Country Roads = Cash Cow
My hometown made the news last week, but it sure wasn’t for anything you’d be proud of.Gauley Bridge is a cozy little town built on a hillside in Fayette County, West Virginia. It sits at the confluence of the New River and the Gauley River, where they come together to form the Kanawha. It’s named for a bridge that was built there in the mid-1800’s – one of the few places where people could cross the Gauley back in those days. The bridge was destroyed (several times, actually) during the Civil War, and the old piers can still be seen from the riverbank.
It’s a beautiful place, with amazing scenery and friendly people – but unfortunately there’s something really ugly going on back home.
It turns out that the police force in the little town of Gauley Bridge issues more speeding tickets each year than any other municipality in the state of West Virginia. To understand just how absurd that is, you need to look at population figures. Gauley Bridge has less than 800 residents, the city of Charleston has 50,000 – and yet Gauley Bridge issues more speeding tickets than Charleston? Yup. More than Charleston, more than Huntington, more than Beckley. In fact, the little town of Gauley Bridge, with maybe four miles of paved road in the whole place, issues more speeding tickets than any single county in the state.Sure, small towns are speed traps. It happens everywhere. I get that. But what we’re talking about here is a level of simple extortion that beggars the imagination – but as bad as it looks, the published numbers don’t seem to tell the whole story. It may be a lot worse, because there’s some evidence that the town hasn’t been reporting all the tickets they write. If you pay the fine and don’t make a fuss, they don’t report it to the DMV, so your insurance company won’t find out about it. Not only does that hide how many speeding tickets the town police actually issued, but it’s also against the law.
So what the hell is going on here? As I’m sure you can imagine, accusations have been flying left and right since all this hit the papers. Corruption, larceny, embezzlement, fraud – you name it. But I don’t think you need to look that deep to find an explanation. All you have to do is look at the town’s operating budget, because nearly 60% of the their annual revenue comes from speeding tickets.
Yeah, you read it correctly. Almost 60%.To understand all of this, you need to understand a little bit of the recent history of southern West Virginia, and Fayette County in particular.
The region has never been what you’d call crowded, but the population peaked in the 1950’s. The United States was going through a population explosion, and the growing nation needed a lot of energy, and back then that meant coal. So the coal business was booming, and it was very manpower intensive at the time, so there was a huge demand for labor. People flooded in to meet the need. Schools were built, businesses thrived, and healthy, active little communities popped up everywhere.
In the early 60’s all that started to change. Automation and machinery started to have an impact on how many miners you actually needed, and the emphasis started to shift from deep (underground) mining to strip mining, where heavy equipment is an even bigger factor. The result of these changes was that over the next 40 or 50 years, the amount of coal produced steadily climbed, while the number of people it employed steadily dropped.
Here in Lenoir where I live now, something similar is happening because about 8 years ago all the furniture factories shut down and all the work went to China – but the way people are reacting is different. Here it was a sudden, cataclysmic event, and the people saw it happening and are trying very hard to do something about it. Back home in the coalfields it was more of a slow bleed. Over time the jobs just trickled away, and so naturally the people trickled away as well.The result of all of this is that the population of Fayette County has dropped by almost 70% over the last 60 years. Can you imagine that? If you started with 1000 people living in an area, then now you’ve got 300. To make matters worse, most of the people who stayed were of retirement age, so not only has the population shrunk dramatically, but the average age has climbed steadily. In terms of percentages, parts of southern West Virginia have seen a greater population decline than any other region in the United States, and the average age is higher than any other state except Florida.
But the population decline isn’t really the problem that has led so many places to the immoral practice of depending on speeding tickets for revenue. The problem is that even though the vast majority of the people left, the towns are still there. The businesses and most of the people are gone, so most of the tax base is gone, but the governments are still trying to function.
If you’re reading this, the odds are good you live in a subdivision. Here in North Carolina it’s not uncommon to see subdivisions with more than 800 residents. In fact, I’d say most of them probably have more people than that. Now imagine if your subdivision decided to elect a mayor, appoint a town council, build a town hall, start supplying utilities, picking up the trash, maintaining streets, and hiring a police force. Where would all the money come from?The whole idea sounds absurd, doesn’t it? And yet that’s exactly the situation you see across so much of West Virginia. It didn’t start that way. In the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s when most of these towns incorporated there was a genuine need for the kind of infrastructure and support they provide, and there was enough economic activity to sustain them. That simply isn’t the case today, but there doesn’t seem to be any mechanism (or desire) in place to un-incorporate. They just keep limping along.
Considering the circumstances, I guess it’s no surprise that otherwise good people would eventually toss their ethics out the window and basically become little more than leeches. Gauley Bridge may be the most egregious example, but it certainly isn’t the only one in the area. Until people accept the fact that they’re going to have to start dissolving these government entities and doing without, it’s only going to get worse. There simply aren’t any alternatives for revenue, and there aren’t going to be any.
As someone who maintains a lot of emotional connections to that part of the world, it’s both disgusting and humiliating – but I guess in some ways it could be seen as an improvement. It used to be that when I’d tell people I was from southern West Virginia they’d ask me if I married my sister. Now when I tell people they say “Holy cow. I drove through there once. Never again.”