Skip to main content

tim hens

County leaders counting blessings in midst of 'wicked storm'

By Howard B. Owens

So far, it might be classified as a Christmas miracle, said County Manager Matt Landers.

With dozens of people trapped in vehicles for hours and cars all around Oakfield and Alabama buried in up to five feet of snow, emergency crews have yet to uncover any fatalities.

County Highway Superintendent Tim Hens said with hours of the storm yet to weather, and emergency responders working around the clock, he's still nervous about people's safety, but he, too, is hoping for a Christmas miracle.

Hens spent all night with County Highway workers running heavy loaders with big plows attached ahead of convoys of search and rescue crews, and he said the situation is the worst he's seen in his life.

"It is frustrating because we knew people really needed to help, and he just couldn't get to him," Hens said. "It seemed like no matter which way we went, whatever road we went down or whatever piece of equipment we took, it just was zero visibility. I mean, you could literally not see past the hood of your own car. Even though we had loaders with huge blades on them, and the Sheriff's were using MRAPs, the military vehicles that they've acquired, and we had tracked vehicles and groomers that are used for snowmobile trails and things like that, you just couldn't see where you're going. It was just extremely frustrating and scary."

Hens said in those conditions -- strong winds, zero visibility, 20 degrees below zero with windchill, a person outside without protective gear couldn't last long.

"You just can't see where you're going," Hens said. "It's disorienting. It's cold. The wind is ripping right through everything you've got on. Like I said, every little hair on your body accumulates ice and snow. If you didn't have goggles on, you're out of luck. The one time I jumped out (of my truck) to put a strap on a truck to pull somebody out, I forgot to put my goggles on, my eyelashes froze together. That was interesting."

While many people have been rescued, there's no way of knowing how many people haven't been rescued, hence the hope for a miracle. 

"I'm still relatively nervous about it because, I mean, there's still a lot of cars that have not been found yet," Hens said. "So there are still people in cars that have been there for a long time. There is the possibility that people got out of their cars and went looking for their own help, to a neighboring house or something like that and like I said, it is so disorienting. If you got out of your car last night, you wouldn't have known that there could have been a house 20 feet from you, and you wouldn't have seen it."

A large number of cars being located after getting stuck on Route 77, Route 63, Ledge Road, Judge Road, etc., have Canadian or out-of-state license plates. That's a factor of the state closing the Thruway and motorists relying on Google or Apple maps.  They got no warning that there was a travel ban in place or that a blizzard was passing over the very routes Google and Apple were suggesting.

"We probably would have had to have dealt with 30 or 40 cars, maybe, of our own people," Landers said. "But now we're having a couple of hundred cars. This is the GPS that was sending everybody right through Route 63, Route 77, right through the heart of the worst of the storm."

Landers said he isn't pointing a finger at the state.  He understands the need to close the Thruway, but there needs to be a better plan, and the state needs to lean on GPS mappers so that the maps do a better job of warning drivers of critically dangerous conditions.

"The solution can't simply be close the Thruway, and now it's a free for all into the small communities like Genesee County, Alabama and Oakfield," Landers said. "So it's something that I have reached out with the state about this morning. And again, it's not to be pointing the finger. It's just a matter that we have to learn from this because this situation was exasperated multiple times over by the fact that we get people from Los Angeles, people from Ohio, people from all over the place going on our back roads."

Hens said he hopes the governor's office will lean on Google to fix its technology.

"A lot of Canadians we talked to last night said, 'I was following my Google Map. I was following my Google Map, and I saw the red lines on the Google Map for traffic, and we just thought it was a traffic jam,'" Hens said. "They didn't know it was a lake effect snow band. And most people have never been in a lake effect snow band, so they didn't even know what it's like."

There are still hundreds of personnel -- volunteers and paid staff -- out on search and rescue missions.

Landers praised their dedication, hard work, and willingness to put their own safety at risk to help others.

He also marveled at all the residents and business owners who have been open to provide food and shelter to stranded travelers.  He said the county's human resources director, Anita Cleveland, took in a family of five overnight after the deputy who rescued them had become stuck in the snow.

Currently, there are 11 warming shelters open, and they are caring for 582 people.

"It's all hands on deck," Landers said.

And it's not over.

While the large lake effect snow band that hovered over Alabama and Oakfield most of the night has moved north, giving rescues some respite to get their work done, it's expected to drive south again, not only passing over those communities again but also into Batavia.

"The band is forecast to slowly move south across the county, I think, beginning about two or three o'clock this afternoon and will be kind of centered around the county, more of a traditional Airport, Batavia, kind of alignment for most of the afternoon and early evening from what the National Weather Service says," Hens said. "With snowfall rates of one to two inches an hour, so I would say from my experience, Darien, Pembroke, Alexander, and Batavia will take the brunt of it from a severity standpoint, and then it'll taper off. It looks like conditions will deteriorate for most of the center part of the county later this afternoon."

With the storm expected to last well into the night and perhaps into Sunday morning, Hens isn't just nervous about the safety of people out on the roads, he's nervous about remaining operations. People are tired and equipment is being heavily used.

"I'm just nervous that we're gonna have equipment breaking," Hens said. "You know, we've been using it pretty heavy now for 24 hours straight in some pretty wicked conditions. ... I'm nervous that someone's gonna get hurt or equipment is gonna get broken, and then we're going to have the band come back through, and we're going to be caught sideways a little bit, but fingers crossed, like Matt said, we need a little bit of a Christmas miracle."

County Highway crews heading to Route 77 in Alabama to try and rescue stranded drivers in whiteout conditions

By Howard B. Owens


With a high degree of concern for people trapped in their cars in the area of Route 77 and Judge Road, County Highway Superintendent Tim Hens, along with three county highway personnel driving three heavy loaders/plow trucks, are leaving Batavia in an attempt to rescue them.

No other emergency personnel in fire trucks, rescue trucks, or patrol cars have been able to reach them.

"I've got three highway guys putting their lives at risk, my life at risk, to try and save them, but I would feel bad if we didn't try," Hens said.

Hens was just leaving the City of Batavia, driving behind the highway trucks and said visibility was already down to nearly zero. He passed a semi-truck stuck in the snow in front of Tops.  There was about a foot of snow in that location.

Deputies have reported drifts of snow as high as five feet surrounding the cars that are stuck in Alabama.

"We have a pretty high level of concern," Hens said. "Some people have been out there nine, 10 hours. I know there are people who are hypothermic at this point.  I'm not sure we will be able to reach them.  It's just such bad visibility. I'm not even sure we will be able to get there, to be honest."

There has been a heavy, large lake-effect snow band stretching from Lake Erie into Alabama and Oakfield all day.  The National Weather Service reports it is likely to be in place until at least midnight.

"It might be there until midnight tomorrow," Hens said. "This storm is going to revival '77 in its intensity.  It's maybe not as wide or as broad but for people under the snow band, it will be."

Photo: File photo of Tim Hens from 2018 at Genesee County Legislature meeting.

UPDATE: here's a four-second video from Tim Hens showing conditions on the road to Alabama.

Ongoing expansion, modernization of airport give Genesee County reasons to feel proud

By Mike Pettinella


When it comes to the Genesee County Airport, Tim Hens sees himself as a public servant with a private sector mentality.

And that philosophy has worked quite well over the past 20 years, according to the county highway superintendent, as the airport has been upgraded and modernized without a single dollar coming from county property tax revenue.

Hens gave The Batavian a tour of the sprawling facility along East Saile Drive in the Town of Batavia last week, pointing out the various buildings and providing insight into the funding of the operation that currently houses 68 aircraft, including single-engine planes, helicopters and “decent sized corporate jets.”

The county’s plan back in 2001 was to privatize the airport, Hens recalled.

“We were going to put the management of the airport out to bid to see if we can get a company to do it,” he said. “And our bids were out on the street, literally, as 911 happened. And if you remember back to 911, the whole airline industry and aviation industry just crumbled and shut down. It was not a good time to have a bid package out for airport management.”

Hens, who had recently been hired (he’s also the county engineer), said the county did not receive any responses to their request for proposal.

“So, by default, the county stepped in,” he said. “And I proposed that we hire some county employees and manage it. And luckily, it has worked out very, very well. We actually ended up sticking with that process for the last 20 years.”

As a result, Hens is able to use his business management skills to market the facility, assist in the bookkeeping, filing sales tax and supervising maintenance and upkeep.

“It’s like owning your own little business,” he said. “We've got employees to manage, we're selling fuel, we have to look at pricing, we’ve got to look at our competitors. It’s so different than my highway job where it's just fix what we got and plow the snow – and we do plow snow out here, too.”

Ownership of the airport enables the county to control its own destiny, Hens said.

“We have found that we could take in all the revenue, as opposed to paying it out to a management company or a private business to run the airport,” he said. “We were getting the full benefit of the revenue and could control our expenses. Plus, things move much faster – such as expanding the runway and other business decisions.”

The staff at the airport (other than Jeff and Carol Boshart of Boshart Enterprises; see accompanying story) consists of two full-time employees – manager Jason Long and airport attendant Ron Stringham – and a couple of part-timers who fill in during holidays and weekends.

The airport features a two-story main terminal that, along with the main hangar, was built in 2015 as part of a $4.9 million project, Hens said. The county received a grant for $300,000 and the remainder was bonded over 20 years.

The main terminal features a foyer, training rooms, pilot lounge, P&L Air flight school, break rooms and several offices. The main hangar, which is used by Boshart Enterprises, measures 100 by 120 feet with a 30-foot high ceiling.

Located to the west are six corporate hangars – three of which are owned by Genesee County and three that are privately owned – and five T-hangars that were built in 1997, 2008, 2011, 2015 and 2020. Those contain 46 separate smaller hangars, with one of them rented by Mercy Flight for its helicopters.

Hens said the facility is part of the county’s transportation and infrastructure operation, and is utilized by numerous local companies, including Milton CAT, Tompkins Financial, National Grid, Western New York Energy in Medina, Six Flags Darien Lake, HP Hood and Lamb Farms.

“It gets way more use than people think,” said Hens, an Air Force veteran who attended the Air Force Academy in Colorado – and has flown jets. “The best thing about it is that zero property taxes are put toward the airport.

“People say they are funding the hobbies of the rich. That’s not true. It’s a self-sustaining, self-paid-for operation. Since 2001, Genesee County has received $32 million in federal and state aid for the airport.”

He said that 95 percent of the funding is covered in most cases.

“The money is going to go somewhere, it might as well come here,” he said, adding that funding for the facility is based entirely on airline user fees through an airport trust fund.

“Our fuel sales and rental fees pay for the airport operation. We are showing an annual surplus of $80,000 to $100,000, and that money goes back exclusively for airport expenses and improvements.”

Hens said the county is planning to develop more of the land at the west end. In September, it applied for a $13 million grant to build a large hangar at the corner of State Street Road. It would be 100 percent funded by New York State through the Upstate Airport Economic Development and Revitalization initiative.

“It’s a ‘If we build it they will come sort of thing.’ We need the hangar for larger jets of corporate site selectors who are representing businesses looking to locate here.”

Genesee County’s ability to run its own airport and turn a profit hasn’t gone unnoticed by officials of other counties, Hens said.

“I think, to this day, we are one of the few airports in upstate New York that make money. We get a lot of calls and I've done presentations as far away as Lake George as to what are you doing at your airport? How come you are successful? So, I think you're seeing more and more municipalities get involved in their airport operations.”

Although the county owns the airport, there is an opportunity for an entrepreneur to come in at the main terminal.

“We’ve got a small space carved out on the second floor for a café and sandwich shop with a seating area,” Hens said. “We’re looking for someone to run it.”

Photo at top: The main terminal at the Genesee County Airport on East Saile Drive. Photos by Mike Pettinella.


The main terminal lobby and County Line Service office.


Based aircraft at the Genesee County Airport, including a plane from the Civil Air Patrol.


T-Hangars. Forty-six individual units are rented at the airport.


The main terminal and main hangar were built in 2015.


View from second floor of the main terminal, looking northeast at fuel tanks and runway.

Highway superintendent reviews department progress with legislators

By Howard B. Owens


During the Public Service Committee meeting Tuesday, Highway Superintendent Tim Hens updated members of the County Legislature on the work of his department.

On funding, the proposed county road budget for 2019 is $5,527,130. Asphalt prices have increased 20 percent in 2018. Salt prices are up 16 percent. Gas prices have gone from $2 a gallon to $2.35 and climbing, though prices should stabilize in 2019, Hens said. The department has 57 employees (54.25 full-time equivalents), working in administration, highway, parks, airport, fleet, and facility maintenance.     

Besides a share of the general fund, the department receives grants for projects. State aid in 2018 has been $1.6 million, plus $382,193 from the PAVE-NY fund, $240,498 for extreme weather recovery.

Federal aid, Hens said, is still limited.

The county, including applications from towns, has 31 applications made to BRIDGE-NY, with an announcement for funding expected in the fall. 

Hens anticipates needing $2,131,466 for roach machinery in 2019. The department is making lease payments on a dozer, loader, an excavator, and needs a wheel loader, pickup, 2.5-ton truck, and mid-sized track excavator.

The county is responsible for 260 miles of highway. There are 92 bridges longer than 20 feet and 278 bridges and culverts longer than five feet and less than 20 feet. 

"We need to replace two bridges a year to keep our heads above water and we have been doing one bridge a year based on available federal funding," Hens said. 

The rating for the Lyons Street Bridge has been reduced from eight tons to seven. Pratt Road Bridge has been reduced from 19 tons to seven and is scheduled for replacement next year.

Reconstruction of the Stroh Road Bridge is nearly complete and it should open Oct. 1, three weeks ahead of schedule. 

Four culverts in the county of less than 20-foot span were replaced this summer.

The county also completed paving or overlay projects on Indian Falls Road, North Lake Road, North Byron Road, Prole Road Extension, South Street in Pavilion, Colby Road, Hickox, Walker, and Gillate roads in Alexander. 

These projects often included shoulder widening to 30 feet.

The widening has gone over well with residents in those areas, Hens said, who now have more room for walking and biking.

Much of the material used for this work is recycled asphalt from the work at the County Airport to replace the runway and taxiways. This has produced more than 16,000 tons of asphalt for the county to process and reuse.

"It's cheap material," Hens said. "But it's not free. We still have to process it and handle it."

As for county parks, Hens praised the work of Shannon Lyaski, conservation education program coordinator, and Paul Osborn, parks director.

"We've seen year-over-year growth in the environmental programs," Hens said. "We've hit record numbers for revenue and people attending events at the County Park." 

He said Lyaski has done a good job with programming for events at the Interpretive Nature Center.

The revenue generated by these programs cover her salary, Hens said.

As for Osborn, Hens said he's a master at rounding up volunteer workers and scavenging for material for structures in the parks.

"He flips over rocks and pulls people out and he's got people down there cleaning, cutting and trimming," Hens said.

One of the annual programs at the County Park is Camp Hard Hat, which brings in high school students in to build a project under the supervision of a BOCES instructor.

This year, the crew built a footbridge using guardrails Osborn scavenged from the old Stroh Road Bridge.

Attendance has also been up at the DeWitt Recreation Area.

Hens said work on a bridge through the wetlands in the park for the Ellicott Trail should be completed by fall. The county is waiting on the Town of Batavia to finish its part of the trail and Hens is hopeful the trail will open next spring.

For facilities, significant projects in 2018 include a new jail elevator, a security system, new fire alarm for the County Courthouse, and completion of an energy performance contract. For 2019, the county is waiting on a grant for the stonework on the facade of the jail building and a grant is pending for energy upgrades at the Animal Shelter.

In the 20 years since Hens became highway superintendent, the County has invested $30 million in capital improvements, which includes new hangars, a new terminal, and a new runway and taxiways. The funds were all generated by grants or fees for use of the airport and fuel so there have been no direct costs to local taxpayers.

There are 21 jobs at the airport, including private employers, and generates $2.35 million in economic impact.

The airport has brought in more money than it cost in 16 of the past 17 years. Hens anticipates the airport will only break even in 2018 due to a prolonged winter and construction projects.

Pete Zeliff is building a new hangar for corporate jets, which should help generate more revenue for the county through additional fuel sales.

Hens has also been heavily involved in public water projects with several new projects starting this year and more planned for 2019.

PHOTO: Tim Hens in the foreground and Laura Wadhams, the county's new assistant engineer, who started her job a little over a week ago.

Hens takes leadership role among his peers, aided by 57-year county employee

By Howard B. Owens


County Highway Superintendent Tim Hens is about to fill a role occupied by two of his predecessors -- NYS County Highway Superintendents Association.

What's unique, perhaps, is that Laura Mullen, a principle financial clerk with the highway department since 1957, has work for both of the previous presidents from Genesee County.

That would be Joe Amedick, who served in 1987 and Bob Carrier, who served in 1959.

Now part-time, Hens finds Mullen indispensable.

"She knows where thr vendor files are from ions ago," Hens said. "She knows where bridge files are, road files are. Any bit of information I need, she knows exactly what box it is in in the storeroom."

When Hens started his job 16 years ago, there were no computers. He said he couldn't work like that, so his computer was the first in the department. 

Mullen, already with more than 30 years on the job, jumped right in with automation and took classes at Genesee Community College on her own time, at her own expense, to learn Microsoft Office.

Hens said Mullen will fill in wherever she's needed.

He has his own kind of seniority going. At 16 years on the job, he's the fourth or fifth most senior county highway superintendent among the 57 counties in the state.

The association, he said, serves an important role in helping the state's highway departments and public works departments share information and best practices as well as lobbying Albany to maintain funding for roads and bridges.

If a member has a question, they jump online, ask it, and might get 30 answers.

"You learn something from other counties or something that somebody has already done and that saves you a lot of time and a lot of hassle," Hens said.

Highway superintendent provides review of funding challenges and department highlights

By Howard B. Owens

County Highway Superintendent Tim Hens made a presentation Monday to the Public Service Committee.  We asked him to write a summary of his presenation to go along with the slide show he created.

Click here to view the slide show.

Here's Tim's message:

I took time from my annual department review yesterday to make a presentation that focused on some of the funding challenges we face as well as some of the brighter highlights from the year so far.

The initial portion of the presentation focused on the difference between capital improvements and preventative maintenance.  Generally speaking, a capital improvement is a significant improvement or total reconstruction of the roadway, whereas preventative maintenance is only a surface treatment or temporary improvement meant to extend the service life of the underlying pavement.  Preventative maintenance is used to keep "good roads good" and it is the best bang for the buck when applied at the appropriate time.  If you were to plot a line of pavement conditions over time, it would gradually drop, and after about 7-8 years, it would start to fall away quite quickly.  The goal with preventative maintenance is to catch the pavement before that line starts to get too steep.  That way we can take a typical 15 year pavement life and extend it out to maybe 30-35 years before it needs a capital improvement, which is very expensive in comparison.

The next phase of the conversation moved on to the cost of materials and construction in general.  Higher material prices have impacted both preventative maintenance and capital improvement costs, limiting the amount of work that can be performed each year.

The presentation then moved back to a quick overview of techniques that are used for preventative maintenance, a comparison of their costs, and a comparison of what was performed in 2012 versus what we should be doing to improve the condition ratings of our system.  As it stands we are generally treading water with our highway system and we are losing ground with regard to our bridges, especially the shorter span bridges which are not eligible for federal aid.  Tighter budgets as a result of unfunded mandates on the county and increasing material prices (mostly due to the cost of oil) are requiring the county to defer maintenance and improvements.  For every dollar deferred, the county will need to spend between $4 and $6 to get the same result (road condition) down the road.  We are falling further and further behind.

When is comes to bridges; the deficencies are significant.  The county owns and maintains 341 bridges.  Of these bridges, only 95 are eligible for federal aid.  The remainder are completely reliant upon local funding and very limited state aid.  More than half the bridges were built prior to 1960 and 53% of the bridges are considered functionally obsolete or structurally deficient by federal standards.  Our average bridge condition rating stands at 4.98 (out of 7) where anything below a 5 is considered in poor condition.  The cost just to support federal aid subsidized replacements is likely to exceed $600,000 per year if we replace the two bridges per year to stay ahead of the deterioration.  Factoring in the cost to replace short-span bridges and the total cost over the next ten years is likely to exceed $10-15 million.  The county currently does not have the capability to fund this need .

The Highway Department will be engaging engineering consultants this winter to analyze the inventory of short span structures the county owns, develop a plan of attack and design a few cookie-cutter solutions so that some of these smaller bridges may be replaced in-house to save money.  There is a need to bond some of the replacments over the long-term so that future taxpayers who will benefit from today's improvements may share in the cost as well.

Some quick slides were shown on the cost of Snow & Ice Control for the county.  A majority of county milage is plowed by Town Highway Departments under contract.  The contract rate is determined using a formula based off the three year average snowfall for the area.  The warm winter in 2011-12 adjusted this rate significantly and the proposed rate to the Towns for the 2012-13 season is much lower.  A quick history of rate adjustments waas presented; as well as a slide showing the limited amount of overtime expended by the county versus what was budgeted as a result of the warm weather.

The presentation ended with a few slides of the DeWitt Recreation Area and the improvements made there as a result of the open winter and available labor and equipment from the Highway Department.

Authentically Local