Keeping St. James Parish running smoothly

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 3, 2000

DANIEL TYLER GOODEN / L’Observateur / June 3, 2000

CONVENT – General house and yard maintenance can sometimes be quite a chore. Many, many weekends have been eaten into by cutting the grass anddoing some simple repairs that often turn out to be not that simple.

Just imagine if your yard was the whole parish. That’s quite a lot ofmaintenance.

Whether you’ve noticed or not, the St. James Parish Department ofOperations is seemingly around every corner, often even in the middle of the night. From cutting grass to demolishing buildings, 110 parish employeesmake up the team that keeps the parish running, looking and growing smoothly. Coordinating this enormous task is Jody Chenier, director ofOperations.

From South Vacherie, Chenier became involved with parish operations as soon as he received his engineering technology degree from Nicholls State University in 1985. Hired on as a parish engineer, he began working for theparish. By 1992 Chenier was the director of Emergency Preparedness, and in1993 he became director of Operations.

“This is a very rewarding job. You can really make a difference in the parish,said Chenier. “One or two decisions can change history and help people.That’s what it comes down to.”Chenier must enjoy his work. Not many people can handle the difficulties ofwork lasting anywhere between 10 to 16 hours a day. Also on-call 24 hours aday, he must thrive on his duties. In conversation he seems as relaxed and atease as can be. Don’t doubt though that the operations department is on theball.

Averaging 1,700 to 1,800 work orders a year, the department stays very busy. Some orders only take a few hours; others may take a few weeks, saidChenier.

“Some people we’ve hired on tell use they never imagined we did so much.

That’s quite a compliment for us,” he added.

Over the last few years the department has worked to become much more efficient in its work, equipment and personnel.

“We’ve streamlined operations. There’s a lot more to do now than wasrequired in the past, so they ask more of the employees,” he said.

With that in mind the parish strives to hire more skilled operators and workers at higher pay rates.

And gone are the old army surplus equipment purchases.

“We often had the best operators but not the best equipment,” said Chenier.

“If we buy brand new equipment it lasts longer and the operators are proud to run them.”It’s amazing to see what they can do with the proper equipment, he added.

Nowadays a lot of their work stays in house. Engineering consulting used tomake up a lot of expenditures, but with higher skilled employees the parish has been able to do that work itself.

Also looking to make the department more efficient, they’ve moved away from long-term loans and expenditures.

“I don’t believe in long-term debts. It’s a way of life and business,” saidChenier.

Setting money aside every year, operations pays in cash for projects as often as it can. The new library being designed for Vacherie will soon be anexample of that policy.

Another large project operations has been working on is the Vacherie Bywater project. Hurricane Juan left standing water in St. James Parish forweeks.

“Yards were under water for weeks; everything was rotting. We knew wecould do better,” said Chenier.

The bywater project will use levees and gates to help keep water from entering the parish from Lake Des Allemands yet not stop natural drainage.

One of the last parishes with open drainage systems to allow water to freely leave the parish, Chenier hopes to allow that to continue. Watching all theother parishes expand in population, it’s easy to see how difficult flooding can be while trying to build new residential areas. If the bywater project isthe success that it’s expected to be, they hope to be able to expand the system to other parts of the parish, said Chenier. Preparing for its owneventual population boom, the parish will be able to better control normal and flood-level water drainage.

All of this work, minor maintenance to major projects, is why Chenier enjoys his job so much. The work that needs to be done often “may not seemimportant to you but is very important to them,” said Chenier.

Trying to focus on immediate needs, he gladly will help one person even if it’s not what the majority of citizens need. In operations, helping one person is asimportant as helping everyone. That personal attention is where Cheniermakes the difference in his parish.

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