Searching for cost savings, officials at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet are considering the combination of Bell and Harlan counties into the same engineer service area with one office to serve both counties.
State engineers are responsible for overseeing and inspecting new road work.
It has not been decided where the consolidated office would be located if the two are combined, said Mike Goins, director of the cabinet's office of public affairs.
The new office "could just as well be in Harlan County as well as Bell," Goins said.
Other options include locating engineers closest to the biggest projects.
Goins said the state is looking for ways to cut costs without cutting jobs; no jobs, he said, will be lost as a result of the possible consolidation of offices.
In the 1970s, Harlan County had three of the offices, said James Daniels, who worked at the Harlan County engineers office for more than 30 years before retiring in August.
If the consolidation happens, the two counties will have to share their engineers. That will save money, said Goins, because "less staff can be used to do the same job, allowing us to use other staff in areas where we have more immediate needs throughout the district."
While Goins stresses that nothing has been decided, locals are already worried about the impact of such a move, saying Harlan County has plenty of road-work needs to occupy all nine of the engineers at the local office.
"We always need road work done," said Daniels. "If they're serious about wanting to do the work, they need those people here."
He said even if the consolidation saves the state money, it might cost the Harlan Countians who work for the office more in gas money driving to and from work if the office is moved to Bell County.
Some are concerned that the move would mean Harlan County is less of a priority for new roads.
But Goins said there is no connection between the location of the engineers office and whether new road needs will be met because projects are approved by the legislature and governor; the engineers only follow through.
Bruce Ayers, president of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, said if the combination of offices goes forward, he's concerned Harlan County won't get the attention it needs.
"In most instances where there is consolidation, services are cut back to the consolidated area," Ayers said. "One can only hope they would keep some folks stationed in and around Harlan County."
Harlan County Judge-Executive Joe Grieshop said having engineers close at hand helps the county because the engineers know the roads and their problems first-hand.
"We talk to engineers at least several times a week," Grieshop said. "If those engineers do not have an understanding of what those issues are in that road we're talking about in that exact spot, it's more difficult to make a decision about what to do about the issue."
He said he hopes the county's roads stay a priority because the traffic of coal and logging trucks create special needs.
"Harlan County needs to get its voice heard in this process so we can be given proper attention and compete fairly with surrounding areas that may be vying for these same engineers," Grieshop said.
The idea of combining the offices comes along with a host of cost-saving measures in the state road department, including the tighter control of change orders, reduction in overtime, staff reductions through retirement, reduction of unneeded travel and reduction of purchase of unneeded equipment, Goins said.
"The bottom line is, when the governor came in, he directed all of state government to become more efficient and save money, as well as provide same level of services," Goins said.
That directive, he said, is the cabinet's "main motivation" for considering consolidation.
Cost-cutting so far has saved the transportation cabinet $74.5 million.
That money is in high demand; the new, as-yet-unapproved, six-year plan for state road projects is stuffed with $1.5 billion worth of needs. Only $460 million of funding is expected for 2005-2010.
Goins estimates that it will take 10 to 12 years to actually fund all of road commitments already made by the state.
For Harlan County, the cabinet is asking state lawmakers for only $10 million in the new road-project plan.
The money would go toward extending U.S. 421 work to the Virginia state line.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the portions of U.S. 421 that are almost done is scheduled for Jan. 9.