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Georgia has 159 counties but why?
This is a subject that has always intrigued me. Why is Georgia second only to Texas in the number of counties given that Texas has not only a larger population but is also just a much larger state in landmass. The history and reasons how Georgia reached the magic number of 159 is a long and complicated subject that was adeptly explained by fellow blogger Jim Cofer who wrote an amazing article explaining our complicated but also extremely interesting history as it relates to counties.
Did you know all of Northeast Georgia used to be Cherokee county for example before the very tragic episode known as the trail of tears which was essentially an ethnic cleansing that stole the last remaining Indian lands in Georgia from them and sent them west. How many of you knew that Georgia also had an independent country known as Trans-Oconee Republic founded by Elijah Clarke the very same person of Athens-Clarke county fame.
Suffice it to say that a lot took place from the founding of Georgia as a colony to the point in 1945 when state legislators had had enough and the state constitution settled on 159 as an absolute number. Peach is the youngest county in Georgia. At one point Georgia had as many as 161 counties. What happened between 1924 (when the state’s last new county, Peach County was created) and the constitutional convention of 1945? How did the state lose two counties? The Great Depression happened and two very rural and poor counties that bordered Fulton county called Milton and Campbell counties were absorbed by Fulton because one was nearly bankrupt and Campbell was bankrupt. That is why Fulton is such an odd shape and size today.
In an interesting twist, North Fulton county which used to be known as Milton now is trying to secede from Fulton now that they are the much wealthier part of the county. The benefactor that saved them nearly a century ago is apparently now county non grata. They will be in for a tough fight given the hard limit of 159 set by the Georgia constitution. Perhaps if they can bribe two other poor and rural counties to merge that would leave them an opening.
How Does Georgia Compare with other States?
Georgia is the 24th state in size with 159 counties. Alabama and Florida each have 67 counties, and South Carolina has only 46. Two of the country’s two most populous states — California and New York — have only 58 and 62 counties, respectively. Alaska (the largest state in land size) has 13 counties and Montana (fourth-largest, following Texas and California) has 56 counties.
At 59,425 square miles, Georgia averages 373 square miles per county. North Carolina, our closest comparison in the Southeast in size and population, covers 53,865 square miles. But the Tarheels operate just fine with a mere 100 counties. (average 538 square miles per county) While Florida is divvied up into only 67 counties (average 982 square miles per county) and also is similar to the square miles of Georgia though has a much larger population.
Some cite the reasons as the state’s civic-minded founders wanted all Georgians to live no more than a day’s horse ride away from their county courthouses. Others argue the lines were originally drawn to make it possible for a farmer to travel by mule-drawn buggy to the county seat and be back home again in one day. Of course, if true, this explanation begs the question of why continue a system that is so outdated and so expensive? This is all well and good when everyone relies on foot or horse to get to the county seat but not so good once the internal combustion engine was invented and we no longer had to ride on animals’ backs to get around. Much faster for us and I am sure the horses and mules are also happy about that development.
Having a Lot of Counties is Very Expensive
One hundred fifty-nine counties translates into lots and lots of government employees with 159 county governments, 159 sheriffs, 159 clerks, 159 tax commissioners, 159 probate judges, and so on and so on. Every county has a courthouse, school system, and county government. Furthermore, some counties are huge in size and population and others may be small in one or the other. Taliaferro county only has around 2,000 people for example. Ware county is 903 square miles, Burke 831 square miles, Laurens county 818 sq mi., Bibb 255 sq. mi. , and Clayton with a much bigger population than all of those listed is only 143 square miles.
Georgia’s Population Growth has Exacerbated the Problems
Georgia has grown in population by the millions over the last few decades. We are currently 9th in the country with 9.992 million people and have overtaken Michigan. But all that growth has been very unevenly distributed. Most has gone to certain areas most notably Atlanta metro, along with second and third tier cities like Gainesville, Warner Robins, Dalton, Athens-Clarke, Brunswick, Columbus, Savannah, and Augusta to name but a few.
Macon has been largely stagnant and has shown little growth thanks largely to inept leadership and a series of blunders and lost opportunities. No doubt nepotism, corruption, a Planning & Zoning with no long-term strategic plan, and just the inability of leaders to take advantage of the location and resources were certainly factors as well. Valdosta and Albany also are stagnant. Georgia has three cities among the 10 fastest shrinking cities in the U.S. Georgia is the only state with more than one city on that list. The list also includes major American cities, such as Detroit. So the growth has been extremely uneven in Georgia.
While some counties have grown others have shrunk in population and the people left behind are largely older. Young people have little choice but to abandon these rural counties since there are few to no jobs as industries closed. So we are left with some counties that although large in square miles, have very few people and other counties though small in square miles are bursting at the seams with population growth.
Can Anything be Done?
If you agree that something should be done because of the expense of operating 159 counties with the required 159 offices of all the various government entities required there is a sliver of hope. Although modifying the state constitution is no easy feat it is also not locked in stone and impossible to accomplish. This is also a topic that should garner widespread bi-partisan support. Just recently five counties merged with cities to form consolidated governments: Athens-Clarke County; Augusta-Richmond County; Columbus-Muscogee County; Cusseta-Chattahoochee County and Macon-Bibb County. The Republicans and Democrats might have different reasons for supporting a reduction in the number of counties but all should support this simply because it is the smart and indeed a very sane position.
Georgia should realistically be able to at a minimum cut the number of counties in half. A good goal might be around 75-80 counties. There is simply no good justification to continue this ridiculous and outdated system. This would be beneficial to the counties themselves, the state government, and certainly the taxpayers that could potentially save tens of millions if not potentially hundreds of millions. At last count, there were over 500 municipalities in Georgia, which when combined with 159 counties, creates a total of almost 700 governments taxing Georgians. Poorer and depopulated counties could especially benefit by having access to much better resources from larger neighbors.
The Time has Come for Action
Although I am sure you can find some vested interest and naysayers who might risk losing their jobs if we went from 159 counties to 76, most people in the private and public sectors realize this would be a very good thing. There simply is no more reason for delaying something that could so greatly improve the lives and tax bills of Georgians. I call on Governor Nathan Deal and all other state representatives, state senators, mayors, and indeed all Georgia citizens to demand that we take steps to change the constitution to allow for more flexibility in counties. At the very minimum change the wording in the constitution so that we no longer have a hard and fast rule about 159. Allow counties the flexibility and option to merge or secede as they see fit.