Thursday, May 26, 2022

Why do these counties even exist?

I delivered kind of a treatise on U.S. counties about 15 years ago. So you'll know the county is a concept that interests me. It comes of having traveled a lot throughout my life, and having lived in lots of different areas, and (more recently) having engaged in journalism at the local level. Also, I like looking at maps and delving through tables of statistics. And there's a certain element in my character that craves order, and that element tingles, or tickles, or itches, or creeps just a little when I see things like county boundaries that make no sense.

Starting with my current home state of Minnesota, here are some examples of reasons why that element in my character would like to see some county boundaries erased, or moved, or maybe drawn where there aren't any at the moment. Because despite the reasonable forces of history, there are some unreasonable counties that, in my opinion, shouldn't exist – and also, some counties that are so big that maybe they should be busted up. Starting from there, I widened my scope to all the states in the U.S. I had an interesting time. I hope you do, too.

Take these hints for what they're worth. Generally speaking, when I talk about stupidly large counties, I generally mean areas of about 1,000 square miles or larger and populations of about 50,000 or more; and when I talk about stupidly small counties, I mean ones that combine an area of about 500 square miles or less and a population of 10,000 or less. Sometimes I'll also make mention of "just stupidly low-population" (JSLP) counties, by which I mean about 2,000 people or less, regardless of area.

Meanwhile, by "weird-shaped" counties, I mean counties whose boundaries include jukes and doglegs, long narrow panhandles, hooks and curling tentacles, blind angles and multiple lobes that, in some cases, give them the look of a gerrymandered voting district; also, some counties whose territory seems to have been needlessly divided into completely separate halves by a body of water. However, I have tried to make allowances for unavoidably weird shapes caused by state lines or coastlines.

I haven't dug much further than making snap judgments based on maps and tables of figures, all publicly available online (Wiki has been a primary source, for what it's worth). So, I totally get the fact, or at least high probability, that it would be impractical to break up all of the "stupidly large" counties identified below. Why? Because I don't know whether their relatively high population is concentrated in one city or distributed across the county's area, and thus, whether or not it would be possible to split it into two or more counties without some of them being ridiculously small in either area or population.

On the "stupidly small" end, because there are simply so many examples, I didn't take time (except a little for Minnesota) to dream up a scheme for merging too-small counties into right-sized ones. So I'm only really suggesting that people involved in state politics think about ways they can break up certain too-big and merge too-small counties. Local folks may kick up a fuss, or maybe not. I think there would be benefits to moving some county lines around and right-sizing those political units, if indeed they are political entities (and I understand that in some states, like Connecticut, they are not). For example, it would relieve the tax burden for the citizens of "stupidly small" counties, having to fund their county government, law enforcement, road work, conservation, etc. when a larger tax base might give them a bit more breathing room. And again, at the "stupidly big" end of things, as well as the "weird shaped" end, it might solve such already existing problems as county officials having to cover an unreasonably large area. In fact, I know some counties that are really dealing with this problem, such as one near where I live that has a separate county fair in both halves of its territory and others that basically have two sheriff's offices or even two county seats.

So here is my case for Minnesota having a bunch of counties that shouldn't exist, at least in their current form. I think parts of the state would definitely benefit from a re-drawing of these lines. But of course, there will be cases where a county's tiny area makes sense because it has a large population, or its huge area can't be profitably broken up because it already has quite a small population.

Stupidly tiny: My state has 87 counties altogether, and 21 of them have a tiny area, around 500 square miles or less: Ramsey (156), Scott (357), Carver (357), Washington (392), Benton (408), Chisago (417), Waseca (423), Anoka (424), Steele (430), Red Lake (432), Watonwan (435), Sherburne (436), Isanti (439), Dodge (440), Le Sueur (449), Nicollet (452), Pipestone (466), Rock (483), McLeod (492), Big Stone (497) and Rice (498).

Coincidentally, it also has 21 counties with a relatively low population, 10,000-ish or less: Traverse (3,286), Lake of the Woods (3,823), Red Lake (3,933), Kittson (4,146), Big Stone (5,145), Mahnomen (5,414), Lincoln (5,567), Cook (5,617), Grant (6,153), Wilkin (6,395), Norman, (6,416), Lac qui Parle (6,684), Murray (8,144), Clearwater (8,576), Marshall (8,988), Pipestone (9,313), Yellow Medicine (9,411), Rock (9,680), Stevens (9,700), Swift (9,749) and Jackson (9,990).

Four Minnesota counties make both lists: Red Lake, Big Stone, Pipestone and Rock. Unless I missed a few. What with adjacent counties being on these lists or near misses, there are a bunch of ways the stitches between them could be unpicked to create larger areas where county business could perhaps be done at a more reasonable cost to the taxpayer. Examples of such pairs that could be combined include Pipestone and Rock, Lincoln and Pipestone, Traverse and Stevens, Traverse and Big Stone, Big Stone and Lac qui Parle, Pennington and Red Lake, Norman and Mahnomen, Yellow Medicine and Lac qui Parle, Stevens and Grant, and even Wadena and the southern lobe of Cass County.

Stupidly huge: 18 Minnesota counties have a population of 50,000 or more: Hennepin (1.3 million), Ramsey (543 K), Dakota (442 K), Anoka (367 K), Washington (272 K), St. Louis (199 K), Olmsted (163 K), Stearns (159 K), Scott (153 K), Wright (145 K), Carver (109 K), Sherburne (99 K), Blue Earth (69 K), Crow Wing (67 K), Rice (67 K), Clay (66 K), Otter Tail (60 K) and Chisago (57 K). Again, I'm not suggesting breaking all of them up, because some of them come by their large population honestly (cough Hennepin cough).

On the other hand, the number 21 pops up again in a list of counties whose area starts around 1,000 square miles and goes up from there: St. Louis (6,225), Koochiching (3,102), Itasca (2,665), Beltrami (2,505), Lake (2,099), Cass (2,017), Otter Tail (1,980), Polk (1,970), Aitkin (1,819), Marshall (1,772), Roseau (1,662), Cook (1,451), Pine (1,411), Stearns (1,345), Becker (1,310), Lake of the Woods (1,297), Morrison (1,125), Kittson (1,097), Clay (1,045), Crow Wing (997) and Clearwater (995). And as I said before, this doesn't necessarily mean it would be a good idea to divide all of them into smaller units, since that would just be making matters worse for the already small and sparse population.

So, the nitty gritty – I promise, when I get to the other states in the union, I won't take so long getting to it – is this: on both "stupidly huge" lists, area-wise and population-wise, are five counties: St. Louis, Stearns, Crow Wing, Clay and Otter Tail. These are big enough in both area and population that, if you can find a line to draw across them without leaving nearly all of the population on one side of it, you might have the makings of a new county. Won't that be fun? I'm guessing the big one, St. Louis County (where Duluth lives) is one that probably can't be broken up like that. But Stearns and Otter Tail both have big enough towns spread out across their large area to make the idea feasible, I think.

There are eight other counties in Minnesota that are fairly big in area and have a large enough population that, at least conceptually, you could split them into two counties each with a population of 10,000 or more. I'm not saying that you could do this in practice, for reasons I don't need to repeat. But those eight are Itasca, Beltrami, Cass, Pine, Polk, Becker, Morrison and Todd.

Weird-shaped: Just look at them! Ell-shaped Polk County, which actually curls around Red Lake County so that the latter is bounded only by Polk and Pennington. There's definitely an east/west division within Polk County. Then there's Cass, whose two lobes are unequally and crookedly joined together; Beltrami, that zig-zags in a similar way; and Itasca, another roughly ell-shaped affair that is also flagrantly misnamed, since Lake Itasca (the headwaters of the Mississippi River) is all the way over in Clearwater County. Don't get me started on counties named after places in other counties; I've actually written a newspaper column about that, and it's a whole 'nother story. These are pretty solvable problems, I think, given that a lot of the part of Minnesota these counties lie in is fairly undeveloped, so moving a few boundaries wouldn't put too many noses out of joint.

When we continue in my next post, we'll go much more quickly through the other 49 states, some of which have few to none, others quite a lot, in the way of counties that are stupidly big, stupidly small or weird-shaped. Till then, argue nicely in the comments, K?

EDIT: I've gone on to mention counties where I've lived in each state in the subsequent post. In this regard, Minnesota tops them all; at different times in my life, I've lived in the counties of Mower, Waseca, Hennepin, Morrison (at least temporarily), Crow Wing, Blue Earth, and currently Hubbard. My dad and stepmom currently live in Wadena County; for a while, my mom had a place in Otter Tail, but that convenient arrangement is no more. Finally, my brother and his family live in Sherburne County.

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