5 Different Types Of Local Government

A picture with one of the types of local government.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

There are nearly 100,000 local government organizations in the United States of America.

Local government started as an idea for the people to grow cohesively – it was started with nearly no constraints, by the people. Slowly, the people lost their selflessness and became more involved with corporate gain. Eventually, and what’s more common now, is a type of government focused on the behaviors of individuals; creating an overall environment that individual prefers to live in. Understanding the demographics of an area is important to consider within any type of local government.

There are five types of local government, and when taking note of the number of established local governments in the nation, it’s important to consider what isn’t classified as “local government.” An area with a population of over 50,000 residents is not considered local government, along with reservations. Also interesting to note is how widely the number of local governments ranges in each state; Pennsylvania, for example, has thousands, while Nevada has less than 200.

This article dives deeper into more statistics and the cardinal types of local governments, from most to least authority:

  • County Government
  • Municipal Government
  • Towns and Townships
  • Special Districts
  • School Districts

1. County Government

There are 3,143 counties (Alaska calls them “boroughs” and Louisiana calls them “parishes”) in the United States of America. Counties typically hold a stringent and tough relationship with states because of the difficulties of balancing large dilemmas and the state with smaller dilemmas and municipalities. Some counties provide resources that are beneficial to the surrounding area. However, other counties are unnecessary and cost the state money. When looking at a population density map, one would see that most Americans live in cities, leaving empty areas throughout the rest of the county.

Though there are some challenges with county government, the leaders in charge understand them and find unique ways to navigate. Initially, in charge of tasks such as law enforcement, road maintenance, public records, and tax collection, county governments have expanded responsibilities. Due to increasing populations and demand, county governments have taken on duties such as social services, healthcare, transit, and environmental control.

Because of the increase in tasks, counties have needed to restructure over the years, in a couple of different ways. One method that counties use is hiring an administration professional to help create more effective and efficient processes. The other method is for voters to elect an official who will create checks and balances for the board of directors within the system.

2. Municipal Government

What is a municipality? The Merriam-Webster dictionary says: “a primarily urban political unit having corporate status and usually powers of self-government.” Essentially, it’s a city. The requirements for establishing a place as a municipality vary from state to state; Some locations may be as few as 300 people. One of the greatest things about local government is that it continues to grow year after year, and municipalities play a big role in that.

Once established the majority of cities adopt a city commission, mayor-council, or council-manager form of government. The city commission is a group of individuals who not only make the rules but execute them as well – an overreaction to the mayor-council form. The mayor-council structure of a local government consists of a weak mayor or a strong mayor. A stronger mayor has more authority, handling tasks such as budget preparation or appointing officials; while a weak mayor sits as part of the council and acts as the voice for the city. Lastly, the council-manager structure of local government is the most widely used in the United States because of the strong collaboration between council members and the manager that’s hired.

The services that a municipal government provides differ from that of a county in a couple of ways. Public Works, Parks and Services, Police and Fire, Waste Management, and Beautification are examples of the services a city provides.

3. Towns and Townships

When thinking of towns, we as a people need to stop thinking of them as dainty little places with nothing more than small mom-and-pop shops. Towns and townships can be powerful. Town meetings are the pinnacle of democratic processes… but too often, the majority of citizens don’t participate.

Some towns – ones that tend to be closer to more developed areas – have a wide range of power. Other, more rural towns are restricted with a limited amount of power and scarce services provided. Either way, the National Association of Towns and Townships (NATaT) make sure both cases are represented in more executive settings.

Over the years many factors continue the slow decline of towns and townships in the United States. Most places lean on either becoming a city or becoming too scarce to continue. Avoiding annexation would be a reason why a town would become a city; to avoid being ‘swallowed’. Residents who live in extremely rural areas might end up getting their resources from a county or special district, making the establishment of a town or township unnecessary. Though, with the help of the NATaT, this type of local government might not be going anywhere, any time soon.

4. Special Districts

Special Districts are the clean-up crew. They’re formed to get the jobs done that cities can’t do. With over 35,000 districts (and growing), we can continue to see their importance. Residents can create a petition to form a special district if they feel the need to. States can establish them too. If a local government is general-purpose, adopting resolutions to form a district is an option.

Special districts take care of services like housing and community development, fire services, water, and sewer services. There are river authorities, emergency service districts, utility districts, and even community college districts. Most special districts deal with weaknesses in finances, politics, or gray boundaries such as electric services or floods.

Special districts aren’t all sunshine and unicorns. Though they take care of tasks that fall outside of a city’s ability, they lack accountability in doing so. Because of the competitiveness of boundaries and how each special district should function, it also slows down the collaboration process. The next step in local government should be consistent special districts established across all states; consistent zoning measures and more collaboration on the goals of each type of local government.

5. School Districts

In early America, there were two buildings that formed the identity of an area: the church and the school.

Every town, city, village, etc. in America wanted to operate one, but the cost of doing so was too expensive for most. The consolidation of schools has taken its course ever since the beginning and the sides are pretty divided on whether it’s beneficial or not.

The division on whether or not these districts should combine is questionable, as funding is always difficult to secure for school districts. Combining school districts would also eliminate some competition for funding from property tax revenue and provide more students with a better education.

Finding ways to keep these districts alive is one of the most important responsibilities that any state and local government could take on.

Conclusive thoughts on the types of local government

There wasn’t much that was planned when local governments were formed. It’s understandable why there are so many gaps and opportunities for growth.

Counties could use more budget and respect.

Municipalities need to pick the benefits of each structure and combine them in order to create a mutually beneficial governing body.

Towns and Townships need to keep defining what democracy is through their town meetings.

Special districts have the ability to feed off of a county or city, the leaders of them shouldn’t bite off more than they can chew.

School Districts are paddling on rafts while other types of local governments sail on yachts.

It’s important to understand every form of local government in order to leave a better footprint. To learn more, check out this resource from the ICMA

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