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Merging Washington’s sparsely populated counties worth a look, some officials say

 (Boston Public Library / Norman B. Leventhal Map Center)
(Boston Public Library / Norman B. Leventhal Map Center)

OLYMPIA – When Washington became a state in 1889, the constitution said a county should have at least 2,000 people. At the time, the entire state had about 350,000 people.

Some 128 years later, with the state population topping 7 million, a pair of Clark County officials say it’s time to rethink that low threshold for counties.

A state senator will propose a study of whether there might be savings in consolidating or combining some of Washington’s 39 counties, which range in size from 2.1 million residents to 2,200.

The idea may be intriguing to fans of government efficiency, but it’s meeting resistance from the organization that represents county officials.

The standard for setting a county’s boundaries in 1889 was a county seat that was no more than a day’s wagon ride, Clark County Assessor Peter Van Nortwick said. In an era when county offices and records are just a computer click away, that’s no longer a good metric, he believes.

“We need to take a look at how counties are set up,” Van Nortwick said. “Just because we’ve done it for 100 years doesn’t mean the way we should be doing it now.”

In the history of Washington, the number of counties has grown occasionally – Pend Oreille was the last county formed in 1911 when it was split off from Stevens – but no county has ever been consolidated with another once it was set up.

Van Nortwick, a Republican, is joined in the call to consider consolidating some smaller counties by Clark County Treasurer Doug Lasher, a Democrat. At their request, Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, has agreed to introduce a bill that would call for a legislative study of whether combining some small counties or joining some small ones to larger ones makes economic sense.

It’s an idea that comes up every so often, Rivers said, and it wouldn’t hurt to revisit it. It may show ways that counties can work together to share expenses or increase their buying power.

“Sometimes ideas get recycled,” she said. “Do I have any reason to believe there is going to be consolidation? I do not.”

Unless a county’s voters adopt a special charter, each county must have the same set of elected officials – three commissioners, an assessor, auditor, clerk, treasurer, sheriff, prosecuting attorney and judges. Those expenses are spread over the taxpayers, and the costs per person are high if the population numbers are low, Van Nortwick said.

His calculations indicate that the costs level out when the population reaches about 30,000, which might be what the state should consider as a minimum for a county. Right now, 12 of Washington’s 39 counties have fewer than 30,000 people, including Adams, Asotin, Columbia, Ferry, Garfield, Lincoln and Pend Oreille in Eastern Washington.

It’s not a popular idea, Van Nortwick concedes: “Most of the feedback we’ve got has been negative.”

On Thursday, the legislative committee of the Washington Association of County Officials voted to oppose any effort to consolidate counties. Scott Blonien, the association’s executive director, said he thinks Van Nortwick’s figures that set 30,000 as a sweet spot on costs are flawed.

The idea was studied as recently as 2007, Blonien said, and “no one has produced any hard and fast financial facts that consolidation will save any money.”

Saving money isn’t the only consideration for residents of small counties, Blonien said. A bigger concern is having local control of their government.

Merging small counties into bigger ones, or joining two or more less-populated counties together, would dilute their representation in local decisions, he said.

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