A Vermont winter without a town highway crew — a scary proposition with visions of unplowed roads, impassable with all that snow and ice.
Wolcott actually faced that proposition, if ever so briefly, earlier this fall.
Two members of the Wolcott highway crew left before summer, and the select board was unable to hire replacements. Then, in October, longtime highway foreman Harold “Skip” Patten Jr. resigned unexpectedly, citing an unhappy working relationship with the new road commissioner, Lucien Gravel.
Patten’s departure Oct. 29 left Wolcott with exactly zero full-time highway workers.
Gravel had been appointed road commissioner on a part-time basis in August to help oversee the department and bring it back to something near full strength. Now he faced those empty jobs, with winter around the corner.
And then, two days later, the Halloween storm dumped several inches of rain on Wolcott and the rest of northern Vermont, causing road damage across the region.
Wolcott was able to hire private contractors to quickly reopen washed-out roads, at least temporarily. And, coincidentally, Dillan Cafferky and Patrick Lacasse joined the town highway crew the morning of that storm, checking in with Gravel to see how they could help recovery efforts.
“All have hit the ground running, catching up on the backlog of maintenance issues and getting equipment ready for winter,” select board Chair Eric Furs told the News & Citizen last week.
Road crew roster woes
Patten was on the Wolcott road crew for 13 years, much of it as foreman, he told the News & Citizen. In recent years Wolcott has struggled to keep its highway workers; Patten told the select board other towns offer better pay. The problem cropped up again earlier this year; one crewman left for a better-paying job, and the other moved away. By summer, Patten was the only employee of his highway department.
“Our first opening was in late spring, and advertising started immediately but our search was unsuccessful,” Furs told the News & Citizen. Repeated efforts failed to fill the two jobs, and with winter on the way, the select board decided to take drastic steps.
“There were a whole bunch of things falling through the cracks,” Furs said. So, the board decided to bring Gravel, a former select board member and volunteer highway commissioner, on board as a paid commissioner for the short-term.
Gravel told the board Aug. 21 he was willing to help run the department, search for new crew members, apply for grants and build the budget. After a debate about the timing of the hire, the board voted 2-1 to hire Gravel as road commissioner. Furs and Michael Davidson supported the move, Richard Lee voted no and Kim Gravel abstained because she is related to Lucien Gravel.
Road commissioner and highway foreman are both appointed positions that the select board has the right to fill, Furs said, and the board hadn’t advertised the position or interviewed any other candidates before appointing Gravel.
“Given the urgent need, we appointed a qualified individual with previous experience to fill the role for a limited time,” Furs said. He indicated that Gravel will fill the position until a permanent replacement is found or Town Meeting Day arrives, “whichever comes first.”
Patten was present at that Aug. 21 meeting and, according to Furs, told the board he could work with Gravel.
That quickly proved not to be the case. Less than two months later, on Oct. 15, Patten submitted a three-sentence resignation letter: “I am giving my two-week notice of resignation. I can’t work with Lucien any longer. Oct. 29 will be my last day.”
What happened? Furs replied that “the board is not at liberty to discuss personnel issues.”
Patten didn’t want to go into detail, but said he and Gravel “didn’t really get along.”
“I have no idea why they decided to bring him on,” he added.
“I was trying to help Skip with paperwork; you can’t run a grader and answer the phone at the same time,” Gravel said. He said he was unaware of any issues between him and Patten.
“I thought we did have a good working relationship,” Gravel said.
The pair still seemed to be on board with the plan Sept. 4, when the board voted to give Patten a raise to $24.30 per hour and to pay Gravel $17.50 per hour for no more than 15 hours a week.
Wolcott had not had a road commissioner for several years before Gravel was hired. The last was Todd Harris, then a select board member; he did the work for much of the earlier part of the decade, according to Town Clerk Linda Martin. Harris was paid only if he needed to chip in during emergencies.
“He got paid a little for helping out, but not for overseeing the department,” Martin said.
“The board thought that the amount of work and urgency required to rebuild our road crew warranted compensation,” Furs said about the decision to pay Gravel. “Many towns have a paid road commissioner,” he said, and that to his knowledge the town’s last road commissioner was also paid.
The board meant to cap Gravel’s hours well below full-time, but with Patten’s departure, the Halloween storm damage and the need to train new staff, he’s working close to 40 hours per week. Because the department was short-staffed for so long, Gravel’s extra hours aren’t yet causing any budget issues, Martin said.
Other town staff members and residents have been voicing concern, and sorrow, that Patten left so unexpectedly after so long with the department.
“Very disappointed,” Martin summarized just after he left, and many people “are not happy.”
Residents turned out in force for a select board meeting Oct. 16, the day after Patten gave his notice. People questioned why Patten left and what part the board played.
“There were no rumors of Skip leaving before Lucien was hired,” Deborah Klein, a town lister and the scribe for the select board meetings, told the News & Citizen the day of the Halloween storm.
Klein thought things looked pretty grim after Patten left.
“Here we are, it’s November, and we don’t even have plows on trucks, we don’t have salt trucked in yet, and we don’t have anyone familiar with our roads,” Klein said Oct. 31. “I’m stocking up on canned goods, and I’m not at all optimistic about how this winter is going to go in Wolcott.”
Bernard Earle, the town animal control and health officer, was working with Patten part-time to help get the town ready for winter. He said the foreman and commissioner simply couldn’t seem to agree on anything, and Patten decided he’d had enough.
“It’s too bad, because now the town is in a major mess,” Earle said Oct. 31.
With the two new crew members, the highway department is trending up, Furs believes. Now, “hiring a long-term foreman who will oversee hiring, daily operations, and budget management is a priority of both the road commissioner and the select board.”
The two new crew members are learning the ropes from Gravel, with some part-time help to cover all Wolcott’s bases.
The Halloween damage gave the two new crew members a crash course in Wolcott’s highways
“It’s been a challenging fall, to be sure,” Furs said. But the two new hires are quickly “getting up to speed, we’re really happy to have them on board.”
The town is currently advertising for a foreman and a third full-time crew member. Cafferky and Lacasse are making $22 per hour with full benefits and are eligible for a 50-cent raise after a three-month waiting period. A new part-time employee was added on Monday, Martin said, and two other part-timers had been working without benefits for $30 per hour, according to the board’s Nov. 4 meeting minutes.
Gravel thinks the new crew members are “working out fairly well. We’re working on stuff, and getting ready for the next snowstorm,” Gravel said. “I think we’re very fortunate to have the crew that we have right now.”
Cafferky worked for Pike Industries for several years, Gravel said, and has plenty of experience. Lacasse, 19, is coming along quickly. Both are learning a lot from Jim Paradee, hired as interim foreman. Paradee used to be on the Hyde Park highway crew and now runs his own business. Gravel recruited him to help until a permanent foreman is hired.
“He’s been our savior,” Gravel said. “His experience is pretty useful for these younger guys.”
Gravel hopes to find a foreman soon, as Paradee has agreed to stay only until Feb. 1.
Prepping for winter
With no crew earlier this year, Patten knew he couldn’t do everything he needed to alone in the lead-up to winter, so he focused on what he could do.
“I was just trying to make sure the roads were maintained,” he said. He asked Earle to help by trucking sand, and “we got up 6,000 yards of sand before I left, got the salt contract done and started getting the trucks ready for winter.”
Plenty of other towns and businesses seemed to be hiring earlier this year, Patten said, limiting the number of applications for Wolcott, which just couldn’t make a hire.
The town now has everything it needs, both in material and staff, to get through the winter, Gravel said. Both crew members have commercial driver’s licenses and are fully certified.
“They’re able to do any job they need to at this point,” Gravel said confidently. “I want to say thank you to the residents of Wolcott for being patient and supporting us.”