Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias Did you catch Hillary Clinton appearing on David Letterman's Late Show recently?

I did. Not because I'm a fan of Hillary Clinton's. It's not like I can vote for her or anything (unless, of course, I, like her, decide to move to New York).

I watched strictly for entertainment purposes. The show did more than entertain, however. In an insidious way, it revealed an issue that someday all South Dakotans are likely going to have to face.

Letterman gave Clinton a pop quiz, asking her to answer various trivia questions about New York. The quiz revealed that the Empire State has 62 counties.

That's when I about fell out of my chair.

Last time I checked, South Dakota has 66 counties.

South Dakota is slightly larger in size than New York. It has a total area of 77,121 square miles.

New York covers 54,475 square miles.

South Dakota is home to 733,133 people, according to the latest figures I could find. There are � and get this � 18,196,601 people who reside in the state of New York.

It's time to do some math now. If you spread the population of South Dakota evenly from border to border, there would be 11,108 people residing in each county.

Do the same thing in New York, and there would be 293,494 residing in each county.

It's easy to understand why New York needs 62 counties. It's so heavily populated. The state's demographics require it.

South Dakota has experienced some population growth, but that growth rate is not near to the degree found in more urban states like New York.

There was a time when county seats couldn't be far from one another in South Dakota. Roads were poor. Transportation was by horse and buggy. There were no telephones, no fax machines, no e-mail.

Technology has vastly changed our lives in the past quarter century. And as we prepare to begin a new millennium, just think of what lies ahead.

Some aspects of today's world make some things barely tolerable in South Dakota. Anyone who has driven from Vermillion to Pierre, for example, knows that even in the comforts of a modern automobile traveling at 75 miles per hour down a wide highway, the journey can test one's spirit of adventure.

We've already reached a point, however, where, sitting in the comfort of our homes, wearing ratty bathrobes and fuzzy slippers, we can simply type a few keys on our personal computers and actually perform some simple transactions with state government.

Who knows what will come next? Voting from home? Registering our automobiles from home? Paying court fines from home?

Technology is making South Dakota shrink. Progress is making the notion of having a state with our population and demographics being cut up into 66 counties a bit impractical.

South Dakotans have heard this message before. The notion of consolidating the state's counties has never been extremely popular.

Maybe it's tradition. Maybe it's our natural fear of change. Or, especially in cities that are home to a county seat, the thought that the community will lose something very significant.

Consolidation of counties, however, could be practical someday with technological advances. It could eliminate duplication of services across the state. It could save taxpayers some money.

If you think it can't work, take a look at Alaska. That state has the nation's largest land mass at 656,425 square miles. Its population is not quite as dense as South Dakota's. In 1998, 621,400 people called Alaska home.

If Alaska followed South Dakota's trend, it would establish a county for every 1,169 square miles of area. That would mean for Alaska to be comparable to South Dakota, in terms of counties per square miles, it would have to establish 561 counties.

Alaska's citizens get by just fine, however, despite the state's forests and mountains and rough climate and extreme size, with just 25 counties. Spread out Alaska's population evenly, and there would be 24,856 people living in each county. That's more than double our state's average county population.

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