How to Understand and Contact Local Governments – Which Preside Over 95% of the U.S. Population

by John Haughey // Apr 06, 2016 State & Local

Set of the flat city buildings and shops

You’re already keeping an eye on federal legislation, and you know the states are six times more productive than Congress.

But did you know there’s a need to dig even deeper than that? Yes, sorry to tell you, but local government is the mover and shaker at grassroots level that could make your organization’s life more difficult, or easier, as the case may be, and knowing how to contact local government is essential.

That’s because local officials in the 90,106 local governments in the United States, including 38,910 “general-purpose governments” and 51,146 special-purpose governments, wield a considerable amount of power. They have a say in regulating everything from the sharing economy (think Airbnb and Uber), to the sort of signs that can be erected, and whether or not landscape architects are controlled, to name but a very few random examples.

So, read on for a crash course in contacting local government, to get yourself prepped for what, and who, you might need to contact.

How Things Are Broken Down

The U.S. Census classifies general-purpose governments as counties, municipalities and townships. These governments manage the day-to-day affairs of domestic life, including financial administration, police protection, parks and recreation, roads, emergency medical services, transportation (including taxis and public transportation) utilities and public works (the streets, sewers, snow removal, signage and so on).

In 2012, according to the U.S. Census, there were 3,031 counties, 19,519 municipalities and 16,360 townships in the United States.

Of course many of these are small hamlets, but a huge number, to be precise: 3,235 municipalities; 1,704 cities; and 1,531 counties have populations of over 25,000.

That means the mayors, city councils, county executives, and county councils who make up their personnel, account for governing, on a local level, 95% of the U.S. population.

Starting to get the picture as to why these officials, and the voters who influence them, might be important to your grassroots operation?

County, municipal and township governments, which manage the nuts-and-bolts of domestic administration, can vary extensively. And, in some areas of the country they’ve evolved with changing needs and demographics to incorporate efficiencies and innovations that state and federal government does not have the structural dexterity — or, more accurately, the political will — to emulate.

There is one fundamental, structural difference between a county government and a municipal government. Whereas counties were originally viewed as subdivisions of the state, and thereby created to serve as administrative arms of the state, municipal governments are autonomous incorporations established by ballot by residents seeking to exert more local control in their community.

COUNTY GOVERNMENTS

Fun Facts and the Differences Between States

The first counties in America were established by the Virginia House of Burgesses, which divided the colony into four “incorporations” in 1617 and then into eight shires in 1634. There were 3,031 counties in the U.S. in 2012 — two fewer than in 2007.

Counties are called boroughs in Alaska and parishes in Louisiana. There as many as 254 counties in Texas, as few as three in Delaware. According to the National Association of Counties (NACo), there are 41 consolidated county-city governments in the U.S., including Denver, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Louisville, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Francisco and the nation’s newest county, Broomfield, Colo., established as a consolidated county-city in 2001.

Two state Legislatures — Rhode Island (1842) and Connecticut (1960) — have abolished county government altogether. In fact, according to the NACo, county government is a vestige of the past, or extremely limited throughout New England. Between 1997 and 2000, Massachusetts did away with eight of its 14 county governments. In Vermont, counties have little responsibility other than operating jails. Of course, in a region of relatively small states with strong township structures, county governments can be viewed as redundant. So, in four of the six New England states, counties exist only on maps.

Conversely, in the West and Southeast, counties are the primary and, in some regions, only provider of municipal services such as tax collection, property assessment, recorder of vital statistics, land-use manager, road and bridge construction, elections supervision, building and maintenance of parks and libraries, court administration, jails and law enforcement. Generally, the more rural an area is, the more likely it is that it’s administered by a county government, rather than a city, town or village board.

County governments are managed by elected boards that have executive, legislative and, usually, quasi-judicial powers to make legal rulings on land-use matters, such as development proposals that may vary from zoning regulations. These elected officials are referred to as either county commissioners or county supervisors (in New Jersey, they are called freeholders) and sit on boards or commissions that are usually comprised of at least three or more individuals.

Even here, there can be great variation. For instance, there are counties in Georgia and New Hampshire where a sole commissioner runs the county without a board. Meanwhile, in New York, 34 of the state’s 57 counties outside New York City — which, itself, is comprised of five counties — have county legislatures elected to represent townships within the county, which is managed on a day-to-day basis by an elected county executive.

In most states, county officials other than commissioners or supervisors are elected separately, and can be autonomous administrators yielding their own independent authority, such as the county clerk, county treasurer and, most notably, the county sheriff who, in some areas, can be the most powerful political figure in the county.

In many states, as the physical and administrative subdivisions of the states, the county manages all unincorporated lands within its boundaries. In the Northeast and some Midwest states, each county is subdivided into townships, or towns, which are responsible for managing unincorporated areas.

No two counties are exactly the same. They are diverse in structure and how they deliver services. In 2015, according to the NACo, counties were responsible for $554 billion in annual expenditures with 3.6 million county employees nationwide, serving 308 million constituents.

What’s Important to Counties and Why it Might Be for You, Too

Is infrastructure, online sales taxes or Medicaid expansion something that concerns your association, nonprofit or corporation? Then read on, because they (and more) are all top priorities for county governments, too. And they have major influence in how to interpret each in their own personal corners of the world.

In January, the NACo issued the following seven 2016 federal legislative priorities for counties. They are:

1. Protect municipal bonds: Property taxes are the oldest and, for the vast majority of counties (and cities), the largest source of operating revenues. Therefore, preserving federal deductibility of local property and income taxes and the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds, is counties’ top collective legislative priority. After expiring in 2014, the tax breaks were extended through 2016. NACo and other local government advocates want to see that made permanent.

Tax exemptions for municipal bond interest, which have been in the federal tax code for more than a century, finance trillions of dollars in improvements for public amenities, infrastructure, and development. NACo and other local government advocates also want to see this measure made permanent.

2. Assessing sales taxes for online transactions: NACo and other local government advocates are lobbying for legislation to permit the collection of existing sales and use taxes from remote – primarily online – sellers. With Internet-based sales increasing dramatically, NACo maintains state and local governments have lost billions in uncollected sales taxes, while local brick-and-mortar businesses are placed at a significant competitive disadvantage to online merchants.

3. Amend “Waters of the U.S.” Regulations: NACo maintains local streets, gutters, and human-made ditches should be excluded from the definition of “Waters of the U.S” (WOTUS) under the Clean Water Act. It is requesting that Congress require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to withdraw a new WOTUS rule that includes streets, gutters and human-made ditches, and rewrite it in consultation with state, county and municipal governments.

4. Medicaid: The federal-state-local structure for financing and delivering Medicaid services must be maintained. Counties are alarmed about proposed measures that would limit states’ abilities to channel supplemental payments to county providers, curtail counties capacities to contribute local funds to match federal dollars or otherwise shift federal and state Medicaid costs to counties. In some counties in some areas, Medicaid costs can be among a their largest annual expenditures.

5. Infrastructure and road funding: NACo is lobbying to ensure the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act or FAST Act is implemented to reflect local government priorities, including allocating more funding for locally owned infrastructure, increasing local decision making authority and prioritizing investments that enhance safety. Resolving the long-term solvency of the Highway Trust Fund is also included in this priority.

6. Sustaining the payments in lieu of taxes and secure rural schools programs: NACo wants Congress to restore full mandatory funding for the PILOT program, which compensates counties for tax-exempt federal land within their boundaries, such as Native American reservations and religious exempt properties, and to extend the SRS program “as a transitional funding mechanism” until the federal government fully implements a program that will generate funds for counties and school districts from profits generated by an approved but not implemented forest management program.

7. Mental Health and Criminal Justice Reform: Local governments are lobbying for increased funding from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration block grants, and other allocations to implement and expand mental health parity, ease the Medicaid Institute of Mental Disease exclusion, expand access to health information technology, and develop and expand the behavioral health workforce. The group also supports programs and legislation aimed at reducing mental illness in jails, and provide treatment to those in custody, something local governments are struggling to pay for on their own.

MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENTS

According to the 2012 Census report, there are 19,519 municipal governments and 16,360 town or township governments. These local governments vary even more widely than those of counties, with different administrative structures for cities, towns, boroughs, districts, plantations and villages.

How many municipalities exist within a state also varies tremendously. For instance, there’s only one municipality in Hawaii, while there are more than 1,300 in Illinois. Despite these variations, these local governments all share similar powers and perform the same functions – essentially delivering municipal services within their incorporated boundaries, law enforcement, and developing land-use policies that reflect the wishes of their citizens.

In most instances, a municipality functions within a county and either delivers complementary or enhanced services alongside the county. Counties are still responsible for a range of cross-jurisdictional services, such as jails, vital statistics, elections supervision, courts administration and social services. In most instances, county residents seek to incorporate into a municipality because they want better services, or more control of land-use policy.

Town or township governments differ from municipal governments, generally, because they govern areas without a minimum population concentration. Twenty states, including New York, Maine, Illinois and Kansas, have town governments that are responsible for managing unincorporated lands within counties.

Five Forms of Municipal Management

According to the National League of Cities (NLC), there are five predominate forms of sub-county government, defined by municipal charter, a legal document adopted at the time of incorporation, that defines its organization, powers, functions, and essential procedures: council-manager, mayor-council, commission, town meeting and representative town meeting.

Council-Manager: An elected city council, usually comprised of five members, oversees the general administration, makes policy, and sets annual operating and cyclical capital improvement budgets. The council appoints a professional city manager to carry out day-to-day administrative duties. Generally, the mayor is chosen from among the council on a rotating basis or by which elected member received the most votes in the most recent elections. In this form of government, the mayor is often a ceremonial figurehead.

According to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), this form of local government is the most common in the U.S. In 1996, 48 percent of municipalities operated in this fashion while, in 2007, according to the U.S. Census, 55 percent were doing so. ICMA notes Council-Manager type administration is most popular in cities with populations over 10,000, mainly in the Southeast and the West.

Mayor-Council: The mayor is elected separately from the council, often as a full-time, paid executive with significant administrative and budgetary authority. Council members are elected and maintain legislative powers. Under this form of government, in some areas, the mayor or the council can appoint a professional manager who maintains limited administrative authority.

The ICMA says 34 percent of American cities operated under this form of government. It is most common in older, larger Mid-Atlantic and Midwest cities such as New York, Houston and Minneapolis.

Commission: Commissioners are elected to a board with each commissioner responsible for one specific aspect, such as fire, police, public works, health and finance with one commissioner designated as chairman or mayor, who presides over meetings.

The commission form of local government is the oldest form of government in the U.S., but exists today in less than 1 percent of cities. It typically occurs in cities with populations below 100,000.

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Town Meeting: This form of government is generally considered the “purest form” of democracy because it allows all eligible voters a voice in local policy decisions. In this government, all voters meet to decide basic policy and elect officials to carry out those policies.

About 5 percent of all local governments operate in this fashion. Most are relatively small and generally occur in New England.

Representative Town Meeting: In this structure, voters select a large number of citizens — “selectmen” — to represent them at town meetings, where only they can vote. Each town meeting is announced with a “warrant” that provides the date, time and location of the meeting and specifies the items to be discussed.

This form of government is found in fewer than 1 percent of cities, again most exclusively in small, New England municipalities.

Of course, just to confuse the matter, and as the ICMY explains in its local government structure survey, these five forms of municipal management are not as distinct as they once were, with many fusing varying elements of into their administrative infrastructure.

What’s Important to Municipalities and Why it Might Be for You, Too

As the third tier of local government, municipalities lobby county and state elected officials and agencies on a wide range of home-rule issues.

The NLC, representing more than 19,000 cities, towns and villages also advocates on the federal level on behalf of municipalities.

Five of their federal legislative priorities for 2016 are the same as NACo’s, but they have two specific to their jurisdictions:

Calling on Congress to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015: S. 2123 adjusts prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders, targets violent criminals, and supports recidivism reduction programs. The NCL are also lobbying for passage of the Second Chance Reauthorization Act (S. 1513/H.R. 3406), which would provide local governments with resources, not “unfunded mandates,” to assist individuals returning to communities and reduce recidivism.

Reauthorize the EPA Brownfields Program: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a brownfield as “the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of real property which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”

Many local governments, out of necessity, take ownership of brownfields properties. Without federal subsidies, however, there is often little municipalities can do with these damaged properties.

The EPA’s Brownfields Program provides grants and technical assistance to local governments to provide the resources they need to prevent, assess, safely clean up, and sustainably reuse brownfields.

The NLC is calling on Congress to expand liability protections for local governments that acquire contaminated brownfields sites, but had no involvement in the contamination, as well as increase the assistance available under the program.

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