Nunda Township cancels highway commissioner’s personal work vehicle leases

Trustees, Lesperance terminate deals that charged township for bulldozer, excavator maintenance

Nunda Township officials have terminated leases of the township highway commissioner’s personal bulldozer and excavator – vehicles that under an agreement for the past eight years taxpayers have paid to maintain, transport and insure, while the commissioner also used them for his private jobs.

Township trustees questioned Nunda Township Highway Commissioner Mike Lesperance on Thursday about the leases between him and the township. Under the agreement, the township used his work vehicles rent-free but paid for their maintenance and insurance.

At one point Thursday, Lesperance said his wife didn’t want him to continue renting the vehicles to the government, and both sides canceled the arrangement.

Lesperance told the Northwest Herald after Thursday’s meeting that he was was unable to provide exact dollar figures for how much each vehicle costs to maintain and insure each year. The newspaper has requested records from the township detailing the vehicles’ costs to taxpayers.

In a phone interview, the commissioner said nothing about the deal was improper, adding that he felt the township was getting a good bargain in exchange for cheap and easy access to the equipment when it was needed.

Lesperance estimated during a meeting last month that the township spent about $5,000 in parts for the machines over the past eight years.

He said the vehicles, which include a 36,000-pound excavator and a 16,000-pound bulldozer, have been used for township purposes far more often than he has used them for private jobs since they were leased, and about 1,400 working hours have been put on each machine since they were leased. He also has rented out the excavator to third parties who pay him for its use, he said Thursday, and he said he feels how much he has made from private jobs while the equipment has been maintained by the township is irrelevant.

The township also has to pay its staff or contractors to retrieve the excavator after it is brought to private job sites.

“When you use my machine, you pay to move it. When I use my machine, I pay to move it. You’ve paid to move it back here last month and this month,” Lesperance said to trustees in September. “I leave it here indefinitely, and when I need it, I take it. And then when you need it, you pay to move it.”

Lesperance said he personally pays to fuel the vehicles when they are on his jobs, and the township’s insurance costs did not rise when they were added onto the local government’s policy. He said the vehicles also are insured through his company, adding that they’re “double-insured.”

“I figure that’s fair,” Lesperance said. “If the township is using it, they ought to insure it. And the least we can do is maintain it. But we do maintain it [with township resources] for the hours it’s gone working somewhere else, too. But we pay zero per hour to use it, and 1,400 hours have been put on my machines. You do the math.

“I think it’s a good deal for me because they’re not sitting around getting rusty. And I think it’s a great deal for the township because they’re getting two machines for free.”

The excavator is worth about $25,000, the bulldozer is worth about $15,000, and they are both models from the late 1990s, he said.

“We haven’t put any big money into them,” Lesperance said. “There hasn’t been any $20,000 bills. They weren’t junk to begin with.”

Nunda Township Trustees Johanna Donahue and Tim and Rob Parrish, who are brothers, raised the issues and pressed the commissioner both last month and this week.

“I think what Mike believes is the maintenance costs covered the annual rental fee that would be associated with renting a piece of equipment of that size,” Rob Parrish said. “But nobody does that out of the kindness of their heart.”

Tim Parrish also expressed concerns last month with the township’s $181,000 purchase of a screen deck for screening top soil and gravel that Lesperance recently authorized using township funding.

Lesperance said the equipment made township work more efficient and dismissed concerns over the leases, contending that they were politically motivated. Donahue and the Parishes earlier this year ran on a slate of candidates with Eric Dowd, who lost to Lesperance in a primary race for highway commissioner. Rob Parrish also lost to Lesperance by three votes in a three-way Republican primary election for highway commissioner in 2013.

“This is just grandstanding,” Lesperance said. “I was elected to be road commissioner. It’s none of the trustees’ business what work I’m doing or not doing. The trustees are not in charge of the road commissioner. I answered their questions out of courtesy, not because I have to.”

He said he would lease the equipment to the township again under the same conditions after the clash with trustees because it was a good deal for taxpayers.

Marshall Lowe, a former trustee on the Cary Village Board in the 1980s who also has run Lowe Excavating since 1968, said the equipment leases costing only maintenance for the township may have been a good deal for the local government.

But he said he can see how the situation could lead to questions, depending on the township’s maintenance costs, the amount of time and the number of jobs for which Lesperance used the vehicles for his private work. Lowe said he would have avoided leasing out his own equipment if he were in a similar elected office.

“I wouldn’t have done this in the first place,” Lowe said. “I personally wouldn’t want to get myself in that position where people are going to question my integrity on the board.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described how Nunda Township pays the costs of transporting the excavator after Lesperance uses it for private jobs. The township pays its staff or contractors to retrieve the machine.