Monday, January 29, 2001

Ky. Legislator to urge counties to consolidate


But tradition, partisanship likely to be major obstacles

By Mark R. Chellgren
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — An extremely modest effort by the General Assembly to encourage some of Kentucky's 120 counties to consolidate died last year under the weight of provincialism and partisanship. Rep. Charles Geveden, D-Wickliffe, is back this year with an even more diffident undertaking.

        Though it could have better luck in the General Assembly, history and politics weigh against any likelihood of fewer counties in the foreseeable future.
       

Money stripped
               Mr. Geveden started out with a plan last year that would let voters in counties decide independently whether they wanted to merge. Both counties would have to agree, thereby preventing the kind of big-fish-eats-little-fish scare tactic that opponents have long used. If the marriage went through, the newly merged government would be eligible for up to $5 million in state incentives and get extra points in the scoring system for some additional federal grants.

        The plan passed the House but, in keeping with the fish analogy, was gutted in the Senate.

        Even though the money would only have been needed in the unlikely event of a of a of a merger and would have been available only if there was a surplus, Senate Republicans took all the money out.

        “When you take away the carrot, when you take away the money, you take away any real incentive for counties to look at merger,” Mr. Geveden said at the time.
       

Simpler plan
               Mr. Geveden's proposal already before the House this year has no mention of financial incentives, only the simplified petition and referendum process for consolidation.

        “If we get in this time, and maybe get the funding in '02 or '04 or sometime, the pot of gold will be out there for those who wish to do it,” Mr. Geveden said in an interview last week.

        Even if there was a vote for merger, Mr. Geveden's plan would delay any actual merging until after the terms of the incumbent officeholders expired, a scheme designed to lessen some of the opposition.
       

Barriers to mergers
               Even harsh fiscal reality may have a hard time overcoming tradition and political protectionism when it comes to county consolidation.

        Historian Robert M. Ireland writes in the Kentucky Encyclopedia that the original reason for having so many counties — so residents were within a day's buggy ride of the county seat — became corrupted.

        Residents who became disenchanted with the politics of one county could simply petition the legislature to create another. Also, “the value of a farmer's land would be greatly enhanced if it became the site of the seat of a new county,” Mr. Ireland said.
       

Counties proliferate
               Some of the reasons for new counties that might have seemed reasonable at the time are now little more than historical anachronisms. When residents of the southern end of Ballard County found they could not cross Mayfield Creek during times of high water, they successfully petitioned for the creation of Carlisle County in 1886. The counties now have a combined population of about 14,000 and courthouses in Bardwell and Wickliffe that are about eight miles apart.

        Kentucky started out with only three counties in 1780 when it was still a part of Virginia. By 1792, the year of statehood, the number had grown to 16. There were 42 counties by 1800.

        Kentucky's number of counties is the third-highest total among all the states. The last county was formed in 1912 when pieces of Pulaski, Wayne and Whitley counties were carved out to create McCreary County.

        On average, only Rhode Island has smaller counties than Kentucky. Only Georgia and Texas have more counties than Kentucky. Even some of Kentucky's small counties are tiny by comparison. The average size is 335 square miles, but Robertson County encompasses only 100 square miles.
       

No eliminations
               Actually, while the legislature has the power to create counties, it can also eliminate them. That hasn't happened.

        Rockcastle County Judge-executive George Carlos Carloftis said small counties benefit the people.

       



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