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County governments in the United States function as local administrative arms within the states. In the early 2000s the National Association of Counties recognized 3,066 U.S. counties. All states except Connecticut and Rhode Island have functioning county governments. Alaska and Louisiana call their equivalent political units boroughs and parishes respectively. Originally counties were placed so that a county seat would be no more than a day's journey for everyone within the county borders. However, contemporary U.S. counties share no equivalence in either geographic size or population. Arlington County, Virginia, is 67 square kilometers while the North Slope Borough of
Alaska is 227,559 square kilometers. Loving County, Texas, has 140 residents while Los Angeles County, California, has 9.2 million residents. County governments perform essential administrative functions such as registering voters, supervising elections, keeping records, providing police protection, and administrating health and welfare services.
Origins and Early History
American county governments are historically rooted in the English shire. Shires were governmental units created in the ninth century By the kingdom of England to serve as local administrative arms of the crown. The shires were renamed "counties" after the Norman Conquest in 1066, but retained their function. Government in the English county operated under a plural executive. The shire-reeve, or "sheriff" shared power with the justices of the peace.
The American colonies incorporated the county as a form of local government. The first colonial counties were established in Virginia in 1634. Eight counties served as administrative districts for the commonwealth. The colonial governor appointed multiple officials to a county court that governed the counties. The sheriff and several justices of the peace shared executive power. The other colonies established county governments shortly after Virginia. The counties in the southern colonies modeled themselves on Virginia, while northern colonies developed differently. These colonies did adopt a plural form of county governance, but the county had reduced responsibilities due to the predominance of already existing towns and cities. New York and New Jersey even went so far as to establish city and town officials as representatives on the county boards of supervisors. Northern counties were the first to elect rather than appoint county officials.
After American independence, counties simply be-came administrative arms of the states rather than the crown. Executive power remained diffused and the North-South distinctions in the scope of county responsibility also remained. The "middle" states and the new northwestern states created counties that were hybrids of the northern and southern models. Counties were the first form of local government in these states, yet these states lacked a landed aristocracy. The most influential case of this type is Pennsylvania, which in 1682 established three county commissions with commissioners elected "at large" By the citizens of each county. Like the southern colonies, Pennsylvania established counties as the predominant form of local government. Like the northern colonies, the local officials were elected By the citizenry rather than selected by and from the landed elite. This Pennsylvania model of county government spread to western states such as Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. By the 1830s most states had established elected county boards.
The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of local government. Unlike the states, which enjoy a federal governing relationship enshrined in the constitution, counties are part of a unitary governing relationship within the various states. The U.S. Constitution established a federal system whereby governmental power was divided between the national government and the states. The unitary system that controls local government vests all power in the state governments. Counties exist merely as agents of the states and enjoy only those powers expressly given to them By the state government. The relationship is best summarized in the 1845 U.S. Supreme Court case State of Mary land v. Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The court held that "counties are nothing more than certain portions of the territory into which the state is divided for the more convenient exercise of powers of government."
For most of U.S. history the core function of county government was to fulfill the administrative mandates of their respective states. This included "housekeeping" functions such as assessing and collecting property taxes, registering voters and administering elections, providing law enforcement, prosecuting criminals, administering a jail, recording deeds and other legal records, maintaining roads, keeping vital statistics, and controlling communicable diseases.
Urbanization (and suburbanization) brought to highly populated counties additional government functions such as the administration of mass transportation, airports, water supply and sewage disposal, hospitals, building and housing codes, public housing, stadiums, recreation and cultural programs, libraries, and consumer protection. Counties have also played a major administrative role in welfare programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid, and in state mandated environmental programs. The number of functional roles that a county government assumes is highly dependent on the population of the county. While nearly all counties assume the traditional "housekeeping" roles identified earlier, only the counties with populations over one million tend to assume all of the roles identified above.
The growing functional role of county governments has not been met with increased autonomy or legislative power. The functions that county governments assume are highly determined by what the states mandate. County governments rarely legislate general ordinances in the way that city councils do. Instead, the county government's legislative power is usually limited to zoning issues and building regulations.
Governmental Structure and Reform
Although county governments have a variety of organizational structures, most have a similar core of officials. The county sheriff heads police protection, serves warrants from the county courts, and runs the county jail. The coroner runs the county morgue and oversees medical investigations. The county attorney prosecutes people suspected of crimes and provides legal counsel to the county. The clerk of the court registers and keeps legal records. The county treasurer collects and disburses county funds. The election commissioner oversees voter registration and elections. Until the early twentieth century most officials derived compensation primarily from the fees and fines that the county government collected. This "fee system" of compensation was established in and protected by many state constitutions. The fee system yielded to a salary system in the Progressive Era of the 1900s under charges that fee-based compensation led to rampant corruption.
The commission has historically been the predominant governing structure at the county level. The average county commission has three to five members, although the numbers range from just one to over one hundred. There is no chief executive officer on the commission. The commission shares administrative responsibility among the many members and other elected officials such as the sheriff and treasurer. The commission form of government still served as the organizational basis for 61 percent of U.S. counties in the early 2000s.
A Progressive Era reform movement sought to alter the commission structure by adding a professional executive. Iredell County, North Carolina, was the first county government to adopt a council-administrator organizational form. In the early 2000s, 26 percent of U.S. counties operated under this organizational form, in which an elected county council creates policy and an appointed professional administrator carries out this policy.
A much smaller percentage of U.S. counties (thirteen percent) elect an executive. This system has separate elected legislative and executive branches of government. The executive is the formal head and spokesperson of the county, prepares the budget, hires and fires department heads, administers the policies enacted By the council and often has veto power over legislation.
Finally, less than one percent of U.S. counties have merged with cities. Denver, Philadelphia, and San Francisco are simultaneously cities and counties. The first such consolidation was New Orleans and Orleans Parish, Louisiana, in 1805. Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New York were also consolidated in the nineteenth century. Many more mergers have been proposed than have been approved By the voters. In the twentieth century local voters rejected roughly eighty percent of merger proposals.
The reform with the most potential for serious change in county government is not structural, but constitutional. "Home rule" reforms to state constitutions allow counties to create and revise their own charters. Under this system counties could potentially exercise a high degree of discretionary authority. Home rule can be thought of as a shift from a unitary to a limited federal system within a state. For counties, this shift means moving from a government that simply enforces state laws, to a government that passes laws of its own. Progressive Era reformers pushed for home rule provisions and found some success. The first home rule charter was adopted by Los Angeles County, California, in 1913. By the early 2000s more than half of the U.S. states had some provision for county home rule. These provisions range from simply structural home rule (the ability of a county to determine its system of government) to functional home rule, which allows counties to undertake any function unless it is prohibited by state law. The local public has been reluctant to adopt home rule. Less than three percent of U.S. counties have actually created and approved their own charters.