Local government in the United States

Local government in the United States

Local government in the United States is generally structured in accordance with the laws of the various individual states. Typically each state has at least two separate tiers: counties (known in Louisiana as parishes and as boroughs in Alaska), and municipalities. Some states have their counties divided into townships. In turn there are several different types of municipal government, generally reflecting the needs of different levels of population densities; although the types and nature of these municipal entities varies from state to state, typical examples include the city, town, borough,and village. Many rural areas and even some suburban areas of many states have no municipal government below the county level. In a few states, there is only one level of local government: Hawaii has no legal municipalities below the county level; while Connecticut and Rhode Island's counties serve no legal function—these being filled by city and town governments.

In addition to the above, there are also often local or regional special districts that exist for specific purposes, such as to provide fire protection, sewer service, transit service or to manage water resources. In many states, school districts manage the schools. Such special purpose districts often encompass areas in multiple municipalities.

Finally, in some places the different tiers are merged together, for example as a consolidated city-county.

Types of local government

Since the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution makes local government for the most part a matter of state rather than federal law, the states are free to adopt a wide variety of systems of local government. Nonetheless, the United States Census Bureau, which conducts the Census of Governments every five years, groups local governments in the United States into the following five categories:. [ [http://www.census.gov/prod/2005pubs/gc021x2.pdf 2002 Census of Governments, Individual State Descriptions] (PDF)]

County governments

County governments are organized local governments authorized in state constitutions and statutes and established to provide general government in an area generally defined as a first-tier geographic division of a state. The category includes those governments designated as boroughs in Alaska, as parishes in Louisiana, and as counties in other states.

All the states are divided into counties or county-equivalents (referred to as boroughs in Alaska and parishes in Louisiana), though only a portion of Alaska is so divided. Connecticut and Rhode Island have completely eliminated county government, and Massachusetts has partially eliminated it. The locality which houses the county's main offices is known as the county seat.

In areas lacking a municipal or township government, the county government is generally responsible for providing all services.

ubcounty general purpose governments

This category includes municipal and township governments. Municipal and township governments are distinguished primarily by the historical circumstances surrounding their formation.

Municipal governments

Municipal governments are organized local governments authorized in state constitutions and statutes and established to provide general government for a defined area, generally corresponding to a population center rather than one of a set of areas into which a county is divided. The category includes those governments designated as cities, boroughs (except in Alaska), towns (except in Minnesota, New York, and Wisconsin),and villages. This concept corresponds roughly to the "incorporated places" that are recognized in Census Bureau reporting of population and housing statistics, although the Census Bureau excludes New England towns from their statistics for this category, and the count of municipal governments excludes places that are currently governmentally inactive.

Municipalities range in size from the very small (e.g., the Village of Lazy Lake, Florida, with 38 residents), to the very large (e.g., New York City, with about 8 million people), and this is reflected in the range of types of municipal governments that exist in different areas.

In most states, county and municipal governments exist side-by-side. There are exceptions to this, however. In some states, a city can, either by separating from its county or counties or by merging with one or more counties, become independent of any separately functioning county government and function both as a county and as a city. Depending on the state, such a city is known as either an independent city or a consolidated city-county. Such a jurisdiction constitutes a county-equivalent and is analogous to a unitary authority in other countries. In Connecticut, Rhode Island, and parts of Massachusetts, counties exist only to designate boundaries for such state-level functions as park districts (Connecticut) or judicial offices (Massachusetts).

Township governments

Township governments are organized local governments authorized in state constitutions and statutes and established to provide general government for a defined area, generally corresponding to one of a set of areas into which a county is divided. The category includes those governments designated as towns in Minnesota, New York, and Wisconsin, and townships in other states that have them; the Census Bureau also includes New England towns in this category. Depending on state law and local circumstance, a township may or may not be incorporated.

New England towns

The Census Bureau includes New England towns in the category of townships because of the historical circumstances of their formation. However, because county government in the New England states is weak or nonexistent, New England towns have considerably more power than townships elsewhere and often function as independent cities in all but name. Also, there is a tradition of local government presided over by town meetings — assemblies open to all voters to express their opinions on public policy.

chool district governments

School districts are organized local entities providing public elementary, secondary, and/or higher education which, under state law, have sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate governments. The category excludes dependent public school systems of county, municipal, township, or state governments (e.g., school divisions).

pecial district governments

Special districts are all organized local entities other than the four categories listed above, authorized by state law to provide only one or a limited number of designated functions, and with sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate governments; known by a variety of titles, including districts, authorities, boards, commissions, etc., as specified in the enabling state legislation. A special district may serve areas of multiple states if established by an interstate compact.

Dillon's Rule

Unlike the relationship of federalism that exists between the U.S. government and the states (in which power is shared), municipal governments have no power except what is granted to them by their states. This legal doctrine was established by Judge John Forrest Dillon in 1872 and upheld by the Supreme Court in 1907. In effect, state governments can place whatever restrictions they choose on their municipalities (including merging municipalities, controlling them directly, or abolishing them outright), as long as such rules don't violate the state's constitution.


The nature of both county and municipal government varies not only between states, but also between different counties and municipalities within them. Local voters are generally free to choose the basic framework of government from a selection established by state law.

In most cases both counties and municipalities have a governing council, governing in conjunction with a mayor or president. Alternatively, the government may be run by a city manager under direction of the city council. In the past the municipal commission was also common.

In addition to elections for a council or mayor, elections are often also held for positions such as local judges, the sheriff (head of the county's police department), and other offices.

Indian reservations

While their territory nominally falls within the boundaries of individual states, Indian reservations actually function outside of their control. The reservation is usually controlled by an elected tribal council which provides local services.

Census of local government

A census of all local governments in the country is performed every 5 years by the United States Census Bureau, in accordance with 13 USC 161.

)* "note:" Municipalities are any incorporated places, such as cities, towns, villages, boroughs, etc. )** "note:" New England towns and towns in New York and Wisconsin are classified as civil townships for census purposes.

Examples of local government in individual states

The following sections provide details of the operation of local government in a selection of states, by way of example of the variety that exists across the country.


Alaska calls its county equivalents "boroughs," functioning similar to counties in the Lower 48; however, unlike any other state, not all of Alaska is subdivided into county-equivalent boroughs. Owing to the state's low population density, most of the land is contained in what the state terms the Unorganized Borough which, as the name implies, has no intermediate borough government of its own, but is administered directly by the state government. Many of Alaska's boroughs are consolidated city-borough governments; other cities exist both within organized boroughs and the Unorganized Borough.


California has several different and overlapping forms of local government. Cities, counties, and the one city and county can make ordinances (local laws), including the establishment and enforcement of civil and criminal penalties.

The entire state is subdivided into 58 counties (e.g. Santa Clara County). The most important municipal entity is the city (e.g. Los Angeles). California cities are granted broad plenary powers under the California Constitution to assert jurisdiction over just about anything, and they cannot be abolished or merged without the consent of a majority of their inhabitants. For example, Los Angeles runs its own water and power utilities and its own elevator inspection department, while practically all other cities rely upon private utilities and the state elevator inspectors. San Francisco is unique in that it is the only consolidated city-county in the state.

The city of Lakewood, California pioneered the Lakewood Plan, a contract under which a city reimburses a county for performing services which are more efficiently performed on a countywide basis. Such contracts have become very popular throughout California and many other states, as they enable city governments to concentrate on particular local concerns like zoning. A city which contracts out most of its services, particularly law enforcement, is known as a contract city.

There are also thousands of "special districts", which are areas with a defined territory in which a specific service is provided, such as schools or fire stations. These entities lack plenary power to enact laws, but do have the power to promulgate administrative regulations that often carry the force of law within land directly controlled by such districts. Many special districts, particularly those created to provide public transportation or education, have their own police departments (e.g. Bay Area Rapid Transit District/BART Police and University of California/UC Police Department).

Revenue is raised through local property and sales taxes, and the issue of public bonds. Counties also receive revenue from the state Vehicle Licensing Fee (VLF). Unlike other states which allow counties and cities to levy separate taxes upon the ownership of motor vehicles, California has consolidated taxation of vehicle ownership into a single tax at the state level. This simplifies administration but also regularly leads to a flurry of fiscal emergencies in lean years when the state government withholds VLF revenue from local entities in order to balance the state budget.

District of Columbia

The District of Columbia is unique within the United States in that it is under the direct authority of the U.S. Congress, rather than forming part of any state. Actual government has been delegated under the District of Columbia Home Rule Act to a city council which effectively also has the powers given to county or state governments in other areas.


The state of Georgia is divided into 159 counties (the largest number of any state other than Texas), each of which has had home rule since at least 1980. This means that Georgia's counties not only act as units of state government, but also in much the same way as municipalities.

All municipalities are classed as a "city", regardless of population size. For an area to be incorporated as a city special legislation has to be passed by the General Assembly (state legislature); typically the legislation requires a referendum amongst local voters to approve incorporation, to be passed by a simple majority. This most recently happened in 2005 and 2006 in several communities near Atlanta. Sandy Springs, a city of 85,000 bordering Atlanta to the north, incorporated in December 2005. One year later, Johns Creek (62,000) and Milton (20,000) incorporated, which meant that the entirety of north Fulton County was now municipalized. The General Assembly also approved a plan that would potentially establish two new cities in the remaining unincorporated portions of Fulton County south of Atlanta, namely South Fulton and Chattahoochee Hill Country. Chattahoochee Hill County voted to incorporate in December 2007; South Fulton voted against incorporation, and is thus the only unincorporated portion of Fulton County.

City charters may be revoked either by the legislature or by a simple majority referendum of the city's residents; the latter last happened in 2004, in Lithia Springs. Revocation by the legislature last occurred in 1995, when dozens of cities were eliminated "en masse" for not having active governments, or even for not offering at least three municipal services required of all cities.

New cities may not incorporate land less than 3 miles (4.8km) from an existing city without approval from the General Assembly. The body approved all of the recent and upcoming creations of new cities in Fulton County.

Three areas have a "consolidated city-county" government: Columbus, since 1971; Athens, since 1991; and Augusta, since 1996.


Hawaii is the only U.S. state that has no incorporated municipalities at all. Instead it has four counties plus the "consolidated city-county" of Honolulu. All communities are considered to be census-designated places, with the exact boundaries being decided upon by co-operative agreement between the Governor's office and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Kalawao County is the second smallest county in the United States, and is often considered part of Maui County.


In Louisiana, counties are called parishes; likewise, the county seat is known as the parish seat. The difference in nomenclature does not reflect a fundamental difference in the nature of government, but is rather a reflection of the state's unique status as a former French colony (although a small number of other states once had parishes too).

New York


Pennsylvania has 67 counties. With the exception of Philadelphia and Allegheny, counties are governed by three to seven county commissioners who are elected every four years; the district attorney, county treasurer, sheriff, and certain classes of judge ("judges of election") are also elected separately. Philadelphia has been a consolidated city-county since 1952. Allegheny County has had a council/chief executive government since 2000, while still retaining its townships, boroughs and cities.

Each county is divided into municipalities incorporated as cities, boroughs, townships, and towns. The Commonwealth does not contain any "unincorporated" land that is not served by a local government. However the US Postal Service has given names to places within townships that are not incorporated separately. For instance King of Prussia is a census-designated place but has no local government of its own. It is rather contained within Upper Merion Township, governed by Upper Merion's commissioners, and considered to be a part of the township.

Townships are divided into one of two classes, depending on their population size. Townships of the "First Class" have a board made up of five to nine commissioners who are elected either at-large or for a particular ward, while those of the "Second Class" have a board of three to five supervisors who are elected at-large. Both commissioners and supervisors serve a four-year term. Some townships have adopted a home rule charter which allows them to choose their form of government. One example is Upper Darby Township, in Delaware County, which has chosen to have a "mayor-council" system similar to that of a borough.

Boroughs in Pennsylvania are governed by a "mayor-council" system in which the mayor has only a few powers (usually that of overseeing the municipal police department, if the borough has one), while the borough council has very broad appointment and oversight. The council president, who is elected by the majority party every two years, is equivalent to the leader of a council in the United Kingdom; his or her powers are operate within boundaries set by the state constitution and the borough's charter. A small minority of the boroughs have dropped the mayor-council system in favor of the council-manager system, in which the council appoints a borough manager to oversee the day-to-day operations of the borough.

McCandless and Bloomsburg are the Commonwealth's only towns.

Cities in Pennsylvania are divided into three classes: Class 1, Class 2, Class 2A, and Class 3. Class 3 cities, which are the smallest, have either a mayor-council system or a council-manager system like that of a borough, although the mayor or city manager has more oversight and duties compared to their borough counterparts. Pittsburgh and Scranton are the state's only Class 2 and Class 2A cities respectively, and have mayors with some veto power, but are otherwise still governed mostly by their city councils.

Philadelphia is the Commonwealth's only Class 1 city. It has a government similar to that of the Commonwealth itself, with a mayor with strong appointment and veto powers and a 15-member city council that has both law-making and confirmation powers, although unlike its state-level counterpart (the General Assembly), it does not have the authority to override the mayor's veto. Certain types of legislation that can be passed by the city government require state legislation before coming into force. Unlike the other cities in Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia city government also has oversight of county government, and as such controls the budget for the district attorney, sheriff, and other county offices that have been retained from the county's one-time separate existence; these offices are elected for separately than those for the city government proper.


Texas has 254 counties, the most of any state.

Each county is governed by a five-member Commissioners Court, which consists of a County Judge (elected at-large) and four Commissioners (elected from single-member precincts). The County Judge has no veto authority over the decisions of the Court, s/he has one vote along with the other Commissioners. In smaller counties, the County Judge also performs judicial functions, while in larger counties his/her role is limited to the Court. Elections are held on a partisan basis.

Counties have no home rule authority; their authority is strictly limited by the State. They operate in areas which are considered "unincorporated" (those parts not within the territory of a city; Texas does not have townships) unless the city has contracted with the county for essential services.

Cities may be either general law or home rule. Once a city reaches 5,000 in population, it may submit a ballot petition to create a "city charter" and operate under home rule status (they will maintain that status even if the population falls under 5,000) and may choose its own form of government (weak or strong mayor-council, commission, council-manager). Cities under general law status have only those powers authorized by the State. Annexation policies are highly dependent on whether the city is general law (annexation can only occur with the consent of the landowners) or home rule (no consent is required, but if the city fails to provide essential services, the landowners can petition for de-annexation), and city boundaries can cross county ones. The city council can be elected either at-large or from single-member districts. Ballots are on a nonpartisan basis (though, generally, the political affiliation of the candidates is commonly known).

With the exception of the Stafford Municipal School District, all 1,000+ school districts in Texas are "independent" school districts. State law requires seven trustees, which can be elected either at-large or from single-member districts. Ballots are non-partisan. The Texas Education Agency has state authority to order consolidation of school districts, generally for repeated failing performance as was the case with the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District.

In addition, state law allows the creation of special districts, such as hospital districts or water supply districts.

Texas does not provide for independent cities nor for consolidated city-county governments. However, local governments are free to enter into "interlocal agreements" with other ones, primarily for efficiency purposes (a common example is for cities and school districts in a county to contract with the county for property tax collection; thus, each resident receives only one property bill).


Virginia has special provisions relative to cities and counties. The Commonwealth is divided into 95 counties and 39 cities. Cities are "independent cities", which mean that they are separate from, and independent of, any county they may be near or within. Cities in Virginia thus are the equivalent of counties as they have no higher municipal government intervening between them and the state government. The equivalent in Virginia to what would normally be an incorporated city in any other state, e.g. a municipality subordinate to a county, is a "town". For example, there is a County of Fairfax as well as a totally independent City of Fairfax, which technically is not part of Fairfax County even though the City of Fairfax is the County seat of Fairfax County. Within Fairfax County, however, is the incorporated town of Vienna, which "is" part of Fairfax County.

ee also

*Administrative divisions of Connecticut
*Administrative divisions of New York


External links

* [http://www.nlc.org/ National League of Cities]
* [http://www.naco.org/ National Association of Counties]
* [http://www.apwa.net/ American Public Works Association]
* [http://www.countyengineers.org/ National Association of County Engineers]
* [http://www.nado.org/National Association of Development Organizations]
* [http://www.natat.org/natat/ National Association of Towns and Townships]
* [http://www.smallcommunities.org/ncsc/ National Center for Small Communities]
* [http://www.icma.org/ International City Management Association (ICMA)]
* [http://www.mrsc.org/ Municipal Research & Services Center of Washington (MRSC)]
* [http://www.census.gov/govs/www/ U.S. Census Bureau page for local government]
* [http://www.realmarketing.com/counties/counties.htm County Government Websites]

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