Thurston County’s new public works director wants efficiencies, more transparency

After two weeks on the job, Ramiro Chavez said he already feels at home in his new role as director of Thurston County Public Works.

Perhaps that’s because he’s already very familiar with the area and its issues. He and his wife, Kathy, have lived in the Olympia area for 26 years.

Chavez worked for Pierce County Public Works and Utilities Department in Tacoma for 23 years, including serving as director of its transportation division for the past 11. He said he’s looking forward “to being part of the community I live in, and to be part of the team that’s going to make a difference in the community I live in.”

Chavez grew up in South America. While pursuing a degree in architecture at Central University of Ecuador in Quito, Ecuador, he met the woman who would later become his wife.

“She was vacationing, and she was born and raised in Olympia,” Chavez said.

They’ve been married for 26 years, and have two sons, ages 19 and 22, who are in college. She works in the office at McKenny Elementary School in Olympia.

Chavez replaced Donavan Willcut, who retired in August, and he reports to county manager Cliff Moore. The Public Works department includes eight divisionsm including transportation, road operations and solid waste. It’s one of the county’s largest departments, with 165 full-time employees and an annual budget of about $62 million.

Thurston County Commission chairwoman Karen Valenzuela said Chavez’s background is a good fit for the department.

“In addition to his long experience in the field, he also brings familiarity with management of personnel, budgets and administration of state and federal grants, which are important skills for this position,” Valenzuela said in a news release.

While in Pierce County, Chavez oversaw a staff of about 50 workers under six different sections, including engineers, wetland biologists and right-of-way agents.

He said Pierce and Thurston “share the same challenges and objectives.”

“They face a lot more traffic — there’s a lot more congestion,” Chavez said.

He said he believes that the key to his position is to examine the department’s “people, process and tools.”

As for top priorities, Chavez said the county maintains about 1,100 miles of roadways and bridges, and its infrastructure is aging and due for some major upgrades. He said he hasn’t had a chance to get very familiar with his department’s budget, but he knows the general theme for the next funding cycle.

“The need is increasing, and the revenue is shrinking. ..,” he said. “Certainly I believe in the short and longer terms, there’s some opportunity to find efficiencies in the programs.”

Chavez said he wants to create an annual report for his department so that residents can get a better sense of Public Works projects, and why they’re doing the work that they do.

“I’m looking forward to being more transparent in the business we do,” he said. “That is very important to me.”