Description of County Office
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Texas County Engineer
Today’s county judges and commissioners in Texas 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 advisors to provide guidance, such as attorneys, auditors, financial advisors and
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 and, of all your trusty professionals, you
may find yourself assigning and referring matters to the engineer more than the 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 system. 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. The county road department system is a method of county road
maintenance that has been available to Texas counties for many years. This system differs from the
customary precinct road commissioner system where each commissioner is responsible for the
maintenance of the roads within their 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.
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
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 waterY you name it! Counties, like everyone else, 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 cost, 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
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 their 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. They’ll also probably tell you
that they could not imagine running a county government without their trusty engineer.
Thomas Hornseth, Comal County Engineer