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

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.

Cathedral Falls

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%.

Gauley Bridge

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.

Railroad Bridge

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?

Kanawha Falls

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.”

- Ken

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8 comments to Country Roads = Cash Cow

  • Anita Canterbury

    Ken,
    I have been saying the same thing for years. Gauley Bridge, Pratt, Glasgow, etc. are just a few local areas that need to be unincorporated. Businesses are shutting down in Gauley Bridge, tourists drive extra miles to avoid the area, etc. I drive through the town all the time, and I will be honest when I say that I have never been stopped. I do always watch my speed. Speed limits should be followed, I don’t disagree with that, but when I read the recent story in the Charleston paper about the out of state person that was watching her speed limit, and still got stopped, it made me wonder how many more people that had happened to. Think about it–cheaper to pay the $150 ticket, than make another trip back in to fight it.
    It was my understanding that if the Mayor was the also the judge, the town could not receive more than 50% of it’s revenue through tickets. I thought this was WV Code. I would like to see an attorney challenge this, and prove that they have violated the law, and all the past tickets would be null and void. Just a thought for any attorney that would want to tackle this. The number of tickets would appear to make it a Class Action suit. Just a thought for any great legal minds.

  • ken

    You know, it occurred to me after I posted this article that I probably should have mentioned that I’ve never been stuck with a speeding ticket in Gauley Bridge – so it’s nothing personal.

    The thing is, Vicki and I have relatives all over the southern half of the state, so I’ve spent a lot of time driving through all these little towns. Everywhere you go you see these small town cops pulling all sorts of crappy stunts to trick people. Lurking out of sight, setting traps, putting the speed limit signs in weird places, you name it. It didn’t take me long to realize that all of this stuff has nothing whatsoever to do with public safety – it’s all about raising money.

    Yeah, to a certain extent you see that everywhere, but I travel a lot, almost always in rural areas, and I can tell you that the level and intensity of it in southern WV is just insane. Way beyond what I encounter anywhere else. It didn’t make any sense to me until I thought about crashing population levels and an evaporating tax base.

    I don’t think the people who run these little towns are proud of their behavior, and the things they encourage and require their cops to do – but they would probably say they don’t have any choice. I think I’d disagree with that. If your need for money is so great that it’s making you do things you’re ashamed of, then you need to make some changes. These little towns are relics of an age that’s gone and isn’t coming back, and dissolving them would be a good place to start.

  • Jennifer

    As always, another good read, Ken!

  • ken

    I think it’s interesting that most of the comments generated by my blog post (5 or 6 people have linked it so far, so there are a lot of Facebook conversations going on) seem to be revolving around whether or not what Gauley Bridge is doing is legal. I’m honestly not smart enough to have an answer to that, but I’m a lot more curious about how otherwise decent people justify doing something that is so obviously immoral and unethical.

    Personally I’m not big on blaming the two bozo cops. In fact, calling them cops is an insult to actual law enforcement officers. They’re just shakedown artists, and the town of Gauley Bridge knew exactly what they were getting when they hired them. If they didn’t, they’ve been reaping the profits now for 6 years. They’ve had plenty of time to figure it out.

  • Patrick Manley

    That’s a good story. Next you aught to do one on how ignerant the cops are. They can’t do anything but right tickets, because that’s all they are traind to do. When something really happens, the job that they were appointed to do doesn’t get done. They try to do as little as possible for there pay and all they have to do is hide behind there badge, act like the real crimes; such as theft, rape, and yes even murder didn’t happen. All they have to do is right a couple of tickets and they make their quota. Then they can go and hide for the rest of the month. The bad thing about it is the mayors and attornies are all on their side so any ticket they write sticks, no matter what really happened because they want their money. So real criminals are walking the streats while innocent people are being extorted.

  • Nancy

    Amen, brother.

    Why do I have it in my head that Gauley Bridge was incorporated in the 1980′s?

  • Buddy

    Yes Ken it looks bad and there may be somthing to small town corruption. Let me ask an honest question. How many of those tickets are legit? I mean was the driver actually guilty? Are the cops harassing inocent citizens? I have been ticketd in that town twice & you know what..I was guilty as sin. As for the power struggle between the state & the town as long the money isn’t going into the pocket of a corrupt cop or polition I think it’s good to let the fines go for local programs. Let the local population hold thier police accountable. Justice is a 2 way street & in theory is the local population that is wronged if the law is broken. Not a polical figure 50 miles away.

  • This has been going on in Ohio for many years in many towns. The difference is that small towns on major highways are the culprit. Since so many folks that are local, or at least local enough to fight, there have been a few towns unincorporated after state investigations.

    Here’s a wiki on what happened to the New Rome, Ohio speed trap.

    The good news is, they probably can be shut down if enough people fight them. The bad news is, the Ohio State Patrol came in and they’re almost as bad. The Ohio State Patrol’s only function in life is traffic and a few odd duties at government buildings. Hopefully, West Virginia’s State Police has better ways to justify their existence.