How County Governments Work
By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. | Legally reviewed by Kit Spielberger | Last reviewed June 30, 2021
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County governments are administrative branches of state governments that play an important role in the lives of local residents. While vital, county governments only have authority when the state constitution or a state law gives it to them. Often, states choose to only delegate certain responsibilities, such as law enforcement and zoning regulations, to county governments. This is why county governments vary in how they operate, how they hold elections, and what responsibilities and duties they have.
Why Do We Have County Governments?
To understand the nature of county government, it can help to know how they originated. American law and its political system is derived from equivalent British systems. Originally, "shires" were local English administrative branches of the crown. After the Norman conquest in 1066, shires were renamed "counties" but maintained the same purpose. We can still see traces of their origins in certain names. For example, the name of the head of local law enforcement for shires was a "shire reeve" - the position we now call "sheriff." Just like in medieval times, county governments today focus on carrying out administrative and law enforcement tasks for the state.
That county governments existed at the time of the founding of the country is not surprising. In the 18th century, travel was expensive and citizens could not leave their farms and homesteads to travel to the state capitol to conduct business. County governments provided greater access to government services for local residents, a function they continue to perform today.
That is not to say local government hasn't evolved. In North Carolina, for example, counties were originally run by appointed justices of the peace. It wasn't until after the civil war that North Carolina gave residents the power to elect local county leaders such as the sheriff and coroner. Today, leadership positions in county governments are elected throughout the country.
What Do County Governments Do?
Because states are free to implement their own forms of local government, the responsibilities and obligations of county governments vary, as do how officials are elected. Most, however, perform a variety of administrative functions for the state. These include:
- Enforcing state laws
- Collecting property taxes
- Conducting property assessments
- Issuing driver's licenses
- Maintaining regional parks, libraries, and hospitals
- Regulating electricity, water, and sewage disposal
Types of County Governments
Every state creates its own system of local government, often in the state constitution. While county governments vary in how they operate, hold elections, and the duties they carry out, there are often similarities.
The main types of county governments include:
- The commission system, in which an elected board of county commissioners acts as the legislative body of the county, and also performs executive functions, such as naming the head of departments. Often, there is no single head administrator, although occasionally the commission board will appoint a chief administrative officer
- The council-elected executive system, in which voters elect both the members of the council and the executive. The executive of the county has a similar role to the governor of the county, and may have veto power.
- The council-administrator system, in which voters elect a council, who then appoints an administrator to handle executive tasks. Unlike the council and elected executive system, however, a county administrator will serve by appointment from the council, not have veto power, and can be removed by the council at any time.
County Government Agencies and Departments
Typically, county governments are responsible for maintaining sheriff's departments, which perform all types of local law enforcement actions. Counties also run jails, courts, libraries, and parks. They perform other housekeeping tasks as well, from issuing zoning ordinances to administering state benefits to residents in need. They can contract and build professional stadiums, airports, and public transportation systems. These duties often require a number of employees to carry out. That is why counties have several departments and agencies, each of which will have a set budget and goals. To see one example, Los Angeles County has an organizational chart that lists the various departments and agencies the county government is responsible for running and budgeting for. Keep in mind that L.A. County is the largest county in the U.S. by population, so many counties do not have the same number of employees or departments.
Who Works for County Governments?
County leaders hold elected positions, including sheriffs. However, unelected county employees fulfill the majority of positions that perform the day-to-day operations of the county. Examples include librarians, parks and recreation employees, and sheriff's officers. Even if you exclude teachers (who typically work for the state government) there are millions of workers at the county government level in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Unelected county workers have the same protections as other workers. For example, counties cannot discriminate in their hiring practices on the basis of race, gender, or other protected class. Most county employees are at-will, meaning that they can be fired for any reason that doesn't specifically violate state or federal law. However, some county employees, such as sheriff's officers, can be in a union, which can negotiate with the county to prohibit termination except for cause.
How to Become Involved in County Government
Since many leadership positions within county governments are elected, the simplest way to participate is by voting for the candidates who share your goals. Many county governments, including elected and unelected positions, are also available to answer questions and concerns. If you are concerned about a regional park or playground with a defective play equipment, for example, you could contact your county's parks and recreation department. Most county government departments have websites with contact information. If the issues facing your county remain unaddressed, you can always run for local office yourself.