Transportation Cabinet employees unhappy about impending highway district reorganizations, but local officials will be really ticked off
Employees in the Transportation Cabinet's 12 highway district offices are unhappy about a reorganization plan that takes effect next week. But their anger is nothing compared to what will no doubt be coming down the pike once legislators and local officials get wind of the changes that are going into effect.
Currently, there are five engineering branches -- planning, pre-construction (design, right of way purchase and utility relocation), maintenance, traffic management (signing, striping/pavement marking, issuance of permits for right of way encroachment) and construction (contract management and inspection of projects done by contractors) -- within each of the 12 highway districts.
The reorganization plan, which goes into effect on June 15, consolidates construction and maintenance functions and cuts the number of engineering branches in each district from five to four. All current branch managers must reapply for their positions and those jobs are also open to anyone who meets the criteria. This means that co-workers are going to be in competition with each other for their jobs, and also subordinates who are qualified. With five branch managers and four branches under the new plan, there will be one odd man (or woman) out in each district. This is a recipe for hurt feelings, wounded morale, and a raft of new Personnel Board complaints filed by the unsuccessful applicants.
Besides merging construction and maintenance functions, the new plan basically does away with planning as a separate branch and folds it into pre-construction. Some of the other functions are taken from maintenance and construction and thrown into a "catch-all" branch.
These are internal changes, of concern mainly to the affected employees, and many of them are already unhappy over what's in store. Making the existing branch managers sing for their supper hasn't gone over too well in many of the 12 district offices, our sources in Transportation tell us. Some employees have threatened to contact a lawyer and file a complaint at the least provocation. Some of these were ardent Steve Beshear supporters in last year's gubernatorial election but have now sworn off any future support for him.
However, there are external changes that will be noticeable to the general public, and these are sure to spark outrage from local officials when the full details of what's coming are made known.
In each district there will be two branches for "project delivery and preservation," which is a fancy way of saying "construction and maintenance." The counties in each district will be split roughly in two, with half going to each project delivery and preservation branch. Within each branch, the counties will be further split into two sections. And that's where the fun begins.
While there will continue to be one or more garages in each county, called a unit within the new organizational structure, the sections will in essence be one huge multi-county crew. What this means is that basically, there will be no county crew anymore. If officials want, they can take half the members of one crew ("unit") and assign them to another county for a few days.
Kentuckians are territorial about their counties. And if they begin to perceive that the state highway maintenance needs in their county are being ignored because their workers are having to do things in other counties, they won't stand for it.
There's been no media coverage on this impending change, and to our knowledge local officials (county judges and mayors) have not been informed of what's new, and neither have the legislators.
Those with long memories may recall when Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. closed a few state highway garages in certain counties. It was a very unpopular move and it didn't take Brown's successor, Martha Layne Collins, to reopen the closed garages. This move to consolidate county crews is reminiscent of that, and many longtime Highway Department employees are predicting similar results with this upcoming reorganization.
It should also be noted that under the planned reorganization, the post of administrative branch manager is being eliminated. This person is in charge of purchasing, payroll, personnel and bill payment functions and the administrative managers (all merit employees) have traditionally been yellow-dog Democrats who played and perfected patronage hiring games for years. (We know of one former administrative manager who spoke in code, saying applicants had to be "the right religion" to be considered for a job in his district). Several of the districts have vacancies in this position, since the Fletcher administration chose not to fill those administrative manager positions that came open during Fletcher's four-year term. Some of these duties will fall under the supervision of a new non-merit "administrative coordinator" while others will be the responsibility of employees under the direct supervision of the chief district engineer.
We don't know how well these administrative changes will go over, especially the changes in the engineering areas. But we don't think that local constituencies and officials will be happy about the changes to the county crews, especially when they can't get pothole-ridden roads in their own counties fixed because half the workers are in an adjacent county helping pull ditchlines.