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We Have Way Too Many Counties in America. Or Do We?

Counties range in size from thousands of residents to millions, with varied levels of responsibility and efficiency. Some advocate shrinking the number of them, but that raises questions both practical and sentimental.

A large building in a rural area.
Lyman County Courthouse, Kennebec, South Dakota (Tom Grier/Flickr)
If you know anybody from a small town in the rural Midwest, there’s a good chance you’ve heard them say they grew up in the middle of a cornfield or a wheatfield. It almost always turns out to be an exaggeration. They just mean that they were raised in a place where corn or wheat was the linchpin of local life.

At least, that’s what I thought until I came upon Kennebec, S.D. Kennebec really is in the middle of a wheatfield. Its one dusty street is surrounded by oceans of grain in every direction. The street does have some commercial activity, most notably the aptly named Prairie Dust Bar, whose café proudly features the local specialty, chislic — cubes of mutton or venison (or sometimes beef or lamb) deep fried and generously salted, served with crackers and hot sauce and eaten with toothpicks. I’ve never tasted it; that’s my loss.

But it’s not the café that makes Kennebec such a striking place. It’s the courthouse at the end of the street, a stately and impressive three-story edifice of cream-colored stone and buff-colored brick built in 1926. It seems to watch over the tiny settlement of 241 people, but what’s really interesting is that it serves a county whose total population is 3,735.

The courthouse has a handsome courtroom, and it has offices for the remarkable number of officials the county maintains, given its size. There’s an auditor, a treasurer, five elected county commissioners and a register of deeds, among others. I wondered how many deeds the register actually gets to register, although there are some other record-keeping duties that go with the job. The 29 employees of Lyman County are decently paid: The median salary in 2018 was $36,880. The register of deeds was paid $41,600.

It’s a lot of government for a small place, but Lyman County isn’t that unusual for the rural Midwest or the South. Both regions are packed with county governments that serve very small numbers of people. There are hundreds of them. It’s natural to argue, as many do, that they aren’t necessary.

The 2020 census revealed, among its least-discussed findings, that among the 3,143 counties in the United States, 53 percent had lost population in the previous decade. In the vast majority of cases, there weren’t dramatic declines, just the continuation of a trend that has been happening steadily for more than a century. Lyman County fits in this category. It reached its peak population in 1910, when it recorded 10,848 residents. It has lost people in every decade since then. It isn’t many each time, but by now there aren’t that many people left to lose.

Counties are emptying out in states with large numbers of them, and in states with very few. New Hampshire has just 10 counties, but only the ones within commuting distance of Boston managed to gain population in the past decade. Oklahoma has 77 counties, and two-thirds of them shrunk in population.

Georgia beats all of them in a way. It has 159 counties, a remarkable number for a medium-sized state. When most of them were created in the 19th century, the state Legislature wanted them arranged so farmers could get to the county seat and back in a single day. That’s not much of a problem anymore. It also gave counties disproportionate influence in casting the votes that determined statewide elections, but that system was abolished in the 1960s. Still, nearly all the counties continue to exist, including Taliaferro County in east central Georgia, whose 1,559 residents make it less than half the size of Lyman. It might make sense to consolidate many of the small counties in Georgia and across America, but that isn’t going to happen. Nor is it likely in the bigger urban counties, which endure many governmental problems of a very different kind.

AT THE OTHER END OF THE POPULATION SPECTRUM from Lyman and Taliaferro counties is Los Angeles County, which currently numbers 10 million residents and grew by 2 percent over the past decade. If sheer size led to improved efficiency or public performance, it would be running smoothly, but that theory doesn’t really work either. Five county supervisors, each representing two million people, exercise a disproportionate control over local governmental affairs, dwarfing the power of the Los Angeles City Council and frequently even the city’s mayors, who are severely limited in their roster of powers. Most of America’s counties would derive some benefit from being larger; it’s easy to make the case that L.A. County ought to be much smaller, or just broken up.

One might make the same argument about America’s second most populous county, Cook County in Illinois, which is home not only to Chicago’s nearly 3 million residents but also to more than 2 million suburbanites. L.A. County is, it can fairly be said, too powerful; Cook County is the opposite — a political backwater that has long played second fiddle to the Chicago city government that has its headquarters in the same downtown building. The fact that the building is universally known as City Hall tells you something: County government is an afterthought in Chicago; it is a credible rival only in the extent of the political corruption that has plagued both entities since time immemorial.

There are actually cases where a big-city government has been known for efficiency while the government in the county that surrounds it was known for inefficiency and waste. That was long the case in Phoenix and surrounding Maricopa County. In recent years the county has cleaned up its act to a significant degree, but the legacy of two adjoining governments, one effective and the other hopeless, remains a part of Phoenix culture to this day.

The fact is that county governments have a spotty reputation just about everywhere in the country. This is partly due to the county highway departments that for the past century have wielded largely unaccountable political power. Fairly often, this power is brought to public attention by scandal, as happened in Oklahoma in the 1980s, when 120 county commissioners in the state were charged with bribery in the purchase of road-building and repair equipment.

CORRUPTION THAT BAD doesn’t come to light very often anywhere in the country, but when it does it invariably renews the recurring question of why we need so many counties in the first place. Why would Oklahoma, which has less than 4 million people, need to have 77 of them?

The inefficiencies and transgressions attributed to counties of all sizes have led to frequent arguments that we should simply shrink the number of them, consolidating them with others or transferring some of their functions to another level of government. Mostly it’s just theorizing, but in the 1950s and 1960s three New England states went for the nuclear option, essentially eliminating county government altogether. Massachusetts’ counties no longer do much except for a few that conduct limited law enforcement and register deeds, and Connecticut and Rhode Island have no county government at all — their former counties merely serve as geographical boundaries. It’s not hard to demonstrate that these states saved money by doing this. Whether they also took away a significant part of their public culture is another question altogether.

The larger reality is that most of the counties in America, small ones and large ones alike, operate under the burden of a structural problem much deeper than the propensity to mischief that exists in some of the county commissions and their highway departments. Those counties are stuck with the messiest and most difficult problems in American local government: They run prisons and mental institutions, hospitals and welfare offices. It isn’t easy being a mayor of a large city these days, but most likely you won’t have to deal with scandalous conditions in the public hospital. You can spend much of your time pursuing corporations and trying to create jobs.

I don’t think there are many mayors in America who would trade places with county commissioners or even county executives. It would mean taking on too much of the dirty work. We need counties for those jobs, even if they run off the rails fairly often.

In the smaller counties, even ones as small as Lyman County, there’s something else that’s important. They may not have a long list of responsibilities, but they have been and still are the repository of emotion and memory for people who live there. In most southern counties, it’s the courthouse square that served for generations as the focal point of social life; in small midwestern counties like Lyman, it’s the courthouse itself that allows citizens to feel that they live in a place with stature and dignity, even if it keeps losing population with every decennial census.

Those attachments are worth a lot. I think they’re worth putting up with a certain amount of waste and duplication — perhaps even an occasional commissioner who gets caught with his hand in the till.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at ehrenhalt@yahoo.com.
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