Is it worth it?

We know we’re going to get some hate mail for this but the new census figures force the question to be asked.

Is it worthwhile to have a county with only 2,151 people in it, a county that lost almost nine percent of the 2,382 people it had a decade ago?

It’s not a new question. It’s been asked after other decennial counts and sometimes in between. It is a delicate question, though, because it goes to a person’s sense of place and the sense of place is extremely important to all of us.

There used to be a little town called Cedar City at the foot of the Missouri River bridge that linked Jefferson City with Callaway County. The town dated from 1870 and was a place for homes, churches, and a school. It was never very big. It was flooded several times but the people always came back. Many years ago Jefferson City tried to buy out the town, move residents north to the location of a planned new highway interchange, and turn the townsite into an industrial development project. The townsfolks in Cedar City flat-out rejected the overture. This was their town. This was where generations of their families had lived. It might be a pretty poor town but it was THEIR town. It was their home. Then came 1993 and the flood that killed Cedar City. Most of what used to be the town is now a Jefferson City Park.

So questioning the sense of place is pretty ticklish stuff.

The census numbers can lead one down several paths. But let’s stay with Worth County for a bit because its situation is only one part of a situation in north Missouri, a rural area with few people. If we have to ask whether Worth is worth it, we also must ask if Mercer and Knox counties are worth it either, or Schuyler, Scotland, Holt, Putnam, and Atchison are worth it. How small is too small for a county?

Thirteen of Missouri’s least-populous counties in the northernmost two tiers of counties. Counting backwards: Worth, 115; Mercer, 114, Knox, 113, Schuyler, 112, Scotland, 111, Holt, 110, Putnam, 109, Atchison, 108, Sullivan 104; Gentry, 103; Clark 102; Davies, 99; Harrison 96 The most populous of he group, Harrison County, has 8,957 people. (Missouri has 114 counties. The City of St. Louis also has county structures—a sheriff, for example—so that’s that’s why Worth County is listed as 115.)

Putnam (109) through Worth (115) all have fewer than 5,000 people in the most recent census. And yet each has all of the regular county offices. All have courthouses.

So every ten years some folks start asking if the costs to taxpayers would be less if some of these counties merged, creating one county commission, one collector, one assessor, one clerk, etc.

Another consideration is this: Other than St. Louis County, which came into being in 1876 when voters decided to separate the city from the county, Missouri has not created a new county since Carter County was born in 1859. That was back in the days when villages were formed within one day’s wagon ride of each other. Does that same standard need to be the practical standard in maintaining our county structure 150 years later?

And then there’s this: Has anybody ever thought that there have been a lot of people since 1859 who are even more worthy of honor than some of those whose names have been attached to our present counties. Worth County was named for a Mexican-American War general who died in 1849 and was, as far as we know, never in Missouri. Mercer County was carved out of Grundy County in 1845 and named for Revolutionary War General Hugh Mercer who died in that war. Schuyler is named for a U.S. Senator from New York who died in 1804. Putnam was named for Revolutionary War officer Israel Putnam, who died in 1790. Shelby County is named for a governor of Kentucky.

Missouri has redrawn county lines in the past and has renamed several counties in the past. Every ten years the census numbers prompt discussions of realigning some of our counties. Obviously those discussions haven’t gotten far.

We’ll be watching to see if there’s a discussion this time about whether it’s worth it to have Worth County.

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