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 Overview of County Government

In the United States, there are 3,069 counties, which vary greatly in size and population. They range in area from 26 square miles (Arlington County, Va.) to 87,860 square miles (North Slope Borough, Alaska). The population of counties varies from Loving County, Texas, with 71 residents, to Los Angeles County, California, which is home to 9.2 million people.

Forty-eight of the 50 states have operational county governments. Connecticut and Rhode Island are divided into geographic regions called counties, but they do not have functioning governments. Alaska calls its counties boroughs and Louisiana calls them parishes.​

 
 

 History of County Government

 

​Counties trace their roots to the English of a thousand years ago. Serving a dual function, the shire acted as the administrative arm of the national government as well as the citizens' local government. The structural form of the shire was adopted along the eastern seaboard of North America by the colonists and adapted to suit the diverse economic and geographic needs of each of the colonies.

When our national government was formed, the framers of the Constitution did not provide for local governments. Rather, they left the matter to the states. Subsequently, early state constitutions generally conceptualized county government as an arm of the state.

After World War I, population growth, and suburban development, the government reform movement strengthened the role of local governments. Those developments set the stage for post World War II urbanization. Changes in structure, greater autonomy from the states, rising revenues, and stronger political accountability ushered in a new era for county government. The counties began providing an ever widening range of services. These trends continue apace today.

Learn more about the History of County Government

 

 County Characteristics

 

Forty-eight of the fifty states have operational county governments. Alaska and Louisiana call their county-type governments boroughs and parishes, respectively. Connecticut and Rhode Island are divided into geographic regions called counties, but they do not have functioning governments, as defined by the Census Bureau.

Hawaii and Delaware each have the fewest counties (3); Texas has the most (254). In addition to the 3,028counties, there are 40city-county governments (i.e., cities that have consolidated government functions with their surrounding counties). Jacksonville/Duval City/County is an example of this types of government structure.

Counties vary greatly in size and population. They range in area from 26 to 87,860 square miles (i.e. Arlington County, Virginia and the North Slope Borough, Alaska). Similarly, the population of counties varies tremendously from Loving County, Texas with 45 residents to Los Angeles County, California, which is home to 9,848,011 people. Counties with populations under 50,000 accounted for about 70 percent of all county governments in 2009.

 

 The Many Hats of County Government

 

Traditionally, counties performed state-mandated duties, which included assessment of property, record keeping (e.g., property and vital statistics), maintenance of rural roads, administration of election and judicial functions, and poor relief. Today, counties rapidly are moving into other areas, undertaking programs relating to child welfare, consumer protection, economic development, employment/training, planning and zoning, and water quality, to name just a few.

Service delivery responsibilities, however, vary widely among counties. For most, construction/maintaining local roads is one of their prime duties. North Carolina counties, however, have no responsibilities in this area. Wide variations also exist in the social service responsibilities and the types of utility services (e.g., water supply) provided by county governments.

That disparity is clearly demonstrated by a review of individual states and the percentage (of total expenditures) their counties spent on various services. For instance, counties in Virginia spent 55 percent of their total expenditures on educational services (including library services) in FY 2001-02. New Hampshire counties spent 67 percent on public welfare services in the same fiscal year. South Dakota counties spent 35 percent of their budget on transportation services for FY 2001-02, and Maine spent 56 percent of its budget on public safety that year.

 

 County Finance

 

Revenues


State constitutions and statutes dictate the revenue sources counties may use. Barely half the states allow counties to impose a sales tax. Only in Indiana and Maryland is a tax on income a significant county revenue source.

According to the 2007 Census of Governments, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, county governments receive just 3 percent of their overall revenue from the federal government. Collectively, counties receive 33 percent of their total revenue from their own home states. Finally, 61 percent of their budget revenue is generated from their own sources. Property taxes account for the largest source, 40 percent, of these self-generated funds.

General and selective sales taxes account for almost 13 percent of self-generated revenue. However, the 2001 NACo Study County Revenue Patterns: A Survey of Authority Practices showed that the following states with a state sales tax do not permit local government to levy a local sales tax: Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and West Virginia. More than half of the counties who responded to the survey reported sales tax as a percentage of the government's revenue.

Property tax continues to be a basic income generator for the 25 largest county governments, although the most recent data shows a noticeable fluctuation in this reliance. Fairfax County, VA reports that 41 percent of its revenue comes from property taxes, while Orange and San Bernardino counties report that only 9 percent of their revenue is from this tax. On average, the top 25 counties report that nearly 22 percent of their revenue comes from property taxes.

For the largest 25 counties, state aid provides a larger percentage of revenue than property taxes. Riverside County, Calif. received 60 percent of this revenue from state aid. The receipts from direct state aid averaged nearly 35 percent of total county revenues.

Expenditures 


In 2002, counties spent nearly half of their resources on social services and education combined. According to the 2002 Census of Governments conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, counties spent $33 billion on public welfare programs. These services included cash assistance payments ($7.468 billion), vendor payments ($1.893 billion), medical services ($1.268 billion), as well as other miscellaneous expenditures. Counties spent $38.19 billion on educational services. Thus, counties allocated roughly 45 percent of the $266.605 billion spent in FY 2001-02 on either social welfare or education.

Debt  


On average, outstanding per capita debt totals $334, representing nearly 1.5 percent of resident per capita income for the counties surveyed in the 1998 NACo study. Outstanding per capita debt is far higher for residents of the most urbanized counties ($500) than for the least urbanized counties ($172).

 
 

 Counties as Employers

 

To fulfill their service responsibilities, county governments employ more than 2 million professional, technical, and clerical personnel. Employment by county governments increased by nearly 37 percent between 1967 and 1997 rising from 1,582,000 full time-equivalent (FTE) personnel to 2,181,000 in 1997. Moreover, the total cost of a typical one-month payroll for all county employees climbed from $1,489,300 to $5,750,400 over the 30-year period.

According to Census Bureau figures, local governments nationwide employed 389.4 FTE per 10,000 population in FY 2000.

 

 Basic Forms of County Government

 

Commission


The distinguishing feature of this type of structure is the fact that legislative authority (e.g., power to enact ordinances and adopt budgets) and executive powers (e.g., to administer policies and appoint county employees) are exercised jointly by an elected commission or board of supervisors.

Although governing body members are most frequently called commissioners or supervisors, these are not universal titles. Some governing body members in Louisiana, for example, are called parish police jurors. The county governing body in most New Jersey counties is the board of chosen freeholders.

Commissioner/Administrator


Under this form, the county board of commissioners appoints an administrator who serves at its pleasure. That individual may be vested with a broad range of powers, including the authority to hire/fire department heads and formulate a budget.

Council-Executive


The separation of powers principle undergirds this governance system. A county executive is the chief administrative officer of the jurisdiction. Typically, he or she has the authority to veto ordinances enacted by the county board (subject to their possible override) and hire/fire department heads.

Although a majority of counties still operate under the commission form, more than 40 percent have shifted to either the county administrator or the elected executive type. State policy-makers have contributed to this trend, as Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee now mandate that counties in those states be headed by an elected executive.