SUNDAY EDITION | Can Kentucky afford to have 120 counties?
However it fares, a proposal to reduce Kentucky's counties brings new attention to the state's county system and whether it is sustainable amid financial challenges and declining population in rural areas.
FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – Toby Herald pointed to the map of Kentucky behind his desk. It showed all of the state’s 120 counties and their population, including many with dwindling numbers of people.
“We have too many governments and counties for our tax base,” said Herald, a Republican House member from Lee County, population 6,580.
Seeking to reshape these longstanding boundaries, Herald has introduced a bill that would shrink the number of counties to 54, each composed of at least 50,000 residents.
Today, Kentucky has 101 counties with fewer than 50,000 people – with the smallest, Robertson County, containing only 2,155. That’s roughly the same size as the suburban city of Windy Hills in Jefferson County.
But the measure appears to face obstacles in this year’s legislative session, which is more than halfway over and still hasn’t addressed pension reform and a two-year budget. Herald said he was told his bill won’t receive a hearing in the House local government committee.
He concedes that officials in small counties aren’t likely to support any changes that would potentially drive them out of office. And representatives of powerful statewide groups, such as the Kentucky Association of Counties, say state law already allows counties to voluntary combine if they see fit.
The bill would allow some services, such as county health departments, water districts and other boards, to work with similar boards in a new county until members’ terms expire. Ultimately, it would replace redundant elected positions, including judge-executives, circuit court clerks and fiscal court members.
However it fares, Herald’s plan brings new attention to Kentucky’s county system – long a source of local pride and identity – and whether it is sustainable as the state faces financial challenges and declining population in rural areas.
Since 2010, 71 counties have lost population as a result of lagging birth rates and people moving away, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates analyzed by WDRB News. The state’s eastern areas were hardest hit, with most counties east of the Daniel Boone National Forest losing people.
“Every little rural county’s population is leaving,” Herald said. “… It’s going to get worse.”
Herald is perhaps an unlikely champion for county consolidation. His home, Lee County, has lost nearly 15 percent of its population since 2010 and would be combined with five other counties under the plan.
He said legislative analysts couldn’t assign an estimated cost savings for his bill, but he believes it would save the state at least $100 million a year – a figure he loosely bases on eliminating the salaries and benefits of elected county judge-executives and other officials and streamlining other costs, such as county audits.
Only two states – Georgia and Texas -- have more counties than Kentucky, but they have at least twice the statewide population.
Kentucky has more counties than any of its neighboring states. It averages about 37,120 people per county, fewer than only West Virginia’s 33,000.
Meanwhile, Ohio averages about 132,480 per county, while Indiana (72,465), Tennessee (70,700) and Virginia (89,160) all have more densely populated counties than Kentucky.
Only Rhode Island has a smaller mean county size than Kentucky’s 337 square miles, said Matt Ruther, a professor in the University of Louisville’s urban and public affairs department and director of the Kentucky State Data Center.
“Our counties are very small,” he said. “That is a positive in terms of consolidation because you won’t have these enormous areas that are hard to govern.”
More county population losses predicted
Kentucky began to see some “larger-scale” population loss between 2000 and 2010, particularly in southeastern parts of the state, and the declines have accelerated in recent years, Ruther said.
“I don’t see any evidence that will stop,” he said.
The state data center predicts that nearly two-thirds of Kentucky’s counties will lose population by 2040, with counties along the Interstate 64 and 65 corridors most likely to gain people.
The Louisville region already has four of the 10 fastest-growing counties in the state since 2010, according to Census estimates. Shelby, Oldham, Spencer and Bullitt counties each has seen population gains of at least 6 percent over that time.
But two counties – Trimble and Meade – have lost people. There were 8,620 residents of Trimble County in 2016, according to Census estimates, a 2 percent drop from 2010.
The decline doesn’t worry Colleen Sutton, who moved to the small city of Milton in 2015, taking over a bed-and-breakfast where she also hosts destination weddings.
Richwood on the River, her B&B, has booked wedding and weekend events for couples from across the Midwest, including Chicago, Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio, along with Louisville and Lexington, she said.
“I feel like we’re drawing enough people from outside the county that I don’t think that would directly influence me,” Sutton said. “From a personal standpoint of being a Trimble County resident, I would love to hear that there are reasons why people wanted to come and move to this area.”
Trimble would be combined with Henry, Carroll, Gallatin and Owen counties under Herald’s proposed House Bill 243. Elsewhere in the region, Spencer and Shelby would merge, as would Nelson and LaRue.
Southwest of Louisville, Meade, Breckinridge and Hancock counties would become one county. But combining them would likely increase the time for residents to take care of government business, said Meade County Magistrate Billy Sipes.
Sipes said Herald may mean well, but he’s concerned that the consolidation plan could have unintended consequences.
“They’re trying to cut costs, I’m sure,” he said. “But in the long run I think it’s going to be more of a burden.”
In Owsley County, which has lost nearly 6 percent of its population since 2010, Judge-Executive Cale Turner said combining his county with five nearby counties would add about 44 more square miles – making it equivalent to Pike County but with about half of the tax base.
Turner said he favors merging city and county governments as a way to better deliver services, but opposes county consolidation on the scale of Herald’s bill.
“There’s a strong argument to be made in favor of the combining,” he said. “But this is way, way overkill.”
The Kentucky Association of Counties will continue to advocate for “creating efficiencies” for county governments, said David Nicholson, the Jefferson County Circuit Court Clerk and president of the statewide group’s executive board.
He cited inter-local agreements as one example that lets counties combine resources for economic development, housing and other services.
In western Kentucky, for instance, Henderson, Webster and Union counties signed such an agreement in 2016, along with the city of Henderson, for a regional recycling program. The year before, officials in Bath, Fleming and Rowan counties agreed to support an animal shelter in Rowan County that would house dogs and cats from all three counties.
“We’re positioned very well with home rule,” Nicholson said. “And that’s the reason that we would not support the mandatory consolidation of counties, because home rule, it is in place and it is a voice for the citizens.”
To Herald, however, there are still too many counties. And consolidating them is one way to help ease a rural-urban divide.
Referring to his map, he noted the counties shaded in blue – those that have more than 50,000 people and are mostly in the “Golden Triangle” between Louisville, Lexington and northern Kentucky -- also represent the strongest economies in the state.
“The question is: When is Jefferson County, northern Kentucky going to quit sending their tax dollars to keep these little counties up?” Herald said. “They can’t sustain themselves.”