County Focus Series
Years ago, County Progress published a special series of articles to help acclimate new officials to Commissioners Court: County Focus. This set of descriptive writings authored by experts in the field covers the varied offices and departments that make up county government. What are the responsibilities of the Commissioners Court? How about the county treasurer? Who is in charge of emergency management? What job functions are assigned to the county clerk? We’ve got the answers in this comprehensive set of articles.
In our latest readership survey, we were asked to publish this series once again. We updated each article as necessary and launched County Focus in March with the County Judge and the County Commissioner. April included the justice of the peace and the county court at law, and May featured the tax assessor-collector. In June, we covered the county treasurer and the auditor. This month, we will address the county road administrator and the county engineer. Our August issue will feature the county purchasing agent.
Today’s County Judges and Commissioners are routinely faced with difficult decisions involving contracts, bond issues, personnel disputes, lawsuits, land development, regulations and many other complex matters. To deal with these issues, a Commissioners Court typically relies on several professional advisers to provide guidance, such as attorneys, auditors, financial advisers and engineers.
More specifically, it seems like the majority of today’s urgent priorities deal with land development pressures, traffic congestion, water shortages, water rights, flooding, landfills, air pollution, wastewater, road improvements, mapping, building construction, surveying, land acquisition and on and on. These are all areas where an engineer can help; of all your trusty professionals, you may find yourself assigning and referring matters to the engineer more than others.
Engineers are trained for this type of work. They can design, estimate, construct, organize and communicate in today’s world of complex regulations and technical policies. Engineers usually also have good communication and administration skills.
County engineers, as appointed officials, have been around for a long time. Traditionally, there have been two functions for an engineer in the administration of county government. The first function is the operation and administration of a county’s road department. The second, a more recent trend, is to head the administration of a county’s development regulations, such as on-site sewage facility permitting, subdivision regulations, flood plain regulations and addressing. Some counties even place greater responsibilities on their county engineer.
In most counties, however, the primary function of a county engineer is to administer the County Road Department System, a method of county road maintenance that has been available to Texas counties for many years. This system differs from the customary precinct system where each Commissioner is responsible for the maintenance of the roads within his or her own precinct.
The County Road Department System, which is established through a countywide election, creates a single, centralized county road maintenance department. The control of this department is placed under a county engineer, a Texas-registered professional engineer, who is appointed by the Commissioners Court. If a county cannot for good reason hire an engineer, the law allows the county to appoint a county road administrator who has had experience in road building or maintenance or other types of construction work.
In the beginning, the county engineer merges the separate precinct maintenance operations together, and over time the entire county road system functions as a single unit. It can initially be difficult for County Commissioners to transfer the management of their individual precinct road departments to an appointed official; however, most counties that have made the transition experience cost savings and increased efficiency through centralized equipment and manpower.
Additionally, the county’s road maintenance activities are focused on actual need, instead of trying to equally spread the resources evenly in each precinct. With all of the road department resources under one administrator, the department also functions better during emergencies and disasters. Another benefit is that personnel issues are also consistently managed throughout the county.
For counties that are not interested in the County Road Department System, there are still many important reasons to consider a county engineer. These days, it seems like counties have to get permits and special permission from numerous state and federal regulatory agencies every time they turn around.
These agencies regulate things like stormwater runoff, fuel storage tanks, wastewater permits, employee drug testing, endangered species, drinking water…you name it! Counties, like other entities, are required to comply with these regulations. Failure to comply can lead to expensive and embarrassing penalties. A county engineer can be given the task of coordinating and processing these tedious matters.
Most counties in Texas regulate subdivision activity; put your county engineer in charge of that operation. Your engineer can review the plats, examine the engineering plans for roads, drainage and utilities, and inspect road construction.
Developers and contractors are constantly trying to reduce their costs, and unfortunately it’s usually at the expense of the county and their taxpayers. Closely monitoring subdivision developers, consulting engineers and contractors is well worth the effort to ensure proper road design and construction.
Today’s construction techniques and testing methods can be technically challenging. Your engineer will be able to comprehend these matters. By forcing the developer to adequately design and properly construct roads, the county places the cost burden on the new development instead of the existing county taxpayers.
Almost every county in Texas regulates on-site sewage facilities. Go ahead and let the engineer handle that, as well. Many of today’s septic systems are designed by engineers and can be quite complicated. In addition, the state regulations controlling these systems place a considerable responsibility on Texas counties. Counties are required to certify all of the on-site sewage facility employees and must keep careful records of the permitting approval and inspection processes. Additionally, the relatively new aerobic systems require ongoing reporting, and counties are required to maintain these reports and enforce delinquent permit holders.
The administration of the county’s flood plain regulations is a natural fit for the county engineer. As counties continue to develop, more and more pressure is placed on the regulatory flood plains. Developers prepare complex plans to reclaim flood plain land and then submit these plans to the county for review and approval.
Without a knowledgeable person reviewing these plans, counties are left at the mercy of the developer. Flood plain mapping and FEMA map revising often involve voluminous engineering calculations and studies. Counties need a competent person to review and approve these studies in order to protect the existing county residents for unexpected adverse impacts.
Every Texas County Commissioners Court should periodically review the need to employ a full-time county engineer. Although these professionals can require considerable compensation, most counties will find that the benefit of having an engineering professional on their staff greatly exceeds the cost.
Ask a few County Judges or Commissioners who have a county engineer. They will probably tell you that their county has a well-run road department, an organized administration for enforcement of county regulations, and is in compliance with all state and federal regulations.
– By Thomas H. Hornseth, P.E., Comal County Engineer
County Road Administrator
When it comes to operating county roads, Texas’ 254 counties choose between two general systems, commonly referred to as the precinct system and the unit system; technically speaking, Chapters 251 and 252 of the Texas Transportation Code divides these systems into five categories:
- Road Supervisor System – Chapter 251.004 (precinct)
- Ex Officio Road Commissioner System – Chapter 252.001 (precinct)
- Road Commissioner System – Chapter 252.101 (unit)
- Road Superintendent System – Chapter 252.201 (unit)
- County Road Department System – County Engineer or Road Administrator – Chapter 252.301 (unit)
Under the precinct system, the County Commissioner is responsible for the supervision of the road and bridge crew in his or her precinct. The unit system, which is established through a countywide election, creates a single, centralized county road maintenance department where roads are primarily managed by employees other than the County Commissioners.
When entering into a countywide unit system versus the precinct system, a county may realize many benefits. First, consolidating four road and bridge offices into one central office will most likely reduce maintenance costs and utilities, and the county may experience a possible reduction in personnel. Second, consolidating four separate road crews into one will likely result in the pooling of equipment and vehicles, allowing the county to keep the best equipment and auction off the remaining. Third, the county will have one maintenance facility instead of four.
Chapter 252 of the Transportation Code allows counties to appoint a county engineer or a county road administrator who has had experience in road building or maintenance or other types of construction work. The administrator is appointed by the Commissioners Court for an indefinite term and is required to perform the same duties as a county engineer.
The county road department is under the direct supervision of the county road administrator. The administrator is responsible for the construction and maintenance of all county roads and bridges, with the Commissioners Court as the governing body. He or she is required to attend all Commissioners Court meetings with the right to participate in discussions and make recommendations pertaining to the county road department.
The administrator prepares estimates and specifications for all road construction and maintenance, equipment, supplies and labor, and is also responsible for preparing a detailed budget for the road department. The administrator maintains accounting costs and expenditure records of all vehicles, equipment and supplies belonging to the county, and supervises road department personnel, plus any other duties the Commissioners Court may require.
It is important for the road administrator to have a positive relationship with the Commissioners Court. Open communication with the Commissioners Court during the planning of long-range goals and special projects is beneficial to keeping the court informed of the road department’s objectives. During the budget process, with operation and maintenance, vehicle, equipment and fuel costs in an upward trend, presenting a well-planned budget to an informed court is necessary in achieving the needs of the road department.
Public relations play a very important role in county government. The county road department is a highly visible department in which citizens of the county see where a portion of their tax dollars is used. Our employees, our equipment and the work we do all portray an image of our county. The position of the county road administrator and his or her relationship to the Commissioners Court and the public is a key factor to a well-managed department.
Dealing with the public at times can be testing because in every county there are those few whom no one can please; however, we still try to be still, be silent and observe, and then reply with courtesy. The rewards are many. To the person who has been a lifelong resident of the county, or to the visitor just passing through, be helpful, courteous and kind. A county’s image is no better than its employees portray.
The county road department under the supervision of a county road administrator is a very integral part of county government. It is our duty to enhance our Commissioners Court and provide a higher quality work for the most economical cost for all citizens of the county.
– By Wayne Everett, former Road Administrator, Uvalde County Road Department