The administrative offices of the Kingston Department of Public Works are housed on the second floor of an antique brick building next to the firehouse on East Chester Street built during the mayoralty of Rosco Irwin (1910-1913). A steep, creaky staircase leads to an open toilet door next to a poster warning against sexual harassment — a reminder of more controversial times. Photos of bygone city work crews paving streets, plowing snow and engaging in pick and shovel labor adorn the walls leading to well-appointed offices.
The aptly-named Department of Public Works touches people’s lives in a regular, meaningful way almost every day, be it refuse or recyclable pickup, street paving, traffic control devices or snowplowing. Other duties include bus, equipment and park maintenance, code enforcement and safety training of city employees. The department has about 60 full-time workers and an $8 million budget.
“We can always use a few more people,” says Joe Chenier, Kingston’s new public works superintendent, as of mid-September. Chenier, 43, worked in the City of Poughkeepsie’s engineering department for a dozen years, so when the city advertised for a DPW superintendent last summer with “engineering experience,” Chenier (pronounced Shen-ear) jumped at the chance.
Chenier didn’t have far to jump. He, his wife, Kerry and their 14-year-old son Jacob, live on Summer Street, a few blocks from City Hall. After commuting to Poughkeepsie for the better part of 14 years, Chenier was looking for something closer to home.
“I didn’t hear from them for awhile, but I kept calling and sending e-mails,” he said. “I was persistent.”
Chenier, the last of three finalists interviewed for the $85,476 year position, (with benefits worth almost $135,000), said he thought his sit-down with Mayor Steve Noble and department officials went well. Twenty minutes after the meeting he got a “surprise” phone call from Noble offering him the job. He will serve at the pleasure of the mayor, but has a contract that expires with Noble’s term on Dec. 31, 2019.
The committee liked the applicant’s civil engineering experience and his degree in environmental studies (similar to Noble’s) but expressed concern about his managing a large organization like the DPW after supervising only a small department of “a few people” as an assistant civil engineer. (Noble managed even fewer people in his former post as city environmental educator, an issue raised during his successful run for mayor in 2015.)
Noble cited Chenier for his “willingness to tackle large complicated issues and to increase the collection and use of data to ensure we are offering the best quality services to our community.”
Chenier said he found the department in good working order upon his arrival. He cited former superintendent Mike Schupp for keeping equipment up to date. “It doesn’t do us any good having our equipment in the shop under repair all the time,” he said.
It comes at a price. The big blue packers now familiar to Kingstonians cost upwards of $325,000 each.
An administrator who prefers a paper trail and spreadsheets, Chenier has ordered written reports on every complaint, to include work orders and outcomes.
Chenier also wants to bring predictability to the city’s street-paving program. With some 85 miles of paving, Kingston has one of the highest street-to-population ratios in the region. The last street paving plan dates to 2010, he said. “I don’t want potholes. I want our streets up to snuff,” he said. Plans are in place to evaluate the entire city street system this summer.
But it is Kingston’s collapsing subterranean infrastructure that keeps DPW superintendents — and mayors — up at night.
“My experience is one emergency leads to another and at premium prices,” he said. “We fix something and something else erupts down the street. We want to be proactive, to replace things before this stuff starts backing up into people’s houses.” He allows such a program could run into the millions.
Among Chenier’s other challenges is a union contract that expires for most workers at the end of this year.
He says the department is ready for winter even if anecdotal experience suggests “the superintendent usually gets hammered the first year.”
“It’s a 50-50 proposition,” he said. “Last year we really didn’t have a winter, but we’re prepared for the worst.”
Chenier’s twin passions are hiking and wrestling. He’s climbed all the tall Catskill peaks. A certified wrestling coach, he attends most of his son’s wrestling matches at Kingston High School and away matches and travels across the county for off-season tournaments.
Chenier hopes to stay in his present position for at least 15 years. “As they say in sports, I’d like to play out my career here,” he said.