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State senator says 55 counties may be too many for W.Va.

by Randy Coleman

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHARLESTON -- A Kanawha County senator promoted an idea Tuesday that he said lawmakers have whispered about in back rooms at the statehouse for years: West Virginia has too many counties.

"We need to seriously look at whether it's necessary for us to have 55 counties," Sen. John Mitchell, D-Kanawha, said Tuesday in the Senate Chamber.

"Could we be more efficient with a more regionalized, centralized approach to offering services? Do we need 55 county commissions and 55 boards of education? I think we should look at it."

Kentucky's House voted Tuesday to establish a process to consolidate the state's 120 counties. The measure goes to the Kentucky Senate.

Mitchell told senators he would offer a resolution today that calls for the Legislature's Joint Committee on Government and Finance to "review, examine and study" county and other local government operations. The committee would offer its findings to the 2002 Legislature, which would determine whether the findings merit action by lawmakers.

"I would imagine any changes would take 10 or 15 years. But it's time to start the process," Mitchell said.

Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, and state schools Superintendent David Stewart were among those who said Mitchell's idea is worth discussing.

"It's something that's been talked about for the past several years, but it's been more of a quiet discussion," Tomblin said. "There's a lot of disparity out there, and some of the small, rural counties are so poor they're unable to offer some of the services that larger counties can."

Tomblin said he didn't think there would be immediate sympathy for "getting rid of counties."

Mitchell said his idea is not to immediately get rid of counties, but to "get better service to counties that need it."

Small counties, such as Wirt County, would be better served by not having to operate a county commission, a sheriff's department and a board of education, he said.

Wirt County is West Virginia's least populous, with about 5,000 residents. Its county seat, Elizabeth, is about 20 miles from Parkersburg.

"Years ago, when roads weren't good, West Virginia needed 55 county governments," Mitchell said. "Roads are better now. People have better access. All I'm saying is 'let's look at our needs.'"

Mitchell said he believes the state could save anywhere from $50 million to $500 million a year by consolidating many county services.

Stewart said "it's time to take a look" at whether West Virginia's schools would operate more efficiently without 55 county boards of education.

"I think we should look at the cost benefits," Stewart said.

State School Boards Association lobbyist Howard O'Cull agreed.

"The time has come to discuss centralizing some services," he said. "We're not suggesting how. We're not suggesting downsizing school systems. We're just saying the same thing (Mitchell suggested). It's time to study."

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