New Public Works Director Jennifer Caummisar-Kern discusses project and staffing goals
A major public agency has a new leader for the first time in more than a decade.
Mayor Craig Greenberg appointed Jennifer Caummisar-Kern as director of the Department of Public Works earlier this month. The Louisville native and graduate of the University of Louisville’s Speed School of Engineering takes over from Vanessa Burns, who had served in the role since December 2012.
Public Works is responsible for city infrastructure projects, roadway maintenance and waste and debris management. Salvador Melendez, a communications specialist for the department, said it has 455 people with about 25 unfilled positions.
The agency, which recently obtained a $21 million federal grant to use for road safety projects, has been dealing with a rise in local roadway fatalities over the past several years. A recent report by Vision Zero Louisville, a Public Works program, found that nearly a dozen strategies to address the issue weren’t finished last year.
Caummisar-Kern now oversees the department. She’s a professional engineer who has worked locally in the public and private sectors. Most recently, she worked with the city’s Metropolitan Sewer District and is also chair of the Floyd County Libertarian Party in Southern Indiana.
LPM News’ Jacob Munoz spoke with Caummisar-Kern about her past work and plans for the department. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You've previously worked both for the city of Louisville and private firms. Can you tell me a little bit about how your previous experiences in those roles inform your understanding of the state of local infrastructure?
I've had an opportunity to work on roadway designs, traffic signal designs for the public realm, and then also working with private development to deliver housing projects, commercial developments and those needs that the community wants.
Through that process, I've had the opportunity to work with different agencies and the partners that we have here, being our utilities, water company, [and Metropolitan Sewer District], and also hear from local community groups. So I think the biggest takeaway is that coordination and really listening to people and understanding their needs, that is what delivers a good project.
What are some of the main topics of concern you’ve been hearing from people either in the city or people within the city government?
We are having struggles getting projects [built]. We've got an amazing team of engineers and planners here, and they are tired of planning. And they would like to see things on the ground… It's this administrative holdup with projects. And that's something that I look forward to working to see if we can break through barriers as far as project delays when we're having to coordinate with the state, and then also with utilities.
Louisville is overrepresented in roadway deaths and injuries throughout the state. And that's something that I would like to see us work to overcome.
Also in the works, we hope to make it public soon, is the project dashboard. Keeping in line with the mayor's plan for transparency and increased public safety, that dashboard allows us to see all of our projects [and] where they are. It'll help us work with different groups and Metro Council to figure out what's the priority. If we're going to go after funding, what do you want to see first?
Are there other challenges facing the Public Works department right now?
Right now, as everyone knows, it's difficult to hire staff. And especially in a government organization, it's hard to be competitive without [competitive] pay. So that will be a challenge as we come into the [2024 fiscal year city budget] that we're looking at, is getting people in vacant spots, expanding staff where we can, where it's appropriate, to get the job done.
There was a recent report by Vision Zero Louisville that found that there were 10 roadway safety recommendations, for example, that hadn't been completed last year. What does it take for Public Works to go about addressing those kinds of projects?
We have amazing staff, and they go after grants and get [them], but that's only part of it. We have great plans, and now we have funding, but we also have to have the staff to be able to manage those projects. And we have asked for some additional spots within the budget to get some additional project managers to really be able to focus on moving those projects forward.
You're also the chair of the Libertarian Party in Floyd County. How do your political views play a part in informing your approach to this new role?
I don't bring politics to work. I don't talk about politics unless I'm asked. What I can tell you is why that party resonates with me. There are certain parts of their beliefs that helped me be who I am. So they are big fans of service. I love service… being responsible for using tax dollars that are given to the city. We're responsible to build the best infrastructure and provide the best services that we are able to. And that's a big responsibility. So as far as that goes, that's my belief.
As far as taxpayer dollars on the grant side… that's money that has already left the community, and it's our responsibility to go out and try to bring those dollars back, as best we can.