LOWVILLE — Although the highway departments in north country towns generally maintain the municipal building and grounds, too, the highway superintendent for the town of Denmark has drawn a line.
“Be aware that I will no longer be doing any maintenance in both buildings. This will include mowing of lawns. You will need to purchase gas somewhere as I will not allow it to be taken from Highway accounts as this would be a general fund expenditure,” Superintendent Patrick Mahar said in a May 1 email sent to town Supervisor Scott Doyle and the four council members.
As a result, the town board put out a request for proposals for lawn maintenance and will have to contract building repairs and maintenance as needed in the future.
In response to a request by Mr. Doyle that he attend town meetings, Mr. Mahar said in the same email, “I do not have to attend them. If you need me to be at a meeting, please let me know and I or my deputy will be there.”
Perusing meeting minutes from a number of towns around Lewis and Jefferson counties selected at random shows that highway superintendents are present and provide reports to the town boards on their departments’ activities. Those activities often include mowing, not just on the town properties, but in some cases other properties owned by the towns. Nearby highway departments also handle generator repairs and other issues that arise at town offices, especially during times of the year when snow removal is not necessary.
For the 16 years he has been the highway superintendent, Mr. Mahar has been instructing his team to maintain town lawns and facilities as needed, too.
“Things have changed with the position. I’m only working six-hour days and I don’t have time to deal with it anymore,” he said. “They’re willing to pay other people to do other stuff at the office. They just take advantage of me and I’m done being taken advantage of.”
Mr. Mahar was referencing an agreement the town board made with the clerk for additional compensation for administering the town’s website, which is not in that position’s job description.
Additionally, Mr. Mahar said that while the strained relationship between he and Mr. Doyle partially informed his decision, contention around lawn mowing started with a previous supervisor when the town wanted the Highway Department budget to be used for a zero-turn lawn mower Mr. Mahar requested for lawn maintenance.
Mr. Mahar refused because, he said, it should be an expense for the town’s general fund being that it would not be used for road maintenance.
“They said, ‘So then we’re not buying it.’ And I said, ‘Fine. I won’t mow your lawn, then,’” Mr. Mahar recalled.
Although duties beyond highway-related activities are not part of the superintendent’s basic job description according to state law, there is a section of town law, 32-1, that says in addition to the basic duties “imposed on him by law,” the superintendent should also perform “such further duties as the town board may determine not inconsistent with law.”
The state comptroller’s office has issued legal opinions on this issue concluding the additional duties town boards can impose must be “reasonably related to (the superintendent’s) usual and normal duties and which do not interfere with his ordinary duties,” causing road-related work to be neglected.
For example, because highway departments build and maintain drainage for roads, a town board could legally ask the superintendent to have his department build or maintain drainage at the town offices, as stated in opinion 91-45 on the comptroller’s website.
The opinion and state law indicates any of the expenses for the additional duties should come out of the town’s general fund, echoing Mr. Mahar’s claim about the lawn mower’s expense.
If mowing is done by Mr. Mahar’s team along Denmark’s roads, the mowing of the town hall’s lawn may be a duty the board could legally request of the highway department, however, Mr. Mahar told Mr. Doyle that because the drivers are union machine equipment operators, he would not order them to mow.
The town has already put out a request for proposals and is expected to award a contract for the lawn maintenance in their June meeting.
Mr. Mahar, who is running for the county legislator position for Denmark’s district, said he will end his term as highway superintendent at the end of this year even if he does not win the county-level office in order to focus more on a new business venture.
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