Learn About What Counties Do

County governments affect the lives of Americans across the country every day. The nation's 3,069 counties keep important records – like birth certificates, marriage licenses, court documents and land purchases. Counties build roads and bridges and ensure their safety. Some counties maintain parks with fields for soccer and baseball. They care for the sick, operate hospitals, pick up trash, and run courts and jails.

County governments have a variety of responsibilities, which vary from state to state. This section of the Web site provides you with a glimpse of county governments, their history and the services they provide.

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 [link]

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.

 

Research County Names

"County names in the United States stress individuals. That practice was a cartographical phenomenon less prevalent in the Old Word but customary when English settlers adapted to the New World. American space created opportunity for self-aggrandizement in name as well as substance and for the openly expressed adulation of others." - William Howard Taft, III in County Names: An Historical Perspective

What's in a Name? A Look at County Names

County names begin with every letter of the alphabet, except for X. Twenty-nine percent of the counties in the United States start with the letters C, M, or S. Only one percent begin with Q, Y or Z.

Although you may think your county's name is unique, there is a 56 percent chance that in another state, there is a county by that same name, spelled exactly the same way. If you set aside spelling differences, the chances become even greater.

A large percentage of counties were named after presidents and other historical figures. Washington County, the most common county, can be found in thirty states. Similarly, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Madison Counties together total ninety four counties in thirty five states. Interestingly, of the forty two presidents' names, only eight, Taft, Coolidge, Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon and Bush, can not be found as county names.

Animal named counties can be found across the country. There are beaver counties in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Utah; buffalo counties in Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin; elk counties in Kansas and Pennsylvania; an antelope county in Nebraska; a bee county in Texas; a caribou county in Idaho; an eagle county in Colorado; a manatee county in Florida; and an otter tail county in Minnesota.

Many counties share the same name as states. You'll find Delaware counties in Iowa, Indiana, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania; Ohio counties in Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia; Wyoming counties in New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia; Iowa counties in Iowa and Wisconsin; Mississippi counties in Arkansas and Missouri; Nevada counties in Arkansas and California; Texas counties in Missouri and Oklahoma; a Colorado county in Texas; and an Oregon county in Missouri.

The majority of county names, 94 percent, contain only one word. The award for longest county name (14 letters) is a tie between Northumberland County, Pennsylvania and Northumberland County, Virginia. However, Chattahoochee County, Georgia and Collingsworth County, Texas are close runner-ups, with thirteen letters each. Twenty seven counties, which all contain three letters, share the award for shortest county name. These include Ada County, ID; Bay County, FL; Bay County, MI; Bee County, TX; Day County, SD; Elk County, KS; Elk County, PA; Gem County, ID; Ida County, IA; Jay County, IL; Kay County, OK; Lea County; NM; Lee County, AL; Lee County, AR; Lee County, FL; Lee County, GA; Lee County, IA; Lee County, IL; Lee County, KY; Lee County, MS; Lee County, NC; Lee County, SC; Lee County, TX; Lee County, VA; Nye County, NV; Ray County, MO; and Sac County, IA. 

The Top 24 Most Common County Names
The top 24 most common county names and their locations:
County Name Locations Number
Washington Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin 30
Jefferson Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin 26
Franklin Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, Washington 25
Jackson Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, West Virginia 24
Lincoln Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming 24
Madison Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia 20
Clay Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia 18
Montgomery Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia 18
Union Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee 18
Monroe Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin, West Virginia 17
Marion Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia 17
Wayne Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia 16
Grant Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin 15
Greene Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia 14
Warren Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia 14
Carroll Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia 13
Adams Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, Wisconsin 12
Clark Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin 12
Douglas Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin 12
Johnson Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming 12
Lake California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee 12
Lee Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia 12
Marshall Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia 12
Polk Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin 12

 

The History of County Names

In his book, County Names: An Historical Perspective, William Howard Taft III, grandson of our 27th president, said this about county names:

"County names act as signposts in an historical panorama. They often testify to the allegiances of the past. They echo once prevailing social sentiments. They perpetuate the names of personalities otherwise faded from the scene but famous once. Some underline the interplay of character and event."

If one examines the history of county names, it appears that his statement is quite accurate. County names in New York recall Native Americans, the English and Dutch colonists, heroes of the Revolutionary War years, Presidents and early politicians. For example, Genesee County, NY, was named from a Seneca Indian word meaning "good valley." Rensselaer County was named in honor of the family of Killiaen Van Rensselaer, one of the first Dutch landholders in New York. Greene County, NY, was named in honor of General Nathaniel Greene who fought in the Revolutionary War. Jefferson County, NY, was named after our third president and Clinton County, NY, was named in honor of George Clinton, New York's first governor.

Florida's 67 counties, are named after politicians (fourteen), presidents (seven, including Jackson, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Polk, Taylor, and Washington), military figures (nine), explorers and other important figures (thirteen, including, Juan Ponce de Leon and Benjamin Franklin), Native American words (nine), nature (eleven, such as Palm Beach County, named after Palm Trees and beaches, and Lake County, named after the large number of lakes in the region) and what Taft refers to as "allegiances of the past," (four, such as Liberty County, named after the common objective of the American People and Union County, for unity.)

Similarly, counties in Utah were named after politicians, presidents and Native American words. However, the history of some Utah counties' names are not as clear as others. The origin of the county name Duchesne is one of those, although there are six historical possibilities. Some people believe this county was named from the Ute Indian word "doo-shane" meaning dark canyon. Others believe it was named after the French Fort Duchesne or in honor of Rose Du Chense, founder of the sacred heart in Utah. The three remaining possibilities include being named after an Indian chief, a French Fur Trapper named Du Chasne, and Andre Duchense, a French geographer and historian. The origin of the name of Wayne County, Utah, is also in dispute, although the dispute is between two possibilities, not six. These include being named for Wayne Robinson, the son of Utah State Legislator, Willis E. Robinson or for Revolutionary War General Anthony Wayne. The history of Iron County's name is not in dispute, however Iron County was originally called Little Salt Lake Valley County and was later changed in reminder of the iron mines located within county borders.

The history of the names of Iowa's 99 counties is just as interesting. When Hamilton County was originally organized, it was named Risley County, after Colonel Risley, a soldier killed in the Mexican War. The name of the county was later changed to Webster. When Webster County was divided in half, the eastern half, in 1856, was given the name of Hamilton, named after Senate President William W. Hamilton. Appanoose County, Iowa, was established by the Iowa Territorial Legislature in 1846. It was named in honor of the Indian Chief of the Sac and Fox Indian tribes who headed the peace party during the Black Hawk War. The literal translation of the word is "A Chief When a Child." Davis County, Iowa, was named in honor of Kentucky Congressman Garret Davis. Although this was the county's formal name, in its early days, the county was referred to as "the Hairy Nation." This name was given to the county because of the "shaggy, rough, unkempt appearance and rude manner of the men that resided in the area."

 

Interactive County Data

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Counties Work

NACo, together with iCivics, has created a full curriculum to educate students, grades 6 through 12, about the important role and functions of county government. The curriculum — along with the online game, "Counties Work" — assists teachers with preparing lessons on county government.