Of the 775,400 non-farm employees in West Virginia in November, 155,600 or 20 percent of those worked for government, according to WorkForce West Virginia.
A closer look at the data, which is the latest available, shows:
It may surprise some that local governments in West Virginia employ more people than the state and federal governments combined. But consider: West Virginia has 232 municipalities and 55 county governments, each with elected leaders and some staff.
One indication of local government's size and importance: The county board of education is the largest or second-largest employer in 47 counties, according to WorkForce West Virginia. Whether there is too much government is a debate that repeatedly flares up. Counties are sometimes the focus.
Five counties have been created since West Virginia became a state in 1863 (Mingo, formed from a portion of Logan in 1895, is the newest). A provision in the West Virginia Constitution says the Legislature shall alter or modify a county commission with the assent of a majority of the voters of the county. However, the Constitution is silent about how a county could be dissolved or merged.
The last local government consolidation debate led to the Legislature's approval of metro government legislation in 2006. It allows county commissions to hold hearings and a vote of the citizens to allow county-county, county-city or city-city consolidation.
One goal in 2006 was to create larger Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas in order to raise the area profiles to make them more attractive to new businesses. Although consolidation was discussed in Kanawha and Marion counties, no votes were taken and metro government legislation remains in effect.
"We often hear that ‘West Virginia has too many counties,'" said Patricia Hamilton, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Counties. "I would respond that we have the number of counties that our citizens want to have because the process to dissolve a county is primary citizen- or county-driven. In other words, it would be initiated from the bottom up, not the top down.
"I think if that remains the case and the state is not mandating a consolidation that is not locally supported, then we would support the county and its county officials and citizens in whatever they wanted to do."
Hamilton said when metro government legislation was approved in 2006, the West Virginia Association of Counties had to maintain a neutral position because one of its member groups, the county commissioners, was opposed to it.
"I advised the West Virginia Association of Counties' Board of Directors that the legislation itself was very county-driven as to process and it appeared ‘anti-progressive' if we opposed it," she said. "Therefore, we chose to remain neutral.
"That said, I would point out that there are many mandated regional sharing of services, regional jails, for example, and voluntary cooperative regional services — humane shelters, economic development authorities — through intergovernmental agreements or memorandums of understanding, or in some cases, just being good neighbors," Hamilton said.
She explained that service-sharing allows smaller counties to maintain levels of service they may not otherwise be able to provide on their own while maintaining their county identities at the same time.
"West Virginians tend to identify with their county," Hamilton said. "We have only one county that has a larger population in a municipality — Wheeling — than in the remainder of the county — Ohio.
"We are a small, rural state and the question must be asked, what would be gained by consolidating counties? That action in and of itself does not guarantee economic development. There may be some savings on implementation of county services or operating only one courthouse. But ask the citizens of Wirt County if they want to lose their beautiful courthouse."