Understanding the various types of Local and State Government

Multiple levels of governance in the United States of America make the system seem quite complex. It is difficult, particularly for a layman, to understand the reason behind these bifurcations and the functions associated with each division.

Since the nationals are likely to interact with their local or state governments more frequently than the federal government, we have decided to limit the focus of this article to an explanation of the different types of local governments in the US.

However, before moving on to a discussion regarding the 2 broad categories of local governments, and deriving a definition, which best describes county governments, townships, and municipalities, we must slightly touch upon the responsibilities associated with Federal, State, and Local Governments.

The federal government is responsible for resuming control over national matters that impact every division of each state. Examples include defense policy, foreign relations, taxation laws, and money coining. Matters that do not fall under the jurisdiction of Congress, automatically fall under the authority of state governments. Examples of State responsibilities include setting speed limits for driving, granting professional licenses, managing schools, libraries and providing emergency services such as fire extinguishing.

As per the Constitution, states are exempted from indulging in any activity that may harm the federal government, although states have the ultimate say in local matters. States have their constitutions concerning areas under their control, which are much more detailed than the equivalent Federal Constitution.

Interesting Fact:

The Alabama Constitution is so detailed that it has 40 times more words than the US Constitution!

At times, there may be overlap, and the state, as well as the federal government, may claim their control over a particular matter. Such disputes are resolved by the Federal Court.

Understanding divisions of the Local and State Government:

State governments are subdivided into local governments. Local governments have two further classifications; General Purpose and Special Purpose.

The table below represents the various levels composed by each category.

General Purpose Special Purpose
Counties Special Districts
Municipalities School Districts
Townships Regions

General Purpose:


The definition which best describes counties is that they are “administrative divisions of the state”. They operate based on stipulations set out in the state’s constitution and comprise smaller geographical clusters. A county is larger than cities and towns, but smaller than the state. However, amongst the many governing units that may exist within a state, counties are the largest.

Almost all US states are divided into counties. However, county equivalents in Louisiana and Alaska are called parishes and boroughs respectively. There are certain exceptions; some cities in states like Virginia and Maryland do not fall under any county.

The responsibilities assigned to county governments may slightly vary in each state. However, the functions most commonly associated with these administrative units include judicial administration, construction of roads, public welfare, law enforcement, and record-keeping concerning legal matters. Counties might even be responsible for the management of schools and for ensuring the provision of healthcare to their residents

County Structures: How do these units operate?

As per the data from Census 2012, there are more than 3000 counties in America. This makes it all the more important for us to understand how they operate. The Federal Constitution for the United States does not include a layout for the structure of local government bodies. Therefore, 3 different forms of county governments exist.

  • Commission System
  • Council Administrator System
  • Council-Elected Executive System

Commission System

According to this structure, the backbone of a county government is a Commission based on 3-5 members. Each Commission serves for 4 years. The Commissioners are elected from the county.  Generally, the Commission has the authority to impose taxes and take loans as representatives of the division, but it does require the approval of voters in case it wants to issue bonds.

The residents of a county also elect other officials such as treasurer, superintendent of schools, register of deeds, clerk, coroner, and sheriff via voting. The state officer (local prosecutor) is usually elected from within the county as well. Some office-holders are not elected, rather they are selected by the commission. These include welfare superintendents, health directors, and highway commissioners.

Council-Administrator System

In a Council-Administrator System, a council is elected by voting. The council members then select an administrator who would help them carry out good governance. The council can dismiss the administrator if it is not satisfied with his/her performance. The latter has to abide by the directions of the council.

The purpose of hiring an additional member is to assign him/her the administrative tasks so that the council itself can focus more on policymaking.

Council-Elected Executive System

In a Council-Elected Executive System, an executive and a council are elected by voting. However, the executive holds much more power than the council. It would not be wrong to say that under this model, an executive is to a county, what a governor is to a state. Thus, s/he can reject or disapprove of any decision or action of the council.

Just like the different structural forms they may adopt, the tasks county governments perform in each state also vary slightly. However, almost all of them honor their officials by housing them at a designated courthouse. Below are some of the professional titles and job descriptions for officials that are essential members of all counties.

Coroner– a person who investigates to uncover the cause of deaths that raise suspicion.

County Clerk–  an official who looks after the process of voter registrations and also verifies the result of county elections. Furthermore, the county clerk is responsible for storing official records of major life events such as marriage, birth, and even death of county residents.

Treasurer– a person responsible for collecting funds and then distributing them appropriately.

County Assessor-a professional who evaluates properties within the county concerning tax that should be paid on them. The assessor also guides property owners about raising their concerns if they think the value has been unnecessarily appraised.

Now that we have presented a detailed explanation that best describes county governments, one question that may arise in your mind is how a county government is financed. The answer is real estate taxes, financial aid and grants from the state government, and fines and fees collected from residents.

How did counties evolve?

Initially, counties were not given much authority but were only formed to perform certain duties assigned by the state. Their tasks were limited to record-keeping and assistance. They were formed because traveling involved many hurdles and residents could not approach the state government every time they needed to raise a concern.

However, after World Wars I and II, the population expanded and there was a greater need for organization and control under state governments. It was then that the role of counties was strengthened. This was due to the reason that residential areas expanded to suburban localities, thus increasing the need for making welfare and safety regulations available to the masses.

Given all these factors, counties started receiving more autonomy but were also made accountable to a far greater extent than before. Consequently, more counties were granted a charter, and the number of ones owning it significantly increased in 2007 to reach 3,033.


Geographically, municipalities fall within counties. They refer to the sectors created by the United States Census Bureau, based on which, housing statistics and population data are reported. Thus, a town, village, or city may be a municipality in itself. It is therefore understandable why municipalities may vary in size. Los Angeles and Jenkins, for instance, both are examples of municipalities.

Municipalities may either be ruled by managers appointed by the state government, or by mayors elected by the local population. However, in many states, there is no municipal government and counties are the only political division.

In states where municipalities do exist, they are responsible for looking after emergency medical services, recreational spots, fire departments, police, and public transport. They are also responsible for public works, such as snow removal, cleanliness of streets/roads, and construction as well as maintenance of sewers.


Counties in certain states may be further divided into townships. Townships are not the same as municipalities because these governing units do not require a minimum population threshold to be established. A township may simply be another name for a town or city, or it may be some other subdivision of a county.

These units of government do not exist in about half the states, and they have different responsibilities in those that have them.

Special Purpose:

Special Purpose Local Governments are responsible for very specific functions. Also, their geographical boundaries may differ from those of General Purpose Local Governments. Hence, the former might be providing services in more than one county, municipality, or township at the same time. Examples of the duties of Special Purpose Governments include mosquito control programs, provision of water, and promoting tourism.

Following are the divisions of Special Purpose Governments:

Special Districts

As per the definition stated by US Census, Special Districts are local bodies that have been assigned limited functions by the state government. They are sometimes assigned just one responsibility. Yet, these districts, authorities, or boards, whatever you may call them, have the fiscal as well as the administrative autonomy that makes them eligible for being classified as a separate government.  Their duties may vary from being in charge of street lighting to managing ports with a large number of staff members.

Who governs the Special Districts?

Each Special District is controlled by a board. How these boards are chosen may vary. In some cases, the public is allowed to elect them. In others, they are selected by the state government, townships, municipalities, or counties.

What are the benefits of a Special District?

Special Districts can be particularly beneficial when General Local Governments do not have enough funds to support public improvements. These districts can generate revenue in a variety of ways, including but not limited to:

  • Collecting tax on property
  • Accepting grants
  • Imposing service charges
  • Claiming a share in the taxes received from other areas

Thus, Special Districts have a very unique fiscal and political framework.

Special Districts are often referred to as “ad hoc governments”. Reason being that they cover up for the shortcomings of the General Local Government. However, these districts may not follow political boundaries. For example, is situated near a water body may be one of the reasons that classify an area under a Special District instead of the division guidelines set by the General Local Government.

Because of their benefits, it is no surprise that many Special Districts have been created to help the local government escape taxes and get debt relief. However, these districts may reduce the discretionary power of local governments and may also result in coordination issues.

School Districts

In the United States, public school systems can be categorized as either dependent or independent. The independent ones are referred to as School Districts. To qualify as a School District, an entity must have the fiscal and administrative autonomy to classify as an individual government.

Under School Districts, providers of public education are held accountable for the quality of their services. School Districts may even have powers such as eminent domain which allows them to convert private properties into places that may be useful for the public.

An elected and unbiased board governs most of these districts. The members of this board are usually elected via direct voting but they may be chosen by government officials.

The board governing an independent school system may not solely hold power and would probably have to work alongside the local department of education, but the bonus of devising an education policy along with selecting a superintendent to manage and administrate lies on the shoulders of Special Districts.

Dependent school systems, on the other hand, do not constitute a governing division. They are considered agencies of the local governing bodies and are compensated for, in the form of taxes.

Under certain circumstances, the mayor or city council may be allowed by the state government to dissolve the board controlling the school system and replace it with a new one of their choice.

Such a happening is referred to as “mayoral control”, and has been observed in New York City, Boston, and Chicago.


Cross-jurisdictional organizations have been formed out of the need to ensure coordination between local governments and to keep a check on the provision of services. These are referred to as regions.

Regions are independent bodies that operate under a state and are ruled by a board that is representative of the entire region and not just municipalities.

Now that you have understood the different types of local government bodies and their functions, along with the 3 possible structures which best describe county governments, let us discuss the 3 important and essential elements of the state government itself.


Every state has a Governor that is chosen via voting. In most states, the duration for which a Governor holds office is 4 years. A person can only be elected a limited number of times and this number varies from state to state. This is referred to as a term limit.

Governors have the power to make executive orders, set budgets, veto legislation and devise a punishment for criminals.


All states in the US, besides that of Nebraska, have a bicameral legislature. It can have anywhere between 20-400 members.

States have set guidelines regarding the age, compensation, and residency of these members who may meet in annual sessions.

State courts

All States have a court system and many even have a Supreme Court. Far more matters fall under the state courts than they do under federal courts.

There are 2 types of state courts:

  • Trial courts
  • Appeals court

Trial courts look after matters such as divorce settlement and imposition of a fine for driving etc. The appeals court, as the name suggests listens to pleas that have been transferred to it from a lower court.

No two states are the same, but these are the elements common to all.

We hope you find this article informative and it helps you understand the functions and divisions of local government and essential elements of the state government.

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