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Cheektowaga's snowplowing was slow because crews didn't want to work OT, supervisor says

When a freezing rain glazed over roads in the Town of Cheektowaga early Sunday, Dec. 18, Highway Superintendent Mark Wegner could only get eight salt trucks out by mid-morning.

Meanwhile, the Town of Tonawanda had twice that number out treating its roads.

The problem? Not enough Cheektowaga Highway Department employees responded to the call for overtime shifts, leaving roads slippery and dangerous for longer than they should have been, Wegner said.

"We've never had this problem before," he said. "I don't know what it is. I don't get it. These young kids don't want the overtime."

Wegner and Supervisor Diane Benczkowski believe the solution is to fold the town's Sanitation Department back into the Highway Department, giving Wegner an expanded pool of drivers and laborers to call in when bad weather hits.

The Town of Cheektowaga's plow trucks and salters at the Cheektowaga Highway Department in Cheektowaga, N.Y., on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

"I could be using these guys when I can't get my guys," he said. "It's Christmastime, they're not answering their phones. I could've used the sanitation guys."

That's how it works in the Town of Tonawanda, where garbage truck drivers can double as snow plow drivers, and vice versa, said Highway Superintendent William E. Swanson. They all get trained on all the equipment and work out of the same building, he said.

Benczkowski, who said she received "numerous complaints" about town roads Sunday morning, put forward a resolution Monday to reassign supervision of sanitation to the highway chief. She was already planning to make the proposal, even before Sunday morning's ice problem, which only reinforced the need for it, she said.

But the supervisor's proposal was rejected by the Town Board, by a vote of 4-3.

Like many decisions in Cheektowaga, there's a political undercurrent and signs of icy relations between two factions of the town Democratic Party.

At a special meeting in late December 2007, the Town Board took control of sanitation away from the highway superintendent and handed it to Frank C. Max Jr., then the town's Democratic Party chairman. It was just days before Wegner took over as highway chief. Wegner ousted Max for the chairmanship seven years later, but some Town Board members remain loyal to Max.

"That's what happened, I think, with this vote -- people with certain vendettas for Mark," said Benczkowski. "We need to do what's right for these taxpayers and put all that aside and make everything more efficient."

Councilwoman Alice Magierski voted in favor of separating the departments in 2007, and against combining them on Monday. She denied that politics was a consideration and said she prefers that the seven-member Town Board have oversight of sanitation.

"I thought it was in the best interest of the town back in 2007 and I see no reason to change my opinion now," she said.

Magierski said she was under the impression that Wegner already has authority to call in sanitation workers if highway workers decline to report.

But on Tuesday, Benczkowski issued a news release stating, "Under current town policy, employees are not allowed to be transferred between departments." She also said the Sanitation Department is overstaffed, underworked and would be more accountable if supervised by the highway superintendent.

"I just want residents to know that I'm trying to make things better and more efficient and coming up with some good ideas," she said. "This is going to be my second year as supervisor. But I need the board's help."

Deputy Supervisor Tim Meyers and Councilwoman Linda Hammer joined Benczkowski in support of the resolution. Councilmen James P. Rogowski and Jerry Kaminski and Councilwoman Christine Adamczyk also voted no.

“This vote was about righting a wrong that was done nine years ago for political reasons,” Benczkowski said in her statement.

Wegner was equally blunt with his assessment.

"Honestly I believe it's political," he said. "I know it is. It's political. It's always going to be, here in Cheektowaga."

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