Herald-Leader Editorial

Less corruption would be just one benefit of fewer counties

April 9, 2014 

Pick any decade, any year, almost any month and there will be an investigation, indictment or at least a serious allegation against a county official in Kentucky.

These stories range from the absurd:

Jackson County, where the sheriff, who had been stripped of his budget, arrested the judge-executive without a warrant or an indictment at a fiscal court meeting, after calling the media. The judge-executive, whose management of county finances had been questioned by an audit, is now suing the sheriff over the incident.

... to the profoundly disturbing:

Clay County, where a long-running investigation resulted in the indictments and guilty pleas of more than a dozen public officials, including the county clerk, a circuit judge, an election commissioner, a precinct worker, a magistrate and the school superintendent. The charges included participating in a racketeering conspiracy to buy or steal votes.

Even more common are cases like that of former Owsley County Clerk Sid Gabbard, who was indicted last year for financial misdeeds. An audit turned up a deficit of $132,305 in his office in 2011.

Or, Bell County Clerk Rebecca Blevins, who was indicted by a grand jury in December on three counts of abuse of public trust and one count of possessing a forged title to a pickup truck. The case against her was dismissed, remarkably, when she agreed not to run for re-election.

Or, the issue of bookkeeping in Harlan County, which was so bad in 2012 that state auditors couldn't verify the county's financial statements. The audit reported one quarter in which the county's financial report was off from its bank statements by $3.9 million.

There are a lot of explanations for this tawdry list.

It could be chalked up to cultural legacy. There is ample evidence going back to Kentucky's earliest days of similar, and worse, violations of the public trust.

It could be attributed to the fact that officeholders are human, and thus prone to frailties like lying and stealing.

Certainly, though, one reason we have so much corruption and incompetence in county government in Kentucky is because, with 120 counties, we simply have too much county government.

Counties were formed for logical reasons in some cases but all too often they were carved out to create a power base for a local politician or to enhance land values by making an outpost into a county seat.

No wonder that reformers have called for reducing the number of counties in Kentucky since not long after the Civil War.

Those proposing to reduce the number of counties often focus on the savings. A 1931 proposal to merge 120 counties into 20 counties estimated a savings of 84 percent on personnel costs. They also note the obvious advantage of larger counties in terms of planning land use, transportation systems, economic development and other government functions that require long-term, big- picture thinking and action.

There's another reason: better government.

It's no coincidence that historian Robert M. Ireland chose Little Kingdoms for the title of his book on Kentucky's counties. "Little" is the right word. In the 2010 census, dozens had fewer than 20,000 inhabitants, and many fewer than 10,000; one, Robertson County, had only 2,282.

"Kingdom" is the right word, too. Control over the jobs and other resources of county government is too often used to consolidate power rather than serve the population. Even if honesty weren't an issue, professionalism would be. A county with such a tiny tax base will have trouble hiring professionals to manage finances and perform other technical functions of good government.

Because 120 counties create 120 power bases, reform efforts have generally gone almost nowhere.

That said, every story of a corrupt or incompetent county official — and there will be more — should be a reminder that Kentucky has too many counties.

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