Local government in the United States
structured in accordance with the laws of the various individual
. 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
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
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
that exist for
specific purposes, such as to provide fire
or to manage
resources. In many states, school districts
manage the schools. Such
special purpose districts often encompass areas in multiple
Finally, in some places the different tiers are merged together,
for example as a consolidated
Types of local government
Since the Tenth
Amendment to the United States Constitution
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:.
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.
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.
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
Subcounty general purpose governments
This category includes municipal
governments. Municipal and
township governments are distinguished primarily by the historical
circumstances surrounding their formation.
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.,
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
countries. In Connecticut, Rhode Island, and parts of
Massachusetts, counties exist only to designate boundaries for such
state-level functions as park districts or judicial offices
are usually administratively divided into several departments,
depending on the size of the city. Though cities differ in the
division of responsibility, the typical arrangement is to have the
following departments handle the following roles:
- Urban planning/zoning
- Public works - construction and
maintenance of all city-owned or operated assets, including the
water supply system, sewer, streets,
stormwater, snow removal, street cleaning, street signs, vehicles, buildings, land,
- Parks and recreation - construction and maintenance of city
parks, common areas, parkways,
publicly-owned land, operation of various recreation programs and
- Emergency medical
- Emergency management
- Accounting/finance - often tax
- Human resources - for city
- General counsel/city attorney/risk
management - legal matters such as writing municipal bonds, ensuring city compliance
with state and federal law, responding to citizen lawsuits stemming from city actions or
- Transportation (varies widely) -
if the city has a municipal bus or light rail service, this function may be its own
department or it may be folded into the another of the above
- Information technology -
supports computer systems used by city employees; may be also
responsible for a city website, phones and other systems.
- Housing department
- Municipal court
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
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, typically exercising the full
range of powers that are divided between counties, townships, and
cities in other states. Also, there is a tradition of local
government presided over by town
— assemblies open to all voters to express their
opinions on public policy.
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
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
. Special districts are
widely popular, have enjoyed "phenomenal growth" and "nearly
tripled in number" from 1957 to 2007.
Councils or associations of governments
It is common for residents of major U.S. metropolitan areas
live under six or more layers of special districts as well as a
town or city, and a county or township. In turn, a typical metro
area often consists of several counties, several dozen towns or
cities, and a hundred special districts. In one state, California,
the fragmentation problem became so bad that in 1963 the California
Legislature created Local Agency Formation
in each county; that is, government agencies to
supervise the formation of other government agencies.
Because efforts at direct consolidation have proven futile, U.S.
local government entities often form "councils of governments,"
"metropolitan regional councils," or "associations of governments."
These organizations serve as regional planning agencies and as
forums for debating issues of regional importance, but are
generally powerless relative to their individual members. Since the
late 1990s, "a movement, frequently called 'New Regionalism,'
accepts the futility of seeking consolidated regional governments
and aims instead for regional structures that do not supplant local
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
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
the government may be run by a city
under direction of the city
. In the past the municipal commission
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.
While their territory nominally falls within the boundaries of
individual states, Indian
actually function outside of their control. The
reservation is usually controlled by an elected tribal council
which provides local
Census of local government
A census of all local governments in the country is performed every
5 years by the United States
, in accordance with 13 USC 161.
|Governments in the United States
(not including insular areas)
|Municipal (city, town, village...) *
|Township (in some states
called Town) **
(utility, fire, police,
Municipalities are any incorporated places, such
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
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
Cities, counties, and the one city and
county can make ordinances (local laws), including the
establishment and enforcement of civil and criminal
The entire state is subdivided into 58 counties (e.g. Merced County
). The most important municipal
entity is the city (e.g. Los Angeles).
California cities are granted broad
plenary powers under the California Constitution
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
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.
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.
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
There are also thousands of "special
", 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
and University of
District of Columbia
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
to a city council which effectively also has the
powers given to county or state governments in other areas.
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.
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
); 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,
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
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
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 (4.8 km)
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.
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.
it has four counties plus the "consolidated city-county" of
All communities are considered to be
with the exact boundaries being decided upon by co-operative
agreement between the Governor's
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
With the exception of the Stafford Municipal School
, all 1,000+ school
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
state authority to order consolidation of school districts,
generally for repeated failing performance as was the case with the
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
Virginia has special provisions relative to cities and
The Commonwealth is divided into 95 counties and
39 cities. Cities are independent
, 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
- 2002 Census of Governments, Individual State
- Osborne M. Reynolds, Jr., Local Government Law, 3rd
ed. (St. Paul: West, 2009), 27.
- Reynolds, 24.
- See Reynolds, 30.
- Reynolds, 31.
- Reynolds, 31-32.
- Reynolds, 33.
- Reynolds, 53.
- Reynolds, 55.
- 2002 Census of Governments; Volume 1, No. 1, Government
Organization. U.S. Census Bureau.