(02/26/2001)
Reprint from the Charleston Gazette (February 23, 2001)

For decades this newspaper has contended that its silly for West Virginia to have 1870-style government, with 55 separate county regimes and multiple political fiefdoms under every courthouse roof.

The Mountain State doesn't need 55 isolated school systems, each with an elaborate bureaucracy of administrators.

The state doesn't need 55 county seats and political power bases. Nor does it need a phalanx of different elected officers in each courthouse, all controlling appointive jobs. That's too many small political machines.

Maybe 55 counties were practical after the Civil War, when isolated West Virginians traveled by horseback or wagons to county seats. But the horse-and-buggy era died almost a century ago. Now mountain people buzz along paved highways and freeways - or conduct their government business by fax machines and the Internet. Travel distance has expanded enormously, and time requirements have shrunk.

It wastes millions of taxpayer dollars to maintain so many separate offices and bureaucracies.

When Gaston Caperton became governor in 1989, he crusaded to merge the wasteful array, and also eliminate some needless statewide elective offices. A consolidation amendment was drafted, to revise the state constitution. But it was defeated overwhelmingly.

A major reason for the defeat was the hundreds of small political machines in courthouses. No local assessor, county clerk, sheriff, prosecutor, etc., wants to lose power and influence. Most of them unleashed their taxpayer supported minions against Caperton's 1989 amendment.

Local school boards likewise didn't want to surrender power. In some small counties, the school system and courthouse are the foremost source of employment.

Despite the lesson of 1989, Sen. John Mitchell, D-Kanawha, is making another try. He wants the joint Interim Committee on Government and Finance to study the possibility of mergers. Bravo. It's a worthy idea, regardless of the odds against success.

Mitchell guessed that consolidations might save taxpayers anywhere from $50 million to $500 million a tear. Maybe the committee study can make a clearer estimate.

Many small counties are struggling to exist. Wirt, with just 5,192 population in 1990, faces possible bankruptcy. The county's only deputy sheriff may be laid off. The courthouse hasn't had a janitor for seven years.

Really there is no need for separate Wirt County government - and the same can be said for many regions.

Its time to mobilize for another consolidation attempt. We wish Sen. Mitchell success.

(SEE yesterday's Hur Herald stories: Daily Mail editorial and news story about the woes in Wirt)


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