Why you should care
Because, to start understanding rural America, it helps to go there.
Former West Virginia Senator Brooks McCabe sags into a black couch at Taylor’s Bookstore and Café, his whispy gray curls as faded as the brick facade behind him – and the wall in front of him just happens to show the topic of conversation: a topographic map of the Mountain State. Here, in downtown Charleston, the 67-year-old is laying out an economic vision that some find game-changing, others illusionary and, as some critics suggest, is downright un–West Virginian.
The challenge at hand: an impending $400 million hole in the state budget, a lagging economy matched with an inability to attract new business and a population that is moving out (or dying) at the fastest rate in the nation. One solution? Consolidate West Virginia’s counties, thereby reigning in costs, eliminating redundant services and making those locales more attractive to investors. “We have 55 counties and 1.85 million people; California has 58 counties and 40 million,” McCabe says. “We need to reposition ourselves in the 21st century — and that will be done by reorganizing government.”
It’s an identity crisis many states are grappling with as young Americans flee rural, return urban and, in doing so, leave population deserts in their wake. While the concept of county contraction isn’t completely new — successful city-county versions range from Miami to Kansas City and Nashville, for example — McCabe and other Appalachia policy wonks are proposing a radical rethinking of services and perhaps even redrawing the lines that have defined the region since the mid-1800s.
So far, only West Virginia has floated serious proposals, given new life by the collapse of the coal industry and bottoming out of natural-gas prices.
In Ohio, the cities of Dayton, Toledo and Akron have already merged their health departments with county ones, saving them “a boatload of money,” as one commissioner put it. Police-sharing protection agreements are now common in smaller Pennsylvania municipalities, and similar programs are being implemented in Kentucky, which has 120 counties, giving it the highest counties per capita in the nation. “It is patently absurd,” says former Bluegrass state auditor Adam Edelen, leader of the New Kentucky Project. “That is not a very efficient government.” Since they’ve already combined services, the natural progression would seem to be to start merging the counties themselves — saving on duplicate governing offices and personnel in places that often no longer have the head count to warrant them.
So far, though, only West Virginia has floated serious proposals, which have been given new life by the collapse of the coal industry and bottoming out of natural-gas prices. Leading the charge is E. Gordon Gee, now president of West Virginia University, the state’s largest employer through its hospital network (and colloquially referred to as the institutional puppet master “running the state”). Gee’s academics will “take the incoming fire” from critics, he says, and provide cover for politicians to enact change if needed. “Let’s not have a preemptive strike just because it’s an idea contrary to what we have been doing,” Gee says. “Sacred cows make the best hamburgers.”
Still, as residents cope with the loss of labor and life that ambushes them — from job loss to opioid abuse and decreased life expectancy — consolidation threatens to fracture an already fragile regional identity, in a state that stresses its county values more than most. The worst-case scenario? “Closing the school, losing the football team … and then also watching all the drying-up coal jobs,” says WVU political chair R. Scott Crichlow, from a college-trendy café in Morgantown. A hundred miles away, at a humble diner in the state’s fourth-smallest county, a retired English teacher knows the feeling all too well. “Little counties — we always end up on the short end of the stick,” says Larry Harris of Calhoun County. “But it’s going to happen, whether we like it or not.”
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Driving through West Virginia is a lesson in isolation that can feel jarring to outsiders. Scanning for radio stations is often a wasted effort, and cell phone service is equally nonexistent outside a few major highways. It’s no wonder that West Virginians cling more closely to each other — and why they may resist relinquishing their county ties. When an ambulance takes half an hour to reach some mountain residents, it’s not hard to espouse a certain native reliance. It’s promoted a “spiritual relationship” with one’s own region, as Gee describes it. Friday pastimes include football or basketball games and, sadly, for many bored high-schoolers, drinking or popping pills — mornings after are spent at the heart-attack-good Tudor’s Biscuit World or attending festivals, of which there are many.
Ask someone where they’re from and they inevitably mention their county first — a phenomenon Crichlow found “really strange” when he first moved here from Louisiana. Then they tend to rattle off facts about said county, as Kirsten Reneau, a local entertainment writer, did (Taylor County founded Mother’s Day and is home to “drop-out high,” a school known until recently for its state-leading truancy rates). The 4-H extension system, founded through the federal Smith-Lever Act in the early 1900s as a way of connecting local agrarian communities with universities, is an afterthought in most states — but, here, the summer camps are attended by more than 80,000 young West Virginians, and many refer to it as an essential part of their county-centric childhoods.
There’s a rich history here, and there’s a concern we would have to give that up.
Robert Lowe, County Commissioner
Try to change this ecosystem and, as in many of the homespun regions of the nation, backlash can be fierce. In West Virginia’s tiniest county, Wirt (population: around 6,000), a commission meeting unfolds with four folks huddled over a single wooden table — in the basement of the courthouse. One county commissioner wears a plain white T; the other, worn jeans and hiking boots. “There’s a rich history here, and there’s a concern we would have to give that up,” says Robert Lowe, who has served on the body since 2001. Recently, state police contracted a local two-officer branch … and about 100 residents met here to protest. “If we join Wood County, our taxes are going to go up, but what are we getting in return? Police protection? Nobody is buying that,” says Robert Gunnoe, also a Wirt County commissioner.
The process of cobbling together support could be a grueling grassroots effort since most consolidation tactics would require local votes. It will take converting of hearts and minds in a state that, despite the severe obstacles it faces, remains averse to change. “It’s something that makes logistical sense” but would rub many the wrong way, notes Truman scholar and community activist Katelyn Campbell. Adds John Jett, a retired master gardener and state extension coordinator: “I don’t give a damn about those guys from Wirt or Gilmer counties, but don’t tell me I’m not from Pocahontas County.”
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Yet nationally there are nearly 90,000 units of local government, many of which are at least partially redundant. Already, hospital administrators, police chiefs and advocates of efficient politicking are extolling the urge to merge. Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner created a task force to consider the issue, with the goal of determining how the land of Lincoln could decrease property-tax rates by rolling some jurisdictions together. A WVU study determined that health-department consolidation in the Mid-Ohio Valley resulted in better care — not worse — and savings to boot. Last year, Ohio and Indiana partnered to share medical data across state borders. The dream of a borderless world, it seems, begins with such odd couples.
The evolution toward county merging has key economic benefits, argues McCabe. He notes that West Virginia’s two major markets, Huntington and Charleston, are within 50 miles of each other — yet they insist on being seen as separate municipalities. Considered together, they could form a competitive pitch to employers; separately, they barely crack the top-200 markets. “They’re also-ran metro sizes,” Brooks says. For comparison, the Atlanta metro area has been liberally drawn as a geographic footprint about the size of Massachusetts, spanning over 28 counties in northwest Georgia. “Two-thirds of the nation is within a stone’s throw of us,” says West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, asserting that, with some fine-tuning and using natural resources, the state could become a gas-and-logging force in the region.
When communities stumble, the physical manifestations are obvious. Less so are those struggles of the spirit — the personality traits that build up over time, helping or hindering forward progress. “Our history is to give great deference to the beauty of the state and its people, its vivid independence,” says Gee. And yet, he adds, “the other side of West Virginians, which just drives me crazy, is that they’re too damn humble. There is a negative humility.” One Charleston entrepreneur’s take: People don’t like the word opportunity around here. To them, it’s a curse word. After a long past of being plundered for its resources, West Virginia can seem as if its locals are in a perpetual defensive crouch. But county consolidation can be acted on immediately, proponents argue, regardless of the bad economy. “We can change boundaries,” says Brooks. “We can change forms of government.”
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