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Section 6: County and City Government

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify the differences between county and municipal governments in terms of their responsibilities and funding sources
  • Describe the two primary types of municipal government and the three basic types of county government

County and city governments make up an important component of the overall structure of the government. Not only do they affect citizens directly; it is also easier for citizens to interact with local government officials because their offices and the community’s school board or city council meetings are often close by. Despite this fact, voter turnout in local elections tends to be lower than in state and national elections. Municipal and county governments differ in structure and purpose in several ways.

COUNTY GOVERNMENT

County governments serve a larger geographical area than cities and towns, but a smaller area than states. They are created by the state government and typically operate under provisions set out in the state constitution. As such, they are essentially administrative units of the state. Census estimates from 2012 indicate that there are just over three thousand counties in the United States.

Brian Lavin. 30 August 2012. “Census Bureau Reports There are 89,004 Local Governments in the United States (CB12-161),” https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/governments/cb12-161.html.

County systems usually take one of three basic forms: the commission system, the council-administrator system, and the council-elected executive system.

The most common form of county government is the commission system. Under this structure, an elected commission, which generally consists of a small number of commissioners, serves as the governing body within the county, performing all legislative and executive functions. These include adopting a budget, passing county resolutions, and hiring and firing county officials.

Frank Coppa. 2000. County Government: A Guide to Efficient and Accountable Government. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing.

Under the council-administrator system, the voters elect council members to serve for a specified period of time, and the council in turn appoints an administrator to oversee the operation of the government. The administrator serves at the directive of the council and can be terminated by the council. The goal of this arrangement is to divide administrative and policymaking responsibilities between the elected council and the appointed administrator.

Coppa, County Government: A Guide to Efficient and Accountable Government.

Under a council-elected executive system, the voters elect both the members of the council and the executive. The executive performs functions similar to those of the state governor. For instance, he or she can veto the actions of the council, draft a budget, and provide suggestions regarding public policy.

Coppa, County Government: A Guide to Efficient and Accountable Government.

Although the tasks they perform can vary from state to state, most counties have a courthouse that houses county officials, such as the sheriff, the county clerk, the assessor, the treasurer, the coroner, and the engineer. These officials carry out a variety of important functions and oversee the responsibilities of running a county government. For instance, the county coroner investigates the cause of death when suspicious circumstances are present. The county clerk oversees the registration of voters and also certifies election results for the county. In addition, this officeholder typically keeps the official birth, death, and marriage records. The county treasurer oversees the collection and distribution of funds within the county, while the county assessor conducts property tax evaluations and informs individual citizens or business owners of their right to contest the appraised value of their property. Finally, a county engineer will oversee the maintenance and construction of county infrastructure.

Coppa, County Government: A Guide to Efficient and Accountable Government.

In short, counties help to maintain roads and bridges, courthouses and jails, parks and pools, and public libraries, hospitals, and clinics.

http://www.naco.org/counties (March 14, 2016).

To provide these services, county governments typically rely on property tax revenue, a portion of sales tax receipts, and funds from intergovernmental transfers by way of federal or state grants.

CITY GOVERNMENT

Municipal governments oversee the operation and functions of cities and towns. Census estimates for 2012 show just over 19,500 municipal governments and nearly 16,500 township governments in the United States.

Lavin, “Census Bureau Reports There are 89,004 Local Governments in the United States (CB12-161).”

The vast majority of municipal governments operate on one of two governing models: a mayor-council system or a council-manager system.

Under the mayor-council system voters elect both a mayor and members of the city council. The city council performs legislative functions and the mayor the executive functions. Under this system, the mayor may be given a great deal of authority or only limited powers.

“Forms of Municipal Government,” http://www.nlc.org/build-skills-and-networks/resources/cities-101/city-structures/forms-of-municipal-government (March 14, 2016).

Under a strong mayor system, the mayor will be able to veto the actions of the council, appoint and fire the heads of city departments, and produce a budget. Under a weak mayor system, the mayor has little authority compared to the council and acts in a ceremonial capacity as a spokesperson for the city.

“Mayoral Powers,” http://www.nlc.org/build-skills-and-networks/resources/cities-101/city-officials/mayoral-powers (March 14, 2016).

In a council-manager system of government, either the members of the city council are elected by voters along with a mayor who presides over the council, or the voters elect members of the city council and the mayor is chosen from among them. In either case, the city council will then appoint a city manager to carry out the administrative functions of the municipal government. This frees the city council to address political functions such as setting policy and formulating the budget.

“Forms of Municipal Government.”

Municipal governments are responsible for providing clean water as well as sewage and garbage disposal. They must maintain city facilities, such as parks, streetlights, and stadiums (Figure). In addition, they address zoning and building regulations, promote the city’s economic development, and provide law enforcement, public transportation, and fire protection. Municipal governments typically rely on property tax revenue, user fees from trash collection and the provision of water and sewer services, a portion of sales tax receipts, and taxes on business.

An image of the inside of a stadium. The stands are filled with people.

The Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas, is home to various sporting events. The stadium first opened for business in 2011, and taxpayers financed $146 million of the total cost to build the stadium, an office park, and a youth soccer complex.

Mark Alesia, “Kansas City has Stadium Success Story—in Major League Soccer,” Indy Star, 18 March 2015. http://www.indystar.com/story/news/2015/03/17/kansas-city-stadium-success-story-major-league-soccer/24928853/.

(credit: Wesley Fryer)

The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) provides networking opportunities, professional development, and statistical data in order to support local government leaders and other individuals throughout the world. Visit the ICMA Priorities page to learn what makes a better leader and how you might improve your local community.

Summary

County governments can adopt the commission system, the council-administrator system, and the council-elected executive system of government to carry out their functions, which usually include the work of the sheriff, the county clerk, the assessor, the treasurer, the coroner, and the engineer. Municipal governments can use the mayor-council system or the council-manager system and manage services such as the provision of clean water, park maintenance, and local law enforcement. Cities and counties both rely on tax revenues, especially property taxes, to fund their provision of services.

Under the mayor-council system, the ________.

  1. legislative and executive responsibilities are separated
  2. political and administrative functions are separated
  3. mayor chairs the city council
  4. city council selects the mayor

Which of the following is not one of the three forms of county government?

  1. the commission system
  2. the council-elected executive system
  3. the mayor-council system
  4. the council-administrator system

What are the primary responsibilities of municipal governments?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of having so many levels of subnational governments in the United States? Explain.

In which level of substate government would you be most likely to get involved? Why?

Is it preferable for representatives in the state legislature to behave as trustees or as delegates? Why?

Do term limits seem to have more advantages or disadvantages? Defend your answer.

Council of State Governments. 2014. The Book of the States. Lexington, KY: The Council of State Governments.

Elazar, Daniel. 1972. American Federalism: A View from the States, 2nd ed. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.

Governing: The State and Localities (http://www.governing.com/).

National Association of Counties (http://www.naco.org/).

National Conference of State Legislatures (http://www.ncsl.org/).

National Governors Association (http://www.nga.org/cms/home.html).

National League of Cities (http://www.nlc.org/).

Rosenthal, Alan. 2013. The Best Job in Politics; Exploring How Governors Succeed as Policy Leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press.

———. 2004. Heavy Lifting: The Job of State Legislatures. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press.

Wright, Ralph. 2005. Inside the Statehouse: Lessons from the Speaker. Washington, DC: CQ Press.

United States Census Bureau, “Quick Facts: United States” (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/index.html).

Glossary

commission system
an elected commission that serves as the governing body within a given county
council-administrator system
an elected council that appoints an administrator to oversee the operation of the county government
council-elected executive system
a county government in which voters elect both the members of the council and the executive
council-manager system
a structure of government in which elected members of the city council appoint a city manager to carry out administrative functions
mayor-council system
a structure of government in which both city council members and the mayor are elected by voters