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In the United States, a county is a local level of government below the state (or federal territory). Counties are used in 48 of the 50 states, while Louisianamarker is divided into parishes and Alaskamarker into boroughs. These are considered "county-equivalents", as are some cities not designated as part of a county. The U.S. Census Bureau lists 3,140 counties or county-equivalent administrative units in total. There are on average 62 counties per state.

In most Midwestern and Northeastern states, counties are further subdivided into townships or towns and may contain other independent, self-governing municipalities. The site of a county's administration and courts is called the county seat.

The average U.S. county population is about 100,000. The most heavily populated county of the U.S., Los Angeles County, California, has a population of approximately 9,880,000, which is a larger population than all but eight states of the union. The least populated county is Loving County, Texasmarker, with a population of 67. Kalawao County, Hawaiimarker, a former leper colony, is the next-smallest county, with a population of 147.

The power of the county government varies widely from state to state, as does the relationship between counties and incorporated municipal governments. The distribution of power between the state government, county governments, and municipal governments is defined in each state's constitution.

Counties are most often named for people, with over 2,100 of the 3,140 total so named. The most common county name, with 31, is Washington County, for America's first president, George Washington. Up until 1871, there was a Washington County within the District of Columbiamarker, but it was dissolved by the District of Columbia Organic Act. Jefferson County, for Thomas Jefferson, is next with 27. The most recent president to have a countymarker named for him was Warren Harding, reflecting the slowing rate of county creation. After people, the next most common source of county names are geographic features and locations, with some counties even being named after counties in other states, or for places in countries such as the United Kingdom. The most common geographic county name is Lake. Native American tribes and animals lend their names to some counties. Quite a few counties bear names of French or Spanish origin.

History

Counties were among the earliest units of local government established in the original Thirteen Colonies. The Commonwealth of Massachusettsmarker was the first colony to establish counties, in 1643. Although counties remained relatively weak in New Englandmarker, Pennsylvaniamarker and New Yorkmarker delegated a significant amount of power and responsibility from the state government to county governments, and thereby established the pattern that remains in place in most of the United States.

Governance

Counties are usually governed by an elected board of supervisors, county commission, county freeholders, county council, or county legislature. In some counties, there is a county mayor or a county executive. The position of mayor is mostly ceremonial in some states, while in others, the mayor is more powerful than the commissioners or supervisors.

In many states, the board in charge of a county holds powers that transcend all three traditional branches of government. It has the legislative power to enact ordinances for the county; it has the executive power to oversee the executive operations of county government; and it has quasi-judicial power with regard to certain limited matters (like hearing appeals from the planning commission if one exists).

As for the day-to-day operations of the county government, they are sometimes overseen by a county manager or chief administrative officer who reports to the board, the mayor, or both.

In some states, the county technically has a plural executive in that several important officials are elected separately from the board of commissioners or supervisors (implying they cannot be fired by the board). This can create tension if such officials then disagree on how to best carry out their respective functions.

Scope of power

The power of county governments varies widely from state to state, as does the relationship between counties and incorporated cities. The government of the county usually resides in a municipality called the county seat. However, some counties may have multiple seats or no seat.

Minimal scope

In New Englandmarker, counties function at most as judicial court districts and sheriff's departments (presently, in Connecticutmarker only as judicial court districts - and in Rhode Islandmarker, they have lost both those functions and all others), and most of the governmental authority below the state level is in the hands of towns and cities. In several of Maine's sparsely populated counties, small towns rely on the county for law enforcement, and in New Hampshiremarker several social programs are administered at the state level. In some New England states, such as in Connecticutmarker, parts of Massachusettsmarker, and Rhode Islandmarker, counties are now only geographic designations, and they do not have any governmental powers. All government is either done at the state level or at the municipal level. In Connecticut and parts of Massachusetts, regional councils have been established to partially fill the void left behind by the abolished county governments. The regional councils' authority is much more limited compared with a county government—the regional councils have no taxing authority or authority to issue permits; the aforementioned powers are delegated to the town governments. However, the regional councils do have authority over infrastructure and land use planning, distribution of state and federal funds for infrastructure projects, emergency preparedness, and limited law enforcement duties.

Moderate scope

Outside New England, counties typically provide, at a minimum, courts, public utilities, libraries, hospitals, public health services, parks, roads, law enforcement, and jails. There is usually a county registrar, recorder, or clerk (the exact title varies) who collects vital statistics, holds elections (sometimes in coordination with a separate elections office or commission), and prepares or processes certificates of births, deaths, marriages, and dissolutions (divorce decrees). Counties usually provide the registration of all real estate transactions. Other key county officials include the coroner/medical examiner, treasurer, assessor, auditor, controller, and district attorney.

In most states, the County Sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in the county. However, except in major emergencies where clear chains of command are absolutely essential, the county sheriff normally does not directly control the police departments of city governments, but merely cooperates with them. Thus, the most common interaction between county and city law enforcement personnel is where local police deliver suspects to sheriff's deputies for incarceration in the county jail.

In many states, the county controls all unincorporated lands within its boundaries. In states with a township tier, unincorporated land is controlled by the townships. Residents of unincorporated land who are dissatisfied with county-level or township-level resource allocation decisions can attempt to vote to incorporate as a city or village.

A few counties provide public transportation themselves; this usually comes in the form of a simple bus system. However, in most counties, public transportation is provided by one of the following: a special district that is coterminous with the county, a multi-county regional transit authority, or a state agency.

Broad scope

In some states, more populated counties provide many facilities, such as airports, convention centers, museums, beaches, harbors, zoos, clinics, law libraries, and public housing. They provide services such as courts, law enforcement, child & family services, services of the elderly, county hospitals, mental health services, welfare services, veterans assistance services, animal control, probation supervision, historic preservation, food safety regulation, and environmental health services. They have many additional officials like public defenders, arts commissioners, human rights commissioners, and planning commissioners. Finally, there may also be a county fire department (as distinguished from fire departments operated by individual cities, special districts, or the state government).

Marylandmarker, in particular, vests its counties with broad powers, including educational responsibilities (which are normally handled in nearly all states by school districts specific to particular cities, towns, or regions).

Number of county equivalents per state

There are on average 62.8 counties per state. The state with the fewest counties is Delawaremarker (3—alone in the United States, these are divided into units called 'hundreds'), and the state with the most is Texasmarker (254).Southern and Midwestern states generally tend to have more counties than Western or Northeastern states. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have abolished county governments in whole or in part, though the former county territories may be observed in the three states' state-level administrative districts.



Source:

Statistics

At the 2000 U.S. Census, the median land area of the 3,077 U.S. counties was 622 sq mi (1,611 km²), which is only two-thirds of the median land area of a ceremonial county of England, and only a little more than a quarter of the median land area of a French département. However, this figure does not account for the differences among the United States counties themselves; counties in the western United States have a much larger mean land area than those in the eastern United States. For example, the median land area of counties in Georgiamarker is 343 sq mi (888 km²), whereas in Utahmarker it is 2,427 sq mi (6,286 km²).

The largest county equivalent by (total) area is Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, Alaskamarker, at 147,843 square miles (382,912 km²), while the largest actual county is San Bernardino County, Californiamarker, in southern California, which includes the Mojave Desert, at 20,105 square miles (52,071 km²) in area. The second-largest county is Coconino County, Arizonamarker, in the north-central part of the state, which includes the Grand Canyon National Parkmarker. The smallest county equivalent is the independent city of Falls Church, Virginiamarker, at 2.2 square miles (5.7 km²) in area, while the smallest actual county is Kalawao County, Hawaiimarker, at 13 square miles (34 km²) in land area.

At the 2000 U.S. Census, only 16.7% of U.S. counties had more than 100,000 inhabitants. This reflects the essentially rural nature of U.S. counties, whose grid was designed in the 19th century in a country still largely rural, and only marginally affected by urbanization. Today, the vast majority of people in the United States are concentrated in a relatively small number of counties. The most populous county equivalent is Los Angeles County, California, with 10,226,506 inhabitants as of 2005, and the least populous county is Loving County, Texasmarker, with 67 inhabitants as of 2005.

The most densely populated county (or county equivalent) is New York County, New Yorkmarker (coextensive with the Borough of Manhattanmarker and consisting of Manhattan Island and very small adjacent islands), with 66,940 people per square mile (25,846 per km², or 38.691 square meters per person) as of 2000, and the least densely populated county is Lake and Peninsula Borough, Alaskamarker, with 0.0767 people per square mile (0.0296 per km², or 33.768 km² per person) as of 2000. The least densely populated county equivalent is Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, Alaskamarker, with 0.0449 per square mile (0.0173 per km², or 57.683 km² per person) as of 2000.

County equivalents

The term county equivalents includes three additional types of administrative divisions which are different from the type of county found in most states:

  • Alaska census areas: Most of the land area of Alaska is not contained within any of Alaska's 18 boroughs. This vast area, larger than Francemarker and Germanymarker combined, is officially referred to by the Alaska state government as the Unorganized Borough, and, outside of other incorporated borough limits, has no independent "county" government, although several incorporated city governments exist within its boundaries; the majority of it is governed and run by the State of Alaska as an extension of state government. The United States Census Bureau, in cooperation with the Alaska state government for census and electoral districting purposes, has divided the Unorganized Borough into 11 census areas for statistical purposes only.
  • Independent cities: These are cities that legally belong to no county. As of 2004, there are 42 such cities in the United States: Baltimore, Marylandmarker; Carson City, Nevadamarker; St. Louis, Missourimarker; and all 39 cities in Virginiamarker, where any municipality incorporated as a city (in contrast to town) is by law severed from any county that might otherwise have contained it.
  • Washington, D.C.marker has a special status. It is not part of any state; instead, in accordance with Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, the city is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress. For a long time, the District of Columbiamarker and the City of Washington have been coterminous, though they formerly were not. All of the former counties within the District of Columbia have been abolished, and they are of historical interest only.


Cities and counties

In general, cities occupy a smaller area than the county which contains them. However, there are exceptions:



See also



Notes

References

External links




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