In the United States, a county is a local level of government below the state (or federal territory). Counties are used in 48 of the 50 states, while Louisiana is divided into parishes and Alaska into boroughs. These are considered "county-equivalents", as are some cities not designated as part of a county. The U.S. Census Bureau lists 3,140 counties or county-equivalent administrative units in total.
There are on average 62 counties per state. The average U.S. county population is about 100,000. The most heavily populated county of the U.S., Los Angeles County, California, has a population of approximately 9,880,000, which is a larger population than all but eight states of the union. The least populated counties are Loving County, Texas, population 67, and Kalawao County, Hawaii, a former leper colony, population 147.
The site of a county's administration and courts is called the county seat. The power of the county government varies widely from state to state, as does the distribution of power between the state, counties, and municipalities, which is defined in each state's laws and constitution.
The majority of US counties are named for people. Washington County and Jefferson County are the most common names. Other common sources of county names are geographic features (e.g. "Lake County"), places in other states or countries, Native American tribes, and animals. Quite a few counties bear names of French or Spanish origin.
Counties were among the earliest units of local government established in the original Thirteen Colonies. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was the first colony to establish counties, in 1643. Although counties remained relatively weak in New England, Pennsylvania and New York delegated a significant amount of power and responsibility from the state government to county governments, and thereby established the pattern that remains in place in most of the United States.
Counties are most often named for people, with over 2,100 of the 3,140 total so named. The most common county name, with 31, is Washington County, for America's first president, George Washington. Up until 1871, there was a Washington County within the District of Columbia, but it was dissolved by the District of Columbia Organic Act. Jefferson County, for Thomas Jefferson, is next with 27. The most recent president to have a county named for him was Warren Harding, reflecting the slowing rate of county creation. After people, the next most common source of county names are geographic features and locations, with some counties even being named after counties in other states, or for places in countries such as the United Kingdom. The most common geographic county name is Lake. Native American tribes and animals lend their names to some counties. Quite a few counties bear names of French or Spanish origin.
Counties are usually governed by an elected board of supervisors, county commission, county freeholders, county council, or county legislature. In some counties, there is a county mayor or a county executive. The position of mayor is mostly ceremonial in some states, while in others, the mayor is more powerful than the commissioners or supervisors.
In many states, the board in charge of a county holds powers that transcend all three traditional branches of government. It has the legislative power to enact ordinances for the county; it has the executive power to oversee the executive operations of county government; and it has quasi-judicial power with regard to certain limited matters (like hearing appeals from the planning commission if one exists).
As for the day-to-day operations of the county government, they are sometimes overseen by a county manager or chief administrative officer who reports to the board, the mayor, or both.
In some states, the county technically has a plural executive in that several important officials are elected separately from the board of commissioners or supervisors (implying they cannot be fired by the board). This can create tension if such officials then disagree on how to best carry out their respective functions.
The power of county governments varies widely from state to state, as does the relationship between counties and incorporated cities. The government of the county usually resides in a municipality called the county seat. However, some counties may have multiple seats or no seat.
In New England, counties function at most as judicial court districts and sheriff's departments (presently, in Connecticut only as judicial court districts - and in Rhode Island, they have lost both those functions and all others), and most of the governmental authority below the state level is in the hands of towns and cities. In several of Maine's sparsely populated counties, small towns rely on the county for law enforcement, and in New Hampshire several social programs are administered at the state level. In some New England states, such as in Connecticut, parts of Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, counties are now only geographic designations, and they do not have any governmental powers. All government is either done at the state level or at the municipal level. In Connecticut and parts of Massachusetts, regional councils have been established to partially fill the void left behind by the abolished county governments. The regional councils' authority is much more limited compared with a county government—the regional councils have no taxing authority or authority to issue permits; the aforementioned powers are delegated to the town governments. However, the regional councils do have authority over infrastructure and land use planning, distribution of state and federal funds for infrastructure projects, emergency preparedness, and limited law enforcement duties.
Outside New England, counties typically provide, at a minimum, courts, public utilities, libraries, hospitals, public health services, parks, roads, law enforcement, and jails. There is usually a county registrar, recorder, or clerk (the exact title varies) who collects vital statistics, holds elections (sometimes in coordination with a separate elections office or commission), and prepares or processes certificates of births, deaths, marriages, and dissolutions (divorce decrees). Counties usually register all real estate transactions. Other key county officials include the coroner/medical examiner, treasurer, assessor, auditor, controller, and district attorney.
In most states, the county sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in the county. However, except in major emergencies where clear chains of command are absolutely essential, the county sheriff normally does not directly control the police departments of city governments, but merely cooperates with them. Thus, the most common interaction between county and city law enforcement personnel is where city police officers deliver suspects to sheriff's deputies for detention or incarceration in the county jail.
In many states, the county controls all unincorporated lands within its boundaries. In states with a township tier, unincorporated land is controlled by the townships. Residents of unincorporated land who are dissatisfied with county-level or township-level resource allocation decisions can attempt to vote to incorporate as a city, town (in states that do not have townships), or village.
A few counties directly provide public transportation themselves, usually in the form of a simple bus system. However, in most counties, public transportation is provided by one of the following: a special district that is coterminous with the county, a multi-county regional transit authority, or a state agency.
In some states, more populated counties provide many facilities, such as airports, convention centers, museums, beaches, harbors, zoos, clinics, law libraries, and public housing. They provide services such as child and family services, elder services, mental health services, welfare services, veterans assistance services, animal control, probation supervision, historic preservation, food safety regulation, and environmental health services. They have many additional officials like public defenders, arts commissioners, human rights commissioners, and planning commissioners. Finally, there may also be a county fire department (as distinguished from fire departments operated by individual cities, special districts, or the state government).
Maryland, in particular, vests its counties with broad powers, including educational responsibilities (which are normally handled in all other states by school districts specific to particular cities, towns, or regions).
There are on average 62.8 counties per state. The state with the fewest counties is Delaware (3—alone in the United States, these are divided into units called 'hundreds'), and the state with the most is Texas (254). Southern and Midwestern states generally tend to have more counties than Western or Northeastern states. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have abolished county governments in whole or in part, though the former county territories may be observed in the three states' state-level administrative districts.
At the 2000 U.S. Census, the median land area of the 3,077 U.S. counties was 622 sq mi (1,611 km²), which is only two-thirds of the median land area of a ceremonial county of England, and only a little more than a quarter of the median land area of a French département. However, this figure does not account for the differences among the United States counties themselves; counties in the western United States have a much larger mean land area than those in the eastern United States. For example, the median land area of counties in Georgia is 343 sq mi (888 km²), whereas in Utah it is 2,427 sq mi (6,286 km²).
The largest county equivalent by (total) area is Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, Alaska, at 147,843 square miles (382,912 km²), while the largest actual county is San Bernardino County, California, in southern California, which includes the Mojave Desert, at 20,105 square miles (52,071 km²) in area. The second-largest county is Coconino County, Arizona, in the north-central part of the state, which includes the Grand Canyon National Park. The smallest county equivalent is the independent city of Falls Church, Virginia, at 2.2 square miles (5.7 km²) in area, while the smallest actual county is Kalawao County, Hawaii, at 13 square miles (34 km²) in land area.
At the 2000 U.S. Census, only 16.7% of U.S. counties had more than 100,000 inhabitants. This reflects the essentially rural nature of U.S. counties, whose grid was designed in the 19th century in a country still largely rural, and only marginally affected by urbanization. Today, the vast majority of people in the United States are concentrated in a relatively small number of counties. The most populous county equivalent is Los Angeles County, California, with 10,226,506 inhabitants as of 2005, and the least populous county is Loving County, Texas, with 67 inhabitants as of 2005.
The most densely populated county (or county equivalent) is New York County, New York (coextensive with the Borough of Manhattan and consisting of Manhattan Island, a neighborhood originally on the island but now physically attached to The Bronx, and very small adjacent islands), with 66,940 people per square mile (25,846 per km², or 38.691 square meters per person) as of 2000, and the least densely populated county is Lake and Peninsula Borough, Alaska, with 0.0767 people per square mile (0.0296 per km², or 33.768 km² per person) as of 2000. The least densely populated county equivalent is Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, Alaska, with 0.0449 per square mile (0.0173 per km², or 57.683 km² per person) as of 2000.
The term county equivalents includes three additional types of administrative divisions which are different from the type of county found in most states:
In general, cities occupy a smaller area than the county which contains them. However, there are exceptions:
^ A: The Unorganized Borough, Alaska formed by the Borough Act of 1961 is a legal entity, run by the Alaska state government as an extension of State government, it and the independently incorporated Unified, Home Rule, First Class and Second Class boroughs roughly correspond to parishes in Louisiana and to counties in the other 48 states.
^ B: These 11 statistical areas are used solely by the United States Census Bureau to tabulate population and other census statistics within the Unorganized Borough; they have no legal basis in Alaska state or federal law other than for electoral representation and federal financial assistance purposes.
A county of the United States is a local level of government smaller than a state but almost always larger than a city or town, in a U.S. state or territory. The word "county" is used in 48 of the 50 states, while Louisiana uses the term "parish" and Alaska uses the word "borough." Including those, there are 3,077 counties in the US, an average of 62 counties per state. The state with the fewest counties is Delaware (three), and the state with the most is Texas (254). In many states, counties are subdivided into townships or towns and may contain other independent, self-governing municipalities. The site of a county's administration and courts is called the county seat.
The U.S. Census Bureau lists 3,141 counties or county-equivalent administrative units. The power of the county government varies widely from state to state, as does the relationship between counties and incorporated municipal governments.
The term county equivalents includes three additional types of administrative divisions which are different from the type of county found in most states:
As noted, the territory of most counties includes that of municipalities, within and smaller than the respective counties. However, there are some exceptions to this arrangement:
At the 2000 U.S. Census, the median land area of the 3,077 U.S. counties was 1,611 km² (622 sq. miles), which is only two-thirds of the median land area of a ceremonial county of England, and only a little more than a quarter of the median land area of a French département.
This figure, however, hides large differences between the eastern and western United States. The land area of counties in the western United States is much larger than the land area of counties in the eastern United States. For example, in the eastern United States the median land area of counties in Ohio is 1,138 km² (439.5 sq. miles) and in Georgia it is 888 km² (343 sq. miles), whereas in the western United States the median land area of counties in California is 3,977 km² (1535.5 sq. miles) and in Utah it is 6,286 km² (2,427 sq. miles) thisis big
By area, the largest county in the United States is North Slope Borough, Alaska at 94,763 square miles (245,435 km²) and the smallest county in the United States is Kalawao County, Hawaii at 13 square miles (34 km²). The largest county in the 48 contiguous states is San Bernardino County, California, at 20,105 mi²/52,073 km², and the smallest is New York County, New York at 22.96 mi²/59.47 km².
However, when county equivalents are included, both lose their status. The largest county equivalent by area is Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, Alaska at 147,843 square miles (382,912 km²) and the smallest is the independent city of Falls Church, Virginia at 2.0 square miles (5 km²).
At the 2000 U.S. Census, the median population of the 3,077 U.S. counties was 24,544 inhabitants, which is 1/33 as many inhabitants as the median population of a ceremonial county of England, and 1/21 as many inhabitants as the median population of a French département.
At the 2000 U.S. Census, only 16.1% of U.S. counties had more than 100,000 inhabitants, while 83.9% of U.S. counties had less than 100,000 inhabitants. This reflects the essentially rural nature of U.S. counties, whose grid was designed in the 19th century, in a country still largely rural and only marginally affected by urbanization. Today, the vast majority of people in the United States are concentrated in a relatively small number of counties.
The most densely populated county (or county equivalent) is New York County, New York (coextensive with the Borough of Manhattan, and consisting primarily of Manhattan island) with 66,940 people per square mile (ppsm) as of 2000, and the least densely populated county is Lake and Peninsula Borough, Alaska with 0.08 ppsm as of 2000. The least densely populated county equivalent is Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, Alaska with 0.04 ppsm as of 2000.
The power of county governments varies widely from state to state, as does the relationship between counties and incorporated cities. The government of the county usually resides in a municipality called the county seat. However, some counties have zero or multiple seats.
Outside New England, counties typically maintain law enforcement agencies, public utilities, library systems, collect vital statistics and prepare, and/or process the state, certificates of births, deaths, marriages, and dissolutions (divorce decrees). In some states, the county sheriff is the principal law enforcement officer in the county, usually limited to areas outside the jurisdiction of cities and towns. In parts of the U.S., counties are "policed" by sheriffs, and cities by police departments. In other areas, county law enforcement is called "County Police" with county sheriffs providing court services.
Main article: List of Counties of the United States
|Lists of counties in the United States
(parishes in Louisiana; boroughs and census areas in Alaska)
Alabama | Alaska | Arizona | Arkansas | California | Colorado | Connecticut | Delaware | Florida | Georgia | Hawaii | Idaho | Illinois | Indiana | Iowa | Kansas | Kentucky | Louisiana | Maine | Maryland | Massachusetts | Michigan | Minnesota | Mississippi | Missouri | Montana | Nebraska | Nevada | New Hampshire | New Jersey | New Mexico | New York | North Carolina | North Dakota | Ohio | Oklahoma | Oregon | Pennsylvania | Rhode Island | South Carolina | South Dakota | Tennessee | Texas | Utah | Vermont | Virginia | Washington | West Virginia | Wisconsin | Wyoming
Southern and Midwestern states generally tend to have more counties than Western or Northeastern states. Three states, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts have abolished some or all of their county governments. The list below also includes county-equivalents.
The power of the county government varies widely from state to state, as does the relationship between counties and incorporated municipal governments.
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