Redistricting spurs re-examination of Georgia’s many counties

The General Assembly’s redistricting session has reignited the issue of Milton County. The proposed maps for the state House and Senate would shift the majority in each chamber’s Fulton delegation to Republicans, many of whom want to re-carve that erstwhile county out of North Fulton.

It will be an intense debate during the next two or three years — the minimum time it would take for new districts to first be used in an election, then play a role in putting Milton County back on the map.

But as I sat through a Tuesday legislative hearing, I was also struck by Georgia’s smallest counties.

Georgia, as you may know, has 159 counties, second only to Texas. We have 180 state House seats. Yet dozens of our counties are too small to qualify for their own House district.

The average district, after the 2010 census put Georgia’s population at just less than 9.7 million, will have 53,820 people.

Only 39 of our counties are so populous. The other 120 counties together contain just one-quarter of all Georgians.

Break down the counties into thirds, and the bottom tier would have nine state representatives, the middle tier 23 — and the top tier a whopping 148.

In fact, the dozen smallest counties’ populations combined are about 3,000 people shy of the average district size.

This disparity, of course, in part reflects the extremely rapid growth of metro Atlanta relative to the rest of the state. Consider some comparisons between the least-populated counties and the state’s largest high schools in 2010:

  • Seven counties had fewer people than the largest high school, Gwinnett’s Mill Creek.
  • Speaking of Gwinnett, its total high school enrollment in 2010 (44,971) exceeded the total populations of 115 counties.
  • The smallest county is Taliaferro in east Georgia, with 1,717 residents. There were 81 Georgia high schools with more students than that.

The trend lines suggest the gap will only grow.

But the disparity is also a vestige of Georgia’s county-unit system, which gave small, rural counties disproportionate clout in state government. That advantage — abolished in the 1960s — made it beneficial for them to exist in as many little fiefdoms as possible.

Today, this splintering gives people in those areas little — other than higher costs for maintaining separate county governments, sheriff’s departments and school systems.

The argument for merging small counties to achieve efficiencies in government costs has been obvious for a while, to no avail. But Tuesday’s hearing made me think mergers might give them better representation under the Gold Dome, too.

At the Legislature, they are tied to other small counties — proposed House District 151 in southwest Georgia comprises eight counties and part of a ninth — making it hard for their lawmakers to represent their (often competing) interests equally and adequately.

Either that, or they are tacked onto a district dominated by a much larger city or county, whose residents elect one of their own to represent them in Atlanta.

But if smaller counties were merged, they would have one unified local government, at a lower cost to taxpayers. It could set unified priorities, which could then be better represented at the state level.

What these counties’ residents lost in hyperlocal control, they might gain in powers now held by the state. If they were a bit larger, the General Assembly could contemplate transferring more authority to local control. Today, 30 counties can’t even maintain their own websites.

Before the next redistricting in 2021, lawmakers would do well not only to argue about Milton County, but to study how consolidating smaller counties might make government work better for them.

– By Kyle Wingfield

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91 comments Add your comment

ByteMe

August 18th, 2011
6:09 am

No one in Republican leadership cares about reducing the number of counties in the state. Many in Republican leadership care desperately about sticking it to Fulton County. Once you see that, the rest becomes obvious.

I’d like to see the position of “Sheriff” (basically, the person who runs the county jail) abolished and make that function a professional position appointed by the local board (like school superintended, although the similarities are not something I wanted to bring up here :) ). But there’s no one in Republican leadership interested in that either.

Terry Noris

August 18th, 2011
6:13 am

Amen…eliminate the office of Sheriff. What a waste of time.

Independent Myth

August 18th, 2011
6:24 am

Kyle

For once I agree – sound thought

Eliminate Governmental Positions that are no longer needed
Consolidate Government Agency Overlap
Consolidate the Counties within the state in proportion to population and economic contribution.

Businesses and Individuals have been already doing this for some time.

jacky

August 18th, 2011
6:27 am

The state should combine three counties into one across the state, the savings in county service costs alone more than justify that. Why should there be a separate sheriff’s department every nine or ten miles to say nothing of the costs of schools, fire services, etc. all with their own directors or department chiefs. Money wasted on courthouses, county offices, etc. Combine the counties, don’t create more and waste more money. There shouldn’t be more than 50 counties in the state.

MiltonMan

August 18th, 2011
6:35 am

Republicans sticking it to Fulton County???

Yea right – Fulton has done very little for North Fulton other than have their hands in our wallets.

Fulton County only is financial stable because of the northern part of the county.

Wow

August 18th, 2011
6:53 am

It’s all the fault of Republicans and Republicans only, right? I guess Georgia was a Democrat-controlled state for 150 years while all of this happened, but it’s still the fault of the last 10 years? “Waiter? I’ll have what he’s having.”

The REALITY is, there is a state law that says Georgia can have no more than 159 counties. I think the likelihood of the re-creation of Milton County is equally as likely as county consolidation – won’t happen. Turf wars and high school football rivalries prevent any small rural counties from even think about combining. Does it make sense to consolidate? Absolutely!! Do I hope it happens? Absolutely! Will it happen? I highly doubt it.

Give me a map, a pen and 20 minutes and I could give you a state with 70 logical counties. Would save mountains of money, create better efficiency in local government and just make more sense.

Ayn Rant

August 18th, 2011
6:57 am

Too much useless government, too much politics, and too many political offices in America!

We need national government and local governments. The states and counties are superfluous. States are particularly useless: they are preposterously apportioned, and the state governments have nothing to do but follow federal rules in various mandates and joint federal/state projects. The one unique task of state government, apportionment of congressional districts and local government, is badly done by elected politicians and best done by computer.

Let’s abolish counties, relegate the state government to clerical functions that can be contracted to the lowest bidder, and clean up the national government to get America moving toward the 21st century!

NoDawgsAllowed

August 18th, 2011
7:01 am

{scratches head} If counties chose to merge (correct me if I’m wrong) then a process that would allow them to do so already exists. With that belief it seems pretty clear to me that largely they aren’t interested in doing so & it isn’t state government’s place to force them to.

Will

August 18th, 2011
7:12 am

Once the redrawn legislative districts are in place, repubicans will most likely obtain a two thirds majority in the General Assembly.

Do you think these members of the “small/less government, cost reducing” political party will then use their unstopable majority to reduce the wasteful spending and duplication of services by reducing the number of counties in Georgia?

Me neither.

I find it also telling that republicans, who rail year after year against the federal government for protecting the voter representation of minorities are now using the same protection they so despise as an excuse to brush away any alternative democrt proposal relating to redistricting.

Finally, republicans justify their partisan plan to redraw voting districts by claiming that “democrats do the same thing when they are in the majority” (they are correct).

So……republicans politicians are proving to be just as partisan and hypocritical as democrat politicians. Not much of a “news flash” there but, as a republican newspaper writer, aren’t you a little disappointed that the standard to wish republican politicians apparently wish to adhere to is no better than democrat politicans?

John

August 18th, 2011
7:16 am

I was taught that Georgia counties were set-up so a farmer could go to the county seat and return in one day on horseback. Maybe its time to rethink this.

rc35

August 18th, 2011
7:25 am

Although the argument sounds good on paper, and although there probably are too mamy counties in the big picture, there are some other considerations. There is still a place for local leadership that is sensitive to local needs. Consolidation into larger units doesn’t always lead to cost reductions; instead, elected/appointed leaders have been known to say, “Hey! I’m overseeing a larger number of people now, so I need an appropriate raise!” Next thing you know, you’re paying bigger salaries to fewer people, but at questionable savings overall.

Consolidation of services can also lead to inefficiency of understanding and information. Case in point? I live in one of those South Georgia counties, albeit one of the larger, non-metro ones. Our son got his drivers’ license just after our state “improved efficiency” by redesigning the process and making us call Atlanta to schedule his driving test down here (instead of dropping by the local office which had just been stripped of its authority to do scheduling). I called the number, waited on hold, and finally reached someone who could sign him up. When I asked her what would be involved in his driving test, she cheerfully told me that one of the criteria would be merging onto the Interstate. When I told her it was an hour to the nearest Interstate, she became “bumfuzzled” and didn’t have a clue.

That is one example of efficiency we can do without.

Van Jones

August 18th, 2011
7:29 am

All you have to do is deal with anyone in Fulton County govt and experience their complete lack of service and motivation coupled with the enormous amount of money siphoned from north Fulton and you will will come to the same conclusion. Milton county is a no-brainer that can’t happen soon enough!

Lil' Barry Bailout (Revised Downward)

August 18th, 2011
7:42 am

Of course county governments don’t want to merge. Someone loses their little fiefdom when that happens. Citizens would somehow have to demand it. That can only work by getting the state to do it.

Guy Incognito

August 18th, 2011
7:45 am

If/when Milton Co happens, how long will Dunwoody wait to join, and leave behind the waste in DeKalb?

just saying

August 18th, 2011
7:55 am

We also have far too many cities. Talk about a waste of taxes.

old timer

August 18th, 2011
8:04 am

Kyle….good idea, combining some of the smaller counties…It will never happen. The kings in those small counties love the power.

Plato

August 18th, 2011
8:10 am

Aristotle suggested that 5,000 was the optimal size for people to come together and govern themselves. Considering that only free men could vote back then, this would equate to a population of around 10,000 – 15,000. I think we would be better off with more counties based on 10,000 – 15,000 population, not fewer, larger counties. I don’t think there is any question that the bigger the government the less efficient it operates.

USMC

August 18th, 2011
8:20 am

Fulton County is bloated and inefficient. If I were living in N. Fulton, I would want to form Milton county as well.

The “Buffoons” who run Fulton County have no one to blame but themselves.

The secession of Buckhead is coming in the future; then Atlanta can stew in it’s ignorance like DETROIT.

Stonethrower

August 18th, 2011
8:21 am

Do as you must but make sure the majority of the counties stay red.

Rafe Hollister

August 18th, 2011
8:24 am

Growing up in one of these small counties and watching it shrink ever since, I think I can add something to the conversation. Yes, they can barely support themselves and the tax burden on the poor land owners is astronomical. Do they need to consolidate, Yes, definitely. The problem is driving distance. Some of these unpopulated counties are so large it takes half a day to drive to the county seat and back now. Combine three of them and some of the people would be on the road for hours to go get a license plate.

As someone said they are so small because people needed to be able to get to the countyseat by horseback. Well, the roads are not much better now. If you notice there are no interstates running from Moultrie to Bainbridge or from Statesboro to Lincolnton.

GA Faithful

August 18th, 2011
8:24 am

One of the significant facts about Ga is its counties which for the most part are named for some of our great pioneers of the past. It is not the number of counties that is the problem, it’s the politics. Ga., formerly a democratic state (bum rushed by the Reagan era), is being held hostage to Republicans whose real target is Atlanta. Both Dems and Republicans share the blame for the inadequately shaped districts. It is no secret that this redistricting has nothing to do with effectiveness of the political arena, but everything to do with class and race. I sincerely hope that with all of the greed and selfishness from both parties, a stronger more vital party arises from our great citizens (and no, not the Lipton party).

(ir)Rational

August 18th, 2011
8:26 am

I don’t understand why people would want to get rid of the Sheriff’s position. I personally would rather see the police department changed over to the Sheriff’s Department so that the person in charge is responsible (at least every few years) to the people of the county/city they serve. As it stands right now, if the police do something wrong, they are only accountable to themselves. Not sure why you seem to see that as a good thing.

As far as consolidating the counties goes, I think it is a great idea. I grew up in a small NW GA county, that currently can barely support the necessary functions of government, and only has a professional fire department because we have a state prison. Combining our county with another would serve to help us, but as all the surrounding counties are larger, they wouldn’t really gain anything by it. That is where I see the problem lying, where the larger counties are surrounding the smaller ones, and they don’t really gain anything besides more land to control.

Oh-well. Who is John Galt?

Mako

August 18th, 2011
8:38 am

Think about how much money could be saved if say we merged down to 60 counties….each county has to have courts (paid by ST), St paid defense lawyers, St funded county economic aid, etc….; reduce the overhead expense by 50 % would save somewhere close to $300 million. I only Pigs could fly…oh, that’s right they can, just ask ole’ Sonny!

double

August 18th, 2011
8:38 am

Since sheriff departments,most county,state jobs,court system run by good ole boys.You don’t seriously think consolidation.

Kennesaw Dave

August 18th, 2011
8:45 am

Need to consolidate counties, and do away with a lot of tax wasting city governments such as Kennesaw. Little local money spending kingdom builders with a known thug PD.Would not want to see states done away with because that would give the feds way to much power just when they need way way less power. Go read the Libertarian platform. They have the right idea, if they could only ever get organized and get actual candidates.

Plato

August 18th, 2011
8:47 am

Consolidating doesn’t eliminate the need. It just makes for larger, less efficient government. Break them up into smaller units and they will operate more efficiently. Getting smaller means the people have to actually do the work, not hide behind department head positions with multiple assistants and assistants to assistants.

GA Faithful

August 18th, 2011
8:55 am

Plato, that is so true. Once there is consolidation, there will be another political mess on the horizon. Redistricting is code for an upcoming war on class and who knows what else. Remember, history does repeat itself.

No artificial flavors

August 18th, 2011
8:56 am

Thank you for finally writing about this Kyle. As one that works in local government and also educates government leaders and staff throughout the state in government finance policy, I can tell you that this need for county consolidation is long overdue. The amount of money wasted throughout the state on duplication of services is staggering, particularly in the rural counties that can least afford to waste any money. Each county should have a minimum of 60,000 residents which means about 25-30,000 property tax payers or parcels at least. This, I believe is just enough of a tax base to develop a proper government that does not compete too much with it’s cities for power.

LtCol Razorback,

August 18th, 2011
8:57 am

Milton County? Georgia needs another county like Barack Obama needs to be re-elected! :) The logic that created so many small counties throughout Georgia was fine for the time when the criteria for what a county should be were created. Back then, cars, or almost any self-propelled vehicle, were science fiction. Therefore the criterion that “No man should be more than one day’s mule ride away from justice.” made some sense. But since that criterion didn’t anticipate the advent of the automobile, in today’s world it no longer does. What Georgia needs is LESS counties, not more of them! If there is to be a Milton County, then dividing Fulton County’s northern section from its southern section and calling the northern section Milton County is ridiculous. Divide Fulton, but combine north Fulton with Forsyth to create Milton. While you’re at it some other combinations are warranted, like Cook+Lanier, Baker+Miller, Dade+Walker, Rockdale+Newton, Evans+Candler, Lamar+Pike, and Peach+Bibb. Combining these smaller counties to create larger ones reduces redundant political overhead, combines resources, and creates efficiencies.

SO LET IT BE WRITTEN; SO LET IT BE DONE.

carlosgvv

August 18th, 2011
9:01 am

“might make Government work better for them”

Translation – Might ensure that more Republicans will be elected.

No artificial flavors

August 18th, 2011
9:05 am

BTW, there should also be a re-examination of small cities that claim county services as one or two of their required three services as set back in 1995 when many cities lost their incorporations. There are still too many tiny cities that only serve as fiefdoms for local families.

jconservative

August 18th, 2011
9:06 am

Nice column Kyle. But government has never been efficient and never will.

If we eliminated 59 counties there would be 59 Tax Commissioners, 59 Clerks of the Court, 59 Sheriffs, etc, etc, out of work and drawing unemployment.

As other readers have suggested, it ain’t gonna happen.

jacky

August 18th, 2011
9:11 am

I just want to ask Rafe Hollister where these huge counties are in Georgia that require hours to drive across? I have been in at least 140 of the 159 counties and I haven’t found one that took more than an hour to cross unless there was some kind of traffic jam, natural disaster, or geographic impediment such as a river that had to be detoured around. The biggest county in Georgia (Ware) is less than 1,000 square miles and can be crossed easily in less than an hour unless you drive around the Okefenokee. Consolidate down to 50 counties and get rid of all the overpaid sheriff’s, county commissioners, and other duplicated services. The savings would more than justify a little inconvenience when it is time to renew a tag which can be done by mail for $1.00.

Intown

August 18th, 2011
9:12 am

Milton County is nothing but a land, infrastructure, and tax base grab. The proposed boundaries grossly exceed historic Milton County’s boundary lines to grab Sandy Springs. Greedy Milton proponents have their eyes on infrastructure subsidized by city residents (including Buckhead residents like Kyle). Stealing is wrong even if cloaked in a thinly veiled local independence movement.

GA Faithful

August 18th, 2011
9:13 am

Carlos, that is what it’s all about. There are states in the union with far less counties than Ga, and they still cant get it right. This is a class and race issue, nothing more. Carving out a majority Republican district, like what is happening in my county has been the strategy since the Republican god was in office.

NoDawgsAllowed

August 18th, 2011
9:20 am

@ Razorback – re: “smaller counties” Since when is Bibb a “smaller county” (the 13th largest in the state)? Or for that matter, Newton & Rockdale, which if combined would become the 11th largest.

Why disenfranchise Peach residents/voters which appear to be almost evenly split D/R by dropping them into the middle of a solidly D county like Bibb (which outnumbers them more than 5-1)?

A few similarly sized counties that have similar demographics, okay maybe that I can understand _if the residents want it_. But to simply obliterate local control that citizens are willing to pay to have? That’s an abomination.

Tommy Maddox

August 18th, 2011
9:21 am

I’d agree w/jconservative above. Were Milton County to return, Atlanta would become Detroit South.

Don't Tread

August 18th, 2011
9:29 am

I don’t blame North Fulton residents for wanting their own county. The corrupt and inept county government could care less about North Fulton except to siphon money from the residents to pay for the crackheads elsewhere in the county. (same goes for Dekalb and Dunwoody)

Reality Check

August 18th, 2011
9:43 am

Does everyone realize that each county has four constitutional officers whose salaries by state taxes? The elected positions are sheriffs, probate judges, superior court clerks, and tax commissioners. In addition each county has a state-paid school superintendent and a library position.

It’s past time for consolidation of the counties. We don’t need another county draining state tax funds. We need one hundred less.

Stevie Ray

August 18th, 2011
9:43 am

The N. Fulton tax grab is no fictitious story. Those of us residing here knew before moving here that a significant portion of our property taxes go to support Grady….up to 30 miles south. Not likely (excepting possibly burn unit) any of us will actually use same. Unfortunately, the city of Atlanta and the immediate surrounding areas are primarily inhabited by non-taxpayers. Not good economic time to pull trigger on Milton.

Consolidating counties is a no-brainer. I never understood logic for the states resembling 750 piece jigsaw puzzles….those are damn difficult to complete..

amazed

August 18th, 2011
9:46 am

If you blame Republicans for acting just like Democrats, just look at their background. Almost all of them are converted Democrats. Different label, many of the same people.

Unfortunately our politicians are primarily interested in themselves, so short a serious fiscal crisis I don’t see consolidation of counties.

For those who think they are too big or just right, here are some facts:
Texas-254 counties with nearly 5 times the area of Georgia. Georgia-159 counties. Kentucky is 3rd with 120 counties. Georgia very inefficient and has a lot of silly parochial fights because it has too many governing entities. Harris County (Houston) operates much more effectively than our metro area counties and its area is bigger than Fulton, Dekalb, Gwinnet, Cobb and Clayton combined.

No artificial flavors

August 18th, 2011
9:58 am

@ amazed, I’m not sure what you are referring to whether Harris county (472.9 sq miles) or Houston County (379.8 sq miles) but neither are larger than the combined metro counties you listed that total 1,731 square miles. As for efficiency and effectiveness, I won’t argue that point compared to most of metro counties.

dixiedemons

August 18th, 2011
10:05 am

I live in Houston County and the County and City do function pretty well from and economic stand point. We don’t have alot of Boss Hoggs trying to run the show. The people are educated and have lived in other states, countries etc due to the military presence of the air base. The county is not crippled by the redneck mentality. People actually think for themselves and work together for the greater good.

Lil' Barry Bailout (Revised Downward)

August 18th, 2011
10:23 am

Fulton County as currently configured is clearly gerrymandered and is totally impractical. Split it so the two parts make sense or combine those two parts with neighboring counties.

I have spoken. Make it so.

Lil' Barry Bailout (Revised Downward)

August 18th, 2011
10:29 am

Unemployment claims up. Inflation up. Nice combination.

Thanks so much for the stagflation, Democrats and Obozo. You inherited a recovery and blew it.

Kyle Wingfield

August 18th, 2011
10:33 am

I think there’s some confusion as to whether, since amazed @ 9:46, people are talking about the Harris and Houston counties in Georgia or Texas…

jd

August 18th, 2011
10:45 am

Why stop with counties? Let’s merge the smaller states — re-divide existing states, especially large ones like Texas. Sell off the assets no longer needed — Hire KKR to manage the M&A activities for a fee and Goldman-Sachs to manage all funds. Use ADP to manage payroll for all 50 states… Heck, let’s just do away with government and capitulate to the corporatism which plainly runs everything anyway….

Intown

August 18th, 2011
10:48 am

It’s amazing that North Fulton residents actually believe they are subsidizing atlanta and south fulton. When the truth is quite the opposite. N. Fulton has been sucking off the City of Atlanta teet for quite some time with regards to infrastructure investments.

JPolk

August 18th, 2011
10:56 am

“Sticking to Fulton County” This is bad, right? Just want to be sure because on the surface it sounds pretty good. :p

What’s appalling are black politicians saying that the Republicans are “bleaching” Fulton County. What if a white representative said black representatives effectively “tarred” Fulton County? Blacks who don’t recognize racism amongst themselves are hypocrites.

JohnnyReb

August 18th, 2011
10:56 am

OMG!!! You Statist drive me crazy!! Go Milton.