Niagara Gazette

May 27, 2013

CITY DESK: On the roads, again

By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Jeff Smeal doesn’t want much. 

Just a little appreciation for his people is all.

Smeal’s worked for the city for 34 years, the most recent two as an assistant foreman in the department of public works. 

In late spring and early sum-mer, when the local asphalt plants reopen, Smeal’s title puts him in charge of arguably the most maligned batch of city employees in Niagara Falls — the men and women responsible for in-house road repair projects. 

After a press conference last week, where Mayor Paul Dyster announced the start of the 2013 paving season, Smeal stepped forward to ask if I could do him a favor: Write somewhere that his crew — contrary to popular public opinion — takes pride in making those notorious Niagara Falls potholes disappear. 

“We hear a lot of complaints, but I’ve got a good team here,” Smeal said. “They work hard. They get the job done.” 

It’s no easy job. Next to the mighty cataracts, the city’s tattered streets have, unfortunately, become synonymous with the community itself.

During the press conference, even Dyster acknowledged the city’s tag as the “pothole capital of the world,” a moniker his administration — and administrations before his — have been attempting to erase for years.

Smeal’s people are on the front lines, toiling in the heat while following machines laying fresh asphalt on roads that, in some cases, haven’t been visited by a paving crew in years, decades even. 

Some residents are more understanding than others. Smeal knows a lot of them view city employees with jaded eyes, having been burned in the past by the worker they saw fast asleep while sitting on top of a road paver tucked away in a cul de sac during work hours. 

“We’re in the public eye,” Smeal said. “All it takes is one person doing something wrong and it is going to make it hard for everybody.

“I don’t have a lazy person on my crew,” he proudly adds.

When there’s money, Smeal’s says his crew members stay busy. They’ve been working quite a bit in recent years, their job supported in part by revenue from the Seneca Niagara Casino.

Slot machine cash is gone now, tied up in a dispute between the Senecas and the state that is now threatening a whole lot more in Niagara Falls than pothole repair projects.

This year, Smeal’s team will work on 24 in-house paving jobs, down substantially from previous years and a peak a couple of years ago when the DPW did nearly double that amount in a single paving season. 

“We did a lot of streets,” Smeal said. “(The revenue) helps us out. It helps the people of the city. When we we’re getting it, we got a lot of work done. I’ve been here 34 years and this is probably the busiest years we’ve had.” 

It’ll be a little less busy this season. There’s only so much money to use for spreading asphalt around. This year’s entire paving budget will be covered by the state of New York through its Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program, more commonly known as CHIPS. 

Smeal says he’d like more, and so would his people. 

For now, he says, they’ll keep doing what they always do: Work hard while dodging complaints, and savoring the occasions when a long-suffering taxpayer thanks them for finally getting around to fixing their tattered road. 

“I’ve got a pretty good team in place here,” Smeal said. “I wouldn’t trade them for nothing.” 

Contact City Editor Mark Scheer at 282-2311, ext. 2250.