Through their constitutions or laws, all states establish mechanisms by which local governments are created. Some are created by direct state action – through a charter, for example. However, most are created because state statutes authorize citizens in a particular geographic area who need or desire local services to form a local unit of government. States also determine how much authority each type of government may exercise.
The United States has one of the greatest complexity of local government laws in the world. While municipal systems among many states are similar in policy, method, and practice, there are numerous variations, exceptions, and differences in form and function. These differences may even exist within states.
To simplify this description, the classifications developed by the U.S. Census Bureau will be followed. The Census Bureau designates two categories of local government, General Purpose and Special Purpose. Counties, municipalities, towns and townships constitute the general purpose local governments.
Early state constitutions originally created counties to serve as the administrative arms of state government, performing state-mandated duties, including property assessment and record keeping. Historically, counties were established without the consent of the voters, possessed no charter or legislative powers, performed no business or proprietary functions, and shared immunity with the state from suit. As populations grew and suburbs formed across the nation post-World War I, the role of local government was strengthened.
After World War II, the urban populations began to spread beyond city boundaries into suburbia, and county governments were increasingly called upon to provide services like child welfare and consumer protection. County governments began to receive greater autonomy from the states, generate increasing revenues, and accept stronger political accountability. As a result, the number of counties that have their own charter has grown tremendously to 3,033 in 2007. Organized county governments are found in every state except Connecticut and Rhode Island – which have geographic regions called counties but without functioning county governments – and the District of Columbia. Counties are known as boroughs in Alaska and parishes in Louisiana. There are also limited portions of other states in which certain county areas lack a distinct county government. Priorities and service delivery responsibilities vary considerably from among counties, as does their size and number. In general, counties have more mandates, less discretionary funds, and are more vulnerable to state budgetary action.
All municipalities generally have similar powers and perform similar functions. Geographically, municipalities lie within counties, although they may cross county boundaries. Historically, towns and cities were distinguished by their distinct methods of deliberation. For example, all qualified citizens in a town deliberate and vote together, while cities have representatives who vote. Today, the distinction between towns and cities, and similarly with the other nomenclature, generally is one of population size.
Township governments are distinct from municipal governments because they are established to govern areas without a minimum population concentration. Town government in its classic form is distinguished from township government, as the former is governed by an annual town meeting. Townships, if similar to municipalities, have a municipal form of government. Otherwise, townships are commonly governed by an elected board of three to five part-time trustees and rely almost exclusively on property taxes for revenue. New England, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania townships, for example, enjoy broad authority and perform functions similar to municipalities. Some New England townships govern schools, and Midwestern townships typically perform limited government functions.
Special Purpose Governments
Special purpose local governments include special districts (such as water and sewer districts) and school districts.
Special districts, as defined by the U.S. Census, are local entities “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, and commissions.” These districts are local governing units that vary widely in authority, function, and structure. Their functions range from street lighting to a large port authority with a large staff and project portfolio.
All special districts are governed by a board, but their governance structures vary; some boards may be elected by the public while the majority are appointed by the states, counties, municipalities, or townships that have joined to form the special district. Some local governments that cannot finance public improvements without increasing taxes will rely on special districts because special districts have several sources of revenue, and some have more than one source. They may have the authority to levy property taxes, impose service charges, accept grants, share taxes with other areas, or rely on other special assessments or taxes. Because of this variability, the special districts may operate in very different intergovernmental political and fiscal frameworks.
Also known as ad hoc governments because they are created to fill in the cracks of the existing government, special districts can overcome jurisdictional, legal, and financial inadequacies of existing governments. For example, proximity to a watershed or river basin may better suggest the area of service than political boundary lines, necessitating a new service provider. Or existing city and county areas may be too small for effective management of certain functions. For all their benefits, special districts have occasionally been created to evade constitutional tax and debt limits on local governments. They also reduce the discretionary authority of local governments, fragment service provision, and may produce coordination problems. Special districts also raise the issue of local government accountability, as the districts are governed by appointees, only a few of whom may be local elected officials.
The public school systems in the United States are either defined as independent or dependent systems. Independent school systems are also known as school districts, or local entities providing public school for which state law determines they have sufficient administration and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate (or special purpose) governments. These entities operate similar to a city in that they are accountable for the service they provide, and may exercise the powers of eminent domain and taxation, except in Virginia. More than 80 percent of these independent school systems are governed by a nonpartisan elected board called a school board, board of trustees, board of education, or school committee. This governing body of 5 to 15 members is typically elected by direct popular vote but may be appointed by other governmental officials. While the board may share power with a larger institution, such as the local department of education, it is responsible for setting education policy and appointing a professional superintendent to manage school administration.
Dependent school systems are not counted as separate governments. These entities are instead classified as agencies of the local, county, or state government and are accordingly paid for, in part or in whole, by taxes. In some cases, the state legislature may allow the mayor and city council to dissolve the school board in favor of appointing one themselves. Termed mayoral control, this is the case in cities including Boston, Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C.
As metropolitan areas encompass multiple counties and cities, or straddle state lines, governance becomes more complex. The need for coordination and cooperation among the local governments challenges public policymaking authority and service provision leading to the development of cross-jurisdictional organizations called regional government, regional councils of local government, and regional multi-purpose or single purpose authorities. These regional structures are independent legal entities operating at the substate level with a governing board whose members represent the region rather than the member municipalities.
National Academy of Public Administration, Metropolitan Governance: A Handbook for Local Government Study Commissions. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Public Administration, 1980.
Silvestri, John H. and Mark S. Nelson, “McQuillin Municipal Corporation, Third rev. ed.”The Law of Municipal Corporations. 1(1.01-3A.26), 1999.
U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. State Laws Governing Local Government Structure and Administration. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, 1993.
U.S. Census Bureau, Federal, State, and Local Governments, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau. Accessed March 17, 2011, http://www.census.gov/govs/.
U.S. Census Bureau, State and County Quick Facts, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau. Accessed March 17, 2011, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/index.html.
U.S. Census Bureau, Governments Division, Lists and Structure of Governments, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau. Accessed March 17, 2011, http://www.census.gov/govs/go/population_of_interest.html.
Zimmerman, Joseph F. State-Local Relations: A Partnership Approach. New York, NY: Praeger Scientific, 1983.