County governments provide essential services to create healthy, safe, vibrant and economically resilient communities. They build infrastructure, maintain roads and bridges, provide health care, administer justice, keep communities safe, run elections, and manage solid waste, records keeping and much more. More than 19,300 elected board members and elected executives invest $482.1 billion annually to serve 296 million county residents across the country. Counties are able to provide a vast array of services through the work of 3.3 million employees.
Counties differ significantly in terms of governance, structure and responsibilities. Counties are creatures of the states, which decide the degree of autonomy over county governance. In 36 states, county governments exercise powers that are explicitly dictated by state law (the so-called “Dillon’s Rule”). States can also allow counties to decide their own structure, functions and fiscal organization (home rule authority). Many states implement a mix of home rule and Dillon’s rule.
With increasingly limited resources, counties use innovation to better serve their communities and work together with federal, state and other local governments, nonprofits, and businesses to ensure the prosperity of their residents.
Counties are an essential part of the nation’s infrastructure. By providing efficient transportation and transit options such as buses, trains, light rail and subway systems, counties connect residents, businesses and communities, and strengthen local economies. But this is not only about transportation. From cleaning water and removing storm debris to building roads, schools and jails, counties provide basic services that are often taken for granted.
County governments are deeply involved in building, maintaining and operating the transportation and infrastructure assets of our nation. Counties own a large share of the nation’s infrastructure.
For example, counties own 45 percent of the nation’s roadways. They also invest substantially in infrastructure. Counties spend $106.3 billion annually to build, maintain and operate roads, bridges, transit, water systems, and other public facilities. While taking care of the “dirty” work – counties spend $18.6 billion annually for sewage and solid waste management services – counties are exploring innovative ways to curb waste, cut costs, conserve resources for future generations and contribute to a cleaner environment overall.
Maintaining safe communities is one of the most important functions of county governments. Most counties are involved in almost every aspect of law enforcement and crime prevention, including policing, corrections, and judicial and legal services. For example, the duties of a county sheriff’s department range from law enforcement with full patrolling, arrest and investigative powers to more limited court-related duties like serving court papers and providing court security. Counties are often charged with housing and securing those awaiting trial and inmates who are serving a term of less than one year. In addition to detention, counties offer an array of training and re-entry programs, like employment skills development that facilitate the transition from incarceration back into the community.
Counties finance and operate many law enforcement services. Counties invest $70.2 billion annually in providing justice and public safety services to their residents. Almost half of the investment – $30.2 billion – goes to police and sheriff’s departments. From policing the streets and operating and maintaining county detention facilities to serving as the arm of the county courts, the 3,105 county sheriffs and police departments are the linchpin of the criminal justice system. The justice process is one of the most basic rights granted to citizens, and counties invest $16.7 billion annually in county civil and criminal courts and legal services like prosecuting and district attorneys, indigent defense, and child support enforcement. At the same time, counties invest $23.3 billion annually in the operation, construction and maintenance of county jails that received the majority of the 11.6 million admissions to local jails in 2012.
Counties work with all levels of government within the justice system. The judicial process begins at trial level county courts, which are part of the larger state court systems. The process then travels through the extended state court system moving to the appellate level and state court of last resort, and sometimes to the federal court system. Further, counties hold inmates for other entities, with federal and state agencies such as the U.S. Marshalls Service and Immigration and Customs contracting with county jails to hold their prisoners for a fee. In collaboration with the states, counties access a number of U.S. Department of Justice grant programs, including the Justice Assistance Grant Program for law enforcement programs, courts, corrections and crime prevention. For the law enforcement system as a whole to be effective, all aspects of the system from every level of participation have to work together to keep the communities safe.
Counties create support systems to keep Americans healthy from the time they are born until they grow old. Counties provide public health information, clinical services, behavioral health services, children’s care and services to the elderly, emergency medical services, and various healthy living programs. Often, states require counties to provide health services to low-income and uninsured people. County governments have different responsibilities and requirements in providing health care services, with some counties such as Monroe County, N.Y.; Dearborn County, Ind.; and Delta County, Colo., deeply involved in delivering health services to their residents through county hospitals and county health departments.
County governments actively support the health care providers in their jurisdiction. Counties invest $69.7 billion annually in public health services and hospital facilities providing in-patient medical care. From preventative measures like administering flu shots to educating the public on health issues, counties are involved in providing healthcare through more than 1,550 health departments. In order to maintain safe working and living conditions, county health departments regulate the use of safe ingredients and clean preparation methods in restaurants and ensure the cleanest and safest operating standards for community swimming pools and hotels. Counties support 960 hospitals that provide clinical services, cancer and cardiac care, and emergency and trauma care, serving more than 14 million patient days annually. By operating 76 percent of publicly owned nursing homes nationally, counties promote quality of life and wellness to the elderly.
Balancing numerous administrative responsibilities with governing duties, counties deliver essential services to their residents. More than 19,300 elected county board members and elected executives set the strategic priorities for counties across the country. In most counties, county board members have both executive and legislative authority. In 711 counties, elected county executives hold the executive authority while the governing body has legislative responsibilities. Other county officials — elected or appointed — join county board members and executives in securing the well-functioning of counties. For example, county assessors, treasurers, auditors and tax collectors work to secure the financial health of counties.
Counties provide vital services, from issuing birth certificates and marriage licenses to operating 911 call centers. Counties are responsible for running elections, from federal to local. Every two years, counties fund and oversee more than 114,000 polling places and coordinate more than 692,000 poll workers. Counties invest $9.3 billion annually to build and maintain parks, community centers and cultural centers. On behalf of their communities and citizens, counties invest $25.6 billion annually in economic planning, housing development and working with businesses to improve the local economy.
In response to changing economic environments, counties must work with all the levels of government and partner with the private sector to meet the needs of their communities. For example, counties leverage Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with private and non-profit funding to address a number of local needs such as affordable housing and bottlenecks in economic development. Many counties developed agreements with other state and local governments, nonprofit organizations and private businesses to promote economic growth in their region. Counties are the fundamental platform for collaboration in building regional and state economies as well as the U.S. economy.