.

Although there's no mechanic in the shop, Stephen keeps a close eye on maintenance to keep his equipment running as long as possible. It's one thing he doesn't have a spreadsheet for. Instead, the preventive maintenance schedule is logged into a binder that keeps all of the past and future maintenance needs for all the equipment and trucks, and it's marked on a white board in the break room that lists the upcoming maintenance needs for all the equipment and trucks. Because all repairs are handled in-house (until they become too challenging and need to be out for repairs), keeping the schedule accessible for all the employees is an efficient means of communication.

Getting the Job

After graduating high school in 2016, Stephen worked for a medical equipment manufacturer in Stuyvesant Falls for two years before getting hired as a laborer for the Canaan highway department. In his first year, he advanced to MEO, acquiring both a class B and A CDL.

"My mother was a good friend with the superintendent because we bought hay from him," Stephen said. "They were looking for someone, so even though I had a job, I took this one."

Already training for his CDL, he got his permit within two months of being hired.

When the superintendent who hired him (Bernie Meyer) retired in 2021, he saw a chance to step up and become a leader in his hometown, with the intention of making positive changes for the community and all the people that reside in it.

He ran against one opponent and won a two-year term. Since then, the term has changed to four years. He plans to run again in 2027.

Calling Canaan Home

Stephen grew up in the town of Canaan, located in Columbia County, as did TV weatherman Al Roker many years before him. Another famous former resident, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, moved to the area after marriage. Steepletop, her home in nearby Austerlitz, where she penned a number of works, is now a museum. The Edna St. Vincent Millay house sits on a 500-acre estate in a hilly, wooded area near the Massachusetts state line, adjacent to the Berkshire Hills, known for its rich culture of music, arts and recreation.

Other museums in the Catskills around Canaan include the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. Cole, a celebrated painter, was the founder of the art movement known as the Hudson River School of American landscape painting and was an early environmentalist.

The Hancock Shaker Village and open-air museum is another popular destination. The former Shaker commune was active from the 1780s to 1960 and was the third of 19 Shaker villages established from 1774 to 1836 in New York, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and throughout New England.

Canaan was first settled in 1759 by emigrants from a town of the same name in Connecticut. Originally called Kings District in 1772, its name was changed permanently to Canaan in 1788.

One of the oldest portions of the town is along Frisbie Street, settled by one of the Connecticut immigrants, Gideon Frisbie. It lies along the former Albany-Boston stagecoach route.

The former Albany-Boston railroad line (now the CSX Boston Line), is a favorite tourist attraction: the State Line Tunnel, which was cut out of the rock at the high point of the Berkshire Mountains. The only tunnel on the line, it used to be a twin bore tunnel, but was reduced to a single track in the 1980s.

The small town with a population of just 1,570 borders Massachusetts on the east. It's an area known for wineries, orchards and artists.

Stephen's free time — what little he has — isn't generally spent in those directions. He attends the Columbia County Association of Town Superintendents of Highways meeting every month, Advocacy Day at the New York State Capitol and Legislative Office Building in Albany, New York and fall conferences around New York. He recently joined the local volunteer fire department: Canaan Protective Fire Company New York.

Somehow, he manages to find time to get to the gym daily. "I work out three hours a day after work," he said. "My day starts at 6, I get home around 4, and am done with the day by 7-8 p.m."

What he's able to fit into each day is impressive. In addition to his duties as highway superintendent, Stephen sometimes drives a dump truck for a local construction company, explaining that his CDL qualifications come with a physical, allowing him to drive trucks for others besides just the town.

"My experience includes a mechanical/equipment background from growing up and working on our family farms," he said.

The young entrepreneur who once milked calves at the tender age of 10 also has built on the old family business. For years, his family leased fields to bale hay: both square and round bales. On the verge of retirement, his father reduced his workload, cutting just enough hay for his own horses. Even his brothers, who delivered hay, were slowing down due to having fewer customers.

But Stephen became a hay broker — finding hay, buying it and selling it for profit. He had purchased a large box truck to enable him to make deliveries, but in an effort to expand his business, he recently bought a semi that allows him to store hay until a customer needs it delivered.

Planning Projects

Typical of the kind of man who doesn't let grass grow under his feet, Stephen has plenty of projects planned for the rest of his term. In addition to paving more aprons off county and state roads, repairing or replacing the town-maintained bridges and updating their equipment and truck fleet, the ambitious superintendent hopes to refurbish or replace their highway garage, build new lean-tos off of existing structures for equipment storage and pave the parking lot.

"We currently operate out of the 1963 Butler building that has an 80-foot by 40-foot garage, which stores four of our larger plow trucks (one tandem, three single-axles)," he said.

There's a 2014 addition on the back side of the building to store one of their skid steers and house a parts room. The front half of the building contains a two-person office, breakroom, a small kitchen and two bathrooms.

"This area used to be the town hall/meeting room from 1962 to 1997. The old highway department/town hall burned down in 1962; this one was built a year after."

He believes it's time for a new building.

During extreme temperatures, they manage to store their grader, loader and second skid steer in between bays — just in case of an emergency if the equipment is needed on the road. They are in the process of installing a new propane generator in that garage to replace the 1988 PTO-driven generator that runs off a 1974 John Deere 301.

Behind the highway garage is a 70-ft. by 140-ft. salt shed that was built in 2010. Under-cover capacity is 4,000 tons of sand, salt and stone.

They also have a three-bay pole barn (45 ft. by 34 ft.) built in 1999 that is used to store the grader, snowplows, sanders and chipper, with a mezzanine for additional storage. It's set up with a 100-amp electrical service for the lights and any equipment that needs power.

The department is discussing additional projects, including adopting private roads, water drainage easements onto private land and road entrance relocation off of county and state roads. Stephen also is hoping to add ways of communicating with the residents by providing information booklets that include things like the location of the salt/sand depot.

The superintendent has so many ideas to update the department, improve operations and better serve the town, he said. "My least favorite part of the job is not having enough time to finish all the projects, because the more we get done, the safer everyone is."

Limited time is but one of the many challenges that go with the job of highway superintendent, but none of them are enough to dampen the optimism of youth. "Nothing has ever made me say this is the worst day because, frankly, I don't see this position as a job. I see it as a career." P