As working-age people continue to leave rural Kentucky, causing the birth rate and population to shrink, the local tax base also shrinks — but not the number and cost of local governments.
This obvious inefficiency periodically receives a bit of attention from the legislature or some study commission.
Recently, the release of 2010 Census numbers, showing a population loss in most Eastern Kentucky counties, has reminded us of the drain on public resources from having too many counties, each with its own identical set of overhead expenses.
(Only three states — Texas, Georgia and Virginia — have more counties than Kentucky. In only two states — Virginia and Rhode Island — is the average size of counties in square miles smaller than here. Kentucky had the most counties per capita in 1994. We couldn't find a current study but doubt Kentucky has been surpassed on that dubious measure.)
Because the obvious solution to too many counties would require some elected officials and political bosses to give up all or part of their power bases, and because legislators are closely tied to local elected officials and political bosses, no one ever seriously expects anything to change.
If anything, the more the economic pie shrinks, the tighter those in control hold on to their crumbs.
In Harlan County, which lost 13 percent of its population in the 2000s, it has been a torturous struggle to create a water authority that would connect the water systems of nearby Cumberland, Benham and Lynch.
There's a powerful incentive for cooperation: a state grant from the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority.
Despite that and the obvious advantages from efficiencies of scale, it has been a challenge to reach an accord because some people are afraid of losing control and are suspicious of their neighbors.
The latest news, according to the Harlan Daily Enterprise, is that the cities have reached an agreement and the Tri-Cities Utilities Authority is moving forward.
That's a great development, especially if it can serve as a model for cooperation and other inter-governmental projects.
For one of America's most distinctive regions, Eastern Kentucky has an especially difficult time thinking and acting as a region or looking across county lines and seeing potential allies rather than rivals. (In this it's not unique; we could say much the same of Central Kentucky.)
The demise of the East Kentucky Corporation is a case in point. The Hazard-based economic development agency, created by the legislature in 1990, recruited 27 new companies with 4,130 jobs to 20 counties during its 13-year existence and raised more than $1 million in private funds for small-business loans.
But when then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher decided to end its state funding, there was barely a peep of protest from Eastern Kentucky legislators or local officials.
Because the agency had been scrupulously regional and non-political in its approach, it wasn't viewed as a political resource to parochial-minded politicians. Bereft of patrons, it went down without a fight.
Merging counties, or even merging county services, strains the imaginations of Kentucky politicians.
But imagination and radical change are probably the only way to turn the tide of decline in Eastern Kentucky.
The region's leaders should at least try to exercise their imaginations a little — for the sake of young people like Breathitt County High School valedictorian Emily Tackett, featured on Sunday's front page, who wants to live near her big, close family and raise a family of her own in a place she loves, but who already knows that, unless something changes, there's not much room for a bright young person's big dreams.