Last week, after months of struggles, the General Assembly finally passed a budget. Shortfalls and deficits have been common over the last few years in Kentucky, as they have been around the country. These shortfalls are the product of a changing economy, and they require that states evaluate every possibility for limiting or reducing the size and cost of government.
It is beyond time to consider all options when evaluating ways to shrink government.
One possibility that should be considered, if not now then in the future, is to reduce the number of counties. There are 120 counties in Kentucky. Only two states, Texas, and Georgia, have more. Virginia has 95 counties and 39 independent cities which are considered county equivalents.
The average number of counties for all states is just over 60, and the average for states of Kentucky's size and population is about 40.
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Reducing the number of counties from 120 to 60 would produce significant savings, and cutting to 40 would save even more. Each county has at least three constitutionally mandated elected officials, including a judge executive a sheriff and a constable. Many counties also have a coroner, surveyor, and a treasurer, along with a whole host of other administrative personnel. Reducing the number of counties by half would save just under $2 million a year in salary expenses for just the three main elected officials. (All are paid on the same schedule, KRS 64.5275, and can make on average over $70,000 per year.) Reducing a similar number of coroners, surveyors, treasurers, clerks and other administrative personnel would also produce savings in the millions of dollars.
Counties also have county clerk's offices, court systems, transportation departments and police or sheriff's departments. Combining counties would allow for significant reduction in administrative personnel in all of these departments. Some of the savings, for example in the police or sheriff's departments, could be used for additional equipment or officers. But other savings could be used to reduce the tax burden on citizens.
Combining counties could also result in significant savings on the construction and maintenance of buildings. For example, since 2000, the Administrative Office of the Courts has built 65 new courthouses at a cost of over a billion dollars. Combining counties now could eliminate the need for additional courthouses and save millions in construction costs alone.
Another option would be to eliminate some elected officials. The prime example would be sheriffs and constables. Both serve legal process, such as summonses and warrants, for the court system. Merging these roles would save the state over $1 million a year in salary alone, not to mention future savings for retirement programs.
Clearly the number of deputies or sworn officers — who actually carry out the duties — should not be reduced, but administrative office staff could be eliminated.
Counties are mostly funded through local property, employment taxes and licensing fees. But the state also spends about $65 million a year to support the counties.
It is common for companies to merge offices and trim staff when times are tough. Government should be willing to do the same.
Michael Coblenz, a Lexington patent and trademark attorney, was a Democratic candidate for state Senate.