Prosperity built the courthouse in Monroe County, Arkansas, when cotton gins and sharecropping in the Mississippi River Delta generated agricultural wealth to fund a robust local government.
Today, chipping paint in the main courtroom of the 1911 edifice detracts from the chandeliers and stained-glass dome soaring overhead. Atop the four-sided tower, the clocks each tell a different time. None is correct.
Monroe is hemorrhaging residents, like rural jurisdictions across the U.S. Yet these communities operate with the same layers of government as when horse-and-buggy travel helped determine the boundaries of the nation’s more than 3,000 counties. As population drops and infrastructure decays, officials and residents concerned about the loss of jobs and identity resist shrinking their government.
“People like that eye-to-eye contact,” said Monroe County Judge Larry Taylor, the top elected official in the county of 7,800. It has lost 44 percent of its population since 1980 as its main budget grew 9 percent, even when adjusted for inflation.
Local governments flourish across the U.S., challenging the idea of an age of austerity and smaller government. The number of such entities has grown to more than 90,000, including 12,880 school districts, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Residents pay for representation and services that are sometimes duplicative, even as budget-cutting trims discretionary spending at the state and federal level.
Their persistence is starting to have real financial consequences as more adults move to urban areas for jobs.
“The departure of people entering their prime working years can place fiscal pressure on local governments coping with an aging population,” the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation said in a December 2012 report. The FDIC found that 50 percent of rural counties lost population from 1980 to 2010, compared with 38 percent from 1970 to 2000.
Across the nation, resistance has met efforts to prune the number of counties. A Nebraska proposal in 2010 to go from 93 to 63, for instance, didn’t even make it out of a legislative committee. Almost three-quarters of Nebraska’s counties lost population from 2000 to 2010.
Many counties are redundant, said Jim Vokal, executive director of the Omaha-based Platte Institute for Economic Research, which promotes free-market policies in Nebraska.
“It makes no sense to have this infrastructure in place,” he said. “You have county officials who know the majority of jobs in those sparsely populated counties are county jobs.”
In North Dakota, public costs would have fallen 2.5 percent annually by combining general government, road maintenance, public safety, and health and welfare, according to a 1996 North Dakota State University analysis of a failed proposal to merge 53 counties into 15. While oil drilling has brought jobs and tax revenue to certain pockets of the state, most other North Dakota counties lost population since the study.
It would be hard to find better consolidation candidates than Arkansas’s Monroe and Phillips counties. They were founded in 1829 and 1820 respectively, when county lines often were determined by a simple measurement -- a man on horseback should be able to make a round trip to a courthouse in a day’s ride. Today, a traveler can drive from Little Rock, the state capital, to Milwaukee in that amount of time.
Among counties with at least 5,000 people, no other adjacent ones have lost a greater proportion of their population since 1980, census data show.
In that time, Monroe, whose seat is the town of Clarendon, has suffered the second-largest proportional population drop among such counties, the data show. Third on the list is Phillips. Its seat, Helena, is about 45 miles (72 kilometers) east of Clarendon, on the Mississippi River. Phillips had an estimated 20,784 residents in 2012, down 40 percent since 1980.
In Monroe, locals can remember when there was so much commerce in Clarendon that people would bump shoulders on sidewalks. Now, abandoned storefronts and banks line Madison Street, and Taylor had to apologize for the courtroom’s chipping paint when the state’s senior U.S. senator, Mark Pryor, stopped by on a recent day. The judge explained that he was trying to find money to make the repair.
Perhaps the greatest potential for consolidation is in jail services and law enforcement. Combined, Monroe and Phillips spend roughly $2.3 million annually on their sheriff’s departments, jail and courts, according to the Arkansas Legislative Joint Auditing Committee. That represents about 35 percent of their total combined expenditures.
Joining forces is a longstanding vision, and one that’s been elusive. A 1980 Monroe County budget included a $2,500 line item for a “regional jail study match.” The project never moved beyond the study phase.
This year, the 75-bed jail in Phillips County was in such bad shape that state regulators recommended that it be closed. Sixty inmates were sent to other jails, and about nine full-time jobs were eliminated.
An April 2 report by a state panel found broken locks and inmates with access to jagged metal objects and extension cords that could be fashioned into weapons. Human waste was overflowing into cells, and there were no working smoke detectors.
“This facility is very unsafe for the staff and inmates,” the report said. “This facility also poses a threat to public safety.”
The jail’s closing prompted another round of merger talk -- and resistance.
“Each county is going to want it in their county,” said Don Gentry, the judge in Phillips. “It would be a good deal, if we could make it work.”
There is worry about losing well-paying jobs in a region that lacks growth. Then, there’s more staff time and gasoline to transport prisoners for court hearings. Most of all, though, there is mistrust.
“You have to get the buy-in of a lot of folks,” said John Edwards, a Little Rock lawyer and Arkansas legislator trying to improve the jail situation. “There can be a concern about giving up local control.”
Jail costs are just one area of potential cooperation. The idea of a full merger between the counties is a nonstarter, Taylor said.
“You lose identity,” said the judge, who grew up there. “Everybody in the county knows Larry Taylor. But not everyone knows Larry Taylor in Phillips County.”
With an annual budget of about $4.3 million, almost half of Monroe County’s money goes to road maintenance. About a quarter is devoted to the sheriff’s department and jail, said Taylor, 62.
He said he’s asked employees to multi-task, so, for example, the 911 administrator and the flood administrator are now the same job. Taylor, who is paid about $40,000 a year, plus benefits, often answers his own phone: “Judge’s office, Larry.”
Carl Frein, Monroe County’s Republican Party chairman, said, “We are down to a bare minimum of what we have to have.” Asked whether he sees potential for merging services, Frein said, “I’m sure there is some overlapping there.”
Phillips County closed a juvenile jail about five years ago to save about $500,000 a year, and the road department has roughly half as many employees as it did in the 1980s, said Gentry, 72, the county judge.
“We cut staff all the time,” he said.
Each of Arkansas’s 75 counties has its own Don Gentry. At an August meeting of the Association of Arkansas Counties, where vendors in booths hawked asphalt, two-way radios and voting-machine systems, there wasn’t a single presentation on consolidating, downsizing or sharing services.
Consolidation is “something I have never even heard anyone talk about,” said Walter Hawkins Jr., a member of the Dallas County quorum court, the equivalent of a board of supervisors. “The taxpayers would probably be OK with it, but it’s the officials who might have a problem.”
There are many officials. County judges such as Taylor and Gentry face election every two years. So do the nine members of the quorum court. Each county also elects a sheriff, clerk, circuit court clerk, treasurer, assessor and coroner.
Other states face similar opposition to shrinking local government.
“It’s hard to get any of the senators beyond the metropolitan areas to think about it,” said Rich Pahls, a member of the Omaha City Council who as a one-time Republican state legislator sponsored the bill to reduce the number of Nebraska counties. “Deep down, they probably thought it had some merit, but I was fighting history.”
“It will happen someday,” he said. “Every year, more and more people are moving from the rural areas to the cities.”
One reason for the resistance is that people have more trust in local government than federal, said Matt Chase, executive director of the Washington-based National Association of Counties.
“As long as the county can stay pretty lean and efficient and provide services at a reasonable tax rate, the citizens are going to want to keep it,” he said. “It’s not always about the number of counties, as much as how can those existing local-government entities become more efficient and how can they collaborate.”
Gentry dismissed the suggestion of cooperation as unrealistic.
“You can’t hardly do that,” he said. “Each county has to run on its own.”
For now, the idea is as broken as the time-keeping on the Monroe courthouse clocks.