Half of the 20,000 people in rural Starke County, Ind., are very unhappy with Bob Ross these days, while the other half have decided he's the very model of a modern, middle-level bureaucrat. The reason: Bob Ross, the federal government's time zone czar, has decided that Starke County should remain on Central Standard Time.

This is no trivial question for Starke County, which for the past 12 years has been located on the dividing line between the Eastern and Central time zones--in local parlance "fast time" and "slow time." Many of the residents lead a schizophrenic existence, waking up on Central time but going to work for an employer who sets his clock by Eastern time or sending children to school in a neighboring county where everything starts an hour earlier.

So for many Starke County residents, Bob Ross was the man who controlled whether they woke up in the dark or the daylight, if their late night TV news was on at 10 or 11, if they'd have an extra hour of daylight when their work was done.

Once every 18 months or so, Ross, a 34-year-old assistant general counsel in the Department of Transportation, must play Solomon in an emotionally charged time-zone wrangle in a place like Starke. For just about that often, the local governing body of a county in one of the country's eight time zones formally requests that the department redraw its maps and put them in another zone. (The eight time zones stretch from Puerto Rico in the east to the Aleutian Islands; Alaska alone has three zones.)

"It's almost always a close issue," Ross said. "There has never been a time zone change that hasn't involved us in some local political dispute."

In five cases--counties in Nebraska, Kansas, Oregon and North and South Dakota--the department decided to draw the time line through the middle of a county, sometimes following a natural boundary like a river, and sometimes following school district lines.

In Indiana, things have been difficult for years. Until 1961, the whole state was in the Central zone. That year, the Interstate Commerce Commission, which handled time zone questions before DOT was created, drew a line through the middle of the state. But, as a DOT history of the issue notes, "the line was not generally observed . . . and each summer brought a crazy-quilt pattern of Daylight Savings Time observance."

In 1969 a new line was drawn, placing all the state except 12 western counties in the Eastern time zone. (One more has since been moved to the Eastern zone.) Now, thanks to actions by Congress and the state legislature, the eastern counties do not observe Daylight Savings Time, so during the summer months, all of Indiana works by one clock. But as of last weekend, the western counties are an hour behind their eastern neighbors.

For those people in Starke County who work for or do business with firms in the Eastern zone, it's a nuisance. Sixty-two-year-old Orville Nichols Jr., an attorney in the county seat of Knox and a Republican active in county politics, is one of those people. So last year he petitioned the county commission to ask DOT to redraw the line, and the commissioners followed through. "I just got fed up with driving six miles and being in another time zone," Nichols said.

Harold Walter, a life insurance salesman and a member of a local school board, agreed. "Ninety percent of my business is in the Eastern zone," Walter said. The high schools in his district play football and basketball with schools on fast time. "And many of our dealings are with the state school board in Indianapolis," which is on Eastern time.

But Walter also points out a more basic and subtle issue dividing the fast time advocates from their neighbors: the question of regional identification. "The big thing is unspoken," he said. "People like me feel they're Hoosiers, part of Indiana, and a lot of other people feel they're Illinoisans." (Walter, a native of Starke County, reads the South Bend Tribune and watches the television programs coming from South Bend stations in the Eastern zone.)

Not David P. Matsey, the commissioner of the District Court in the county seat of Knox. "I get the Chicago Tribune and we watch Chicago television stations," said Matsey, who became a spokesman for opponents of the change.

The community was almost evenly divided on the question. Two petitions were filed with DOT: 1,100 people said they favored fast time, and 900 wanted to stay on slow time. Opponents even collected signatures after worship services; one priest noted his preference for slow time during his Sunday announcements.

In the end, it was Matsey who gave DOT and Ross the crucial piece of evidence: 1970 statistics that showed that two-thirds of the 2,400 residents who worked outside the county traveled to jobs in the Central time zone. Last week, after taking several weeks out to handle the legal aspects of the air traffic controllers' strike, Ross gave Starke his decision: The county would stay on Central time.

"There was validity to arguments on both sides," said Ross, who presided over an emotional open hearing in Starke County in May, when some residents accused others of pressing for the change so they could play more golf after work. "It's really the proximity of the time zone line that creates the problems. And that's never going to change."