Oakes steps into Kwarsick's role for county

Last September, while the world was busy tilting off its axis, a new guy from Seattle quietly walked into the Island County Public Works Department to replace the retired Larry Kwarsick.

In the chaos of that month, public introductions were postponed, though not forgotten. It's never too late.

Ladies and gentleman: Bill Oakes.

A former Navy engineer in the U.S. nuclear submarine force who grew up in the coal-mining hills of western Pennsylvania, Oakes arrived with his family in Island County six months ago by way of Seattle, where he had served in King County's Road Services Department for a decade.

In the transition from big city to bucolic island, Oakes inherited an entire department, where he was once just a part of the Public Works machine. It used to be just roads -- granted, Seattle roads -- but now he's got a handle on the whole thing, from solid waste programs to the county's capital facilities budget.

"It's been a good transition," Oakes said last week. "The difference for me is just the wide variety of issues. It's a challenge, but also a reward."

Oakes takes Kwarsick's place after the former public works chief headed the department for eight years.

The operating budget for the public works department is one of the largest in the county -- $29.9 million, of which the roads and engineering division makes up the lion's share at $16 million. Along with solid waste and capital facilities, the rest is divied up among the county's surface water effort, paths and trails planning, and other non-motorized transportation (i.e. bike trails and such).

Oakes said one of the most noticeable differences between King County and his current work environment is in the area of efficiency and hard work. He estimated that one Island County employee does the work it would take three similar employees to do in King County. Multiply this number by 150, which is roughly the number of people working under Oakes.

"It's busy," he said of his responsibilities. "It's a lot, but I've got some great staff. The folks here are good."

Among the many projects Oakes has in the hopper are improvements to the transfer station at Coupeville (one of four such transfer stations in the county), current renovations of the courthouse, future construction of a county mental health facility, and land acquisition for the Cedars Trail in Langley.

As for roads, Oakes pointed out that improvements were recently completed on projects at East Camano, Glendale Road and Driftwood Way.

The county often catches heat for the amount of time and money it spends on repaving roads, with citizens complaining that the frequency of roadwork is simply a sump for public tax dollars. Oakes, however, said such frequency is "an enviable position" for a county to be in.

"Our road system is probably the best in the state, and I don't want to lose that on my watch," he said.

For Oakes, what may look like excess is in fact a form of prevention and economy.

"There's a point in a road's life that it sort of falls off a cliff, and then the cost to maintain it soars," Oakes added. "Once you fall off, you never catch up."

In light of the budget troubles currently confronting all of Island County government, Oakes said he takes the issue of fiscal responsibility throughout his entire department very seriously.

"Our challenges are laid out for us pretty clearly now," Oakes said. "We want to maintain the services we have with decreasing dollars. We have to get even more efficient at what we do."

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