Earlier this year, Morgan County was informed by the Lt. Governor’s office that its growth in population will result in a change in county classification. No longer a fifth class county, Morgan County is now a fourth class county.
Utah’s 29 counties are classified between first and sixth class counties based on the Census Bureau’s population estimates. By splitting counties into classifications, the legislature is able to easily tailor legislation directed to counties based on population. Virtually every legislation session, there will be legislation passed that treats counties differently based on classification; whether it be more stringent regulations for first and second class counties (who–the reasoning goes–has the population, the tax base, and the infrastructure to meet those regulations) or additional economic resources to fourth, fifth, and sixth class counties.
In moving from one classification of county to another, Morgan joins Uintah County (from fourth to third in 2008) as the only counties to move from one classification to another over the last decade (Washington County barely missed the cutoff, having moved from a third class county to a second class county in 2006). Table 1 shows the counties’ classification over the past decade.
Things get interesting when we project county population moving forward. Using the population estimates from the year 2000 forward, I projected the next ten years of population growth in the state to see what kind of impact that growth might have on county classification in the years to come.* Table 2 shows the changes to county classification we might expect to see in the coming decade.
*I have no doubt that my back of the envelope projections are in no way endorsed by serious statisticians who probably do far more than draw the closest thing to a straight line from previous population figures to project the future. Still, I trust this simplified approach serves its function for this exercise.
According to these projections, Sanpete and Wasatch Counties are likely to move from fourth to third class counties sometime around 2019, while Cache County will become Utah’s newest second class county in 2017. Of course, the biggest possible change is set to take place towards the end of the decade when Utah County’s population will exceed the 700,000 threshold of a first class county. Just think of the enormous number of Salt Lake County specific sections of the code that will have to be amended once Utah County joins the state’s most exclusive club.
In 2004 concern from a number of counties worried about the impact a change in classification would have on county programs and resources spelled out in code, resulted in legislation that shifted the population thresholds for setting county classifications. A couple of years later, the legislature was ready to move the threshold for second class counties to permit Washington County to remain a third class county. Ultimately, Washington County decided that the benefits of the move outweighed the negatives so there was no legislation introduced. I have no doubt that before Utah County exceeds the population threshold to become a first class county, the Legislature will consider moving the finish line again. That’s the beauty of a man-made construct such as county classification: it can always be changed to our liking.
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