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.