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United States of America showing states divided into counties.

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

Contents

History

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.[4] 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.[4]

County names

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.[5]

Governance

In most Midwestern and Northeastern states, counties are further subdivided into townships or towns and may contain other independent, self-governing municipalities.

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.[1]

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.

Scope of power

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.

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Minimal scope

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.[6] 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.

Moderate scope

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.

Broad scope

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).

Number of county equivalents per state

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).[7] 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.

  • 254 – Texas, average county pop. approx. 98,000
  • 159 – Georgia, average county pop. approx. 62,000
  • 134 – Virginia[8], average county pop. approx. 59,000
  • 120 – Kentucky, average county pop. approx. 36,000
  • 115 – Missouri, average county pop. approx. 52,000
  • 105 – Kansas, average county pop. approx 27,000
  • 102 – Illinois, average county pop. approx. 126,000
  • 100 – North Carolina, average county pop. approx. 94,000
  • 99 – Iowa, average county pop. 31,000
  • 95 – Tennessee, average county pop. approx. 66,000
  • 93 – Nebraska, average county pop. approx. 19,000
  • 92 – Indiana, average county pop. approx. 70,000
  • 88 – Ohio, average county pop. approx. 131,000
  • 87 – Minnesota, average county pop. approx. 52,000
  • 83 – Michigan, average county pop. approx. 120,000
  • 82 – Mississippi, average county pop. approx. 36,000
  • 77 – Oklahoma average county pop. approx. 48,000
  • 75 – Arkansas, average county pop. approx. 39,000
  • 72 – Wisconsin, average county pop. approx. 79,000
  • 67 – Pennsylvania,average county pop. approx. 188,000
  • 67 – List of counties in Florida, average county pop. approx. 277.000
  • 67 – Alabama, average county pop. approx. 70,000
  • 66 – South Dakota, average county pop. approx. 12,000
  • 64 – Parishes in Louisiana, average county (parish) pop. approx. 70,000
  • 64 – Colorado, average county pop. approx. 79,000
  • 62 – New York, average county pop. approx. 315,000.
  • 58 – California, average county pop. approx. 637,000.
  • 56 – Montana, average county pop. approx. 17,000
  • 55 – West Virginia,average county pop. approx. 33,000
  • 53 – North Dakota, average county pop. approx. 12,000
  • 46 – South Carolina, average county pop. approx. 99,000
  • 44 – Idaho, average county pop. approx. 35,000
  • 39 – Washington, average county pop. approx. 171,000
  • 36 – Oregon, average county pop. approx. 98,000
  • 33 – New Mexico, average county pop. approx. 61,000
  • 29 – Utah, average county pop. approx. 96,000
  • 24 – Maryland, average county pop. approx. 237,000
  • 23 – Wyoming, average county pop. approx. 24,000
  • 21 – New Jersey, average county pop. approx. 415,000
  • 18 Organized Boroughs in Alaska, average county (census borough) pop. approx. 37,000
  • 17 – Nevada, average county pop. approx. 155,000
  • 16 – Maine, average county pop. approx. 82,000
  • 15 – Arizona, average county pop. approx. 440,000
  • 14 – Vermont, average county pop. approx. 44,000
  • 14 – Massachusetts, average county pop. approx. 471,000
  • 10 – New Hampshire, average county pop. approx. 132,000
  • 8 – Connecticut, average county pop. approx. 440,000
  • 5 – Rhode Island, average county pop. approx. 211,000
  • 5 – Hawaii, average county pop. approx. 259,000
  • 3 – Delaware, average county pop. approx. 295,000

Source:[1]

Statistics

A highway sign designating the border between Nicholas and Greenbrier counties in West Virginia along a secondary road.

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.[1]

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.

County equivalents

The term county equivalents includes three additional types of administrative divisions which are different from the type of county found in most states:

  • Alaska census areas: Most of the land area of Alaska is not contained within any of Alaska's 18 boroughs. This vast area, larger than France and Germany combined, is officially referred to by the Alaska state government as the Unorganized Borough, and, outside of other incorporated borough limits, has no independent "county" government, although several incorporated city governments exist within its boundaries; the majority of it is governed and run by the State of Alaska as an extension of state government.A[›] The United States Census Bureau, in cooperation with the Alaska state government for census and electoral districting purposes, has divided the Unorganized Borough into 11 census areas for statistical purposes only.B[›]
  • Independent cities: These are cities that legally belong to no county. As of 2004, there are 42 such cities in the United States: Baltimore, Maryland; Carson City, Nevada; St. Louis, Missouri; and all 39 cities in Virginia, where any municipality incorporated as a city (in contrast to town) is by law severed from any county that might otherwise have contained it.[9]
  • Washington, D.C. has a special status. It is not part of any state; instead, in accordance with Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, the city is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress. For a long time, the District of Columbia and the City of Washington have been coterminous, though they formerly were not. All of the former counties within the District of Columbia have been abolished, and they are of historical interest only.

Cities and counties

In general, cities occupy a smaller area than the county which contains them. However, there are exceptions:

See also

Notes

^ 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,[10] 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.[11]
^ 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.

References

  1. ^ a b c d "An Overview of County Government". National Association of Counties. http://www.naco.org/Content/NavigationMenu/About_Counties/County_Government/A_Brief_Overview_of_County_Government.htm. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  2. ^ Osborne M. Reynolds, Jr., Handbook of Local Government Law, 2nd ed. (St. Paul, MN: West Group, 2001), 26.
  3. ^ Kane, Joseph Nathan; Charles Curry Aiken (2004). The American Counties: Origins of County Names, Dates of Creation, and Population Data, 1950-2000. The Scarecrow Press, Inc. p. vii-xii. ISBN 978-0810850361. 
  4. ^ a b Osborne M. Reynolds, Jr., Local Government Law, 3rd ed. (St. Paul: West, 2009), 19.
  5. ^ Kane, Joseph Nathan; Charles Curry Aiken (2004). The American Counties: Origins of County Names, Dates of Creation, and Population Data, 1950-2000. The Scarecrow Press, Inc. p. vii-xii. ISBN 978-0810850361. 
  6. ^ Unlike in Massachusetts, Connecticut's regional councils do not conform to the old county lines, but rather, they are composed of towns that share the same geographic region and have similar demographics.
  7. ^ "How Many Counties are in Your State?". Click and Learn. http://www.clickandlearn.cc/FreeBlacklineMaps/Counties.htm. Retrieved 2009-08-26. 
  8. ^ http://www.virginiaplaces.org/vacount/index.html
  9. ^ "County & County Equivalent Areas". United States Census Bureau. April 19, 2005. http://www.census.gov/geo/www/cob/co_metadata.html. Retrieved 2007-12-08. 
  10. ^ "Alaska Statutes Title 29 Chapter 03. The Unorganized Borough". Local Government On-Line, Division of Community and Regional Affairs, Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. August 18, 1998. http://www.commerce.alaska.gov/dca/LOGON/pubs/29_03.htm. Retrieved 2008-07-17. 
  11. ^ "Local Government in Alaska" (PDF). Local Boundary Commission, Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. February 2001. http://www.commerce.state.ak.us/dca/lbc/pubs/Local_Gov_AK.pdf. Retrieved 2008-07-17. 

External links


Genealogy

Up to date as of February 01, 2010

From Familypedia

Every state in the United States has subdivisions. In 48 of the states, they are called Counties, in Alaska, they are called boroughs and census areas, and in Louisiana they are called parishes.

In most states, a county performs some services for local residents such as police or fire departments in areas where there are no city governments or where cities contract with a county. In some states (Connecticut and Rhode Island) the county has been essentially eliminated except as a named place.

In Virginia, 39 cities, and in three other states (Maryland, Missouri, and Nevada), certain city governments (Baltimore, St. Louis and Carson City, respectively) have been made the functional equivalent of counties; these are known as Independent Cities.

There are also some locations (Denver and San Francisco) where a city and county government are coextensive, and are known as a City and County.

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

Area | Capitals | Capitol buildings | Counties | Date of statehood | FIPS code | State Laws | Elevation
Largest cities | Insignia | Never territories | Name etymologies | GDP (per capita) | Population | Population density
Postal abbreviations | Time zone | Traditional abbreviation | Unemployment rate

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