Reports & Toolkits

An Overview of County Administration: Appointed County Administrators

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    An Overview of County Administration: Appointed County Administrators

    Counties are responsible for providing core services, such as human services, criminal justice, public welfare and infrastructure, to communities of all sizes across America. More than 39,000 county elected officials invest $482.1 billion annually to serve 307 million county residents across the country. Counties are able to provide a vast array of services through the work of 3.3 million employees.

    To help with the increasing complexity of county activities and the range of responsibilities, many county boards appoint county administrators.  “County administrator” is a function with various titles and fulfilled by different county positions around the country.  Most often, county administrators implement the board’s policy, run the daily operations of the county and prepare the annual budget.  This analysis examines the occurrence of the function of county administrator and manager (called “county administrator” hereafter).

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    County administrators play a major role in overseeing county operations. 

    Depending on the county governanc​e structure and state statutes, administrators’ powers and duties vary substantially across counties.  Forty-four (44) percent of the 1,322 county administrators have a high level of authority, appointing and removing all or most county department heads, supervising county departments, the budget preparation and the day-to-day operation of the county.  This trend is more pronounced in the West, where three quarters of county administrators play this role (See Fig. 1).  Another group of county administrators, about a third of them, are in charge of the daily operations of the county and the preparation of the annual budget, but cannot appoint and remove most department directors and have no direct supervisory authority over some county departments.  The overwhelming majority of county administrators in Northeast fit this description.  The rest of the county administrators are authorized to ensure administrative action on the county board policies, prepare draft ordinances and reports and provide administrative coordination between county departments.

    Fig.1 Level of Authority of County Administrators by Region, as of May 2015

    Source: NACo analysis, as of May 2015

    Notes: National classification based on Roger Kemp, Forms of Local Government: A Handbook on City, County and Regional Options (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2007). For clarification purposes, this analysis uses the terms “high level authority”, “mid-level authority’ and “low level authority” instead of “county manager”, “chief administrative officer “and “administrative coordinator” types identified in the mentioned study.  Connecticut and Rhode Island do not have county governments

    County administrator is a function fulfilled by 115 different titles and positions around the country.

    County boards can hire positions focused on county administrator duties or they can appoint one of the other county positions as a county administrator, in addition to their main function.  “County administrator” and “county manager” are the most popular titles amongst the appointed county administrators who perform county administrator duties primarily, but they may have more than 100 titles from “chief administrative officer” to “county director.”  The titles of appointed county administrators who perform the county administration duties in addition to their main obligations vary widely, but most often they are “chief clerks.”  Other positions in a county may be appointed to take on administrator duties, such as the current highway commissioner in Menominee County, Wis.  County administrators in Pennsylvania have the widest variety of titles, 13 in total (See Map 1).

    Map 1.  Number of Titles of County Administrators, as of May 2015 ​(Click on the map to view the data in the County Explorer)

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    NACo High Performance Leadership Academy

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Peter Austin, McHenry County, Ill. Administrator discusses his experience with the responsibilities, challenges and successes as an appointed county administrator.

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