What is the Difference Between a City and a County?
As an administrator in local government, I’ve had a first hand view of just how little most citizens seem to understand the way their government works. My workspace is directly connected to the front office of the police department I work at. I frequently overhear the clerks in the front office answer phone calls that are obviously meant for some other government entity. It’s a source of great frustration that people who need services from the county (or even completely different cities) often call our agency seeking redress to their problems.
Their confusion, though, is very understandable. Most of us think of things in a hierarchical sense. Your local grocery store manager probably answers to a regional manager who is responsible for all those grocery stores in your area. That regional manager probably answers to a boss at corporate. That’s the clean sort of way we expect things to work.
Unfortunately for those of us that expect things to be designed in a logical, orderly fashion, government in the United States is incredibly intricate. The highest level of government in the United States is the Federal Government… sometimes. We are actually a nation of states. Each state makes its own laws, but the Federal Government is supposed to be supreme in a narrowly defined range of things. Entire books have been written on the intricacy of the arrangement. It’s often just as complicated at the local level. One of the more complicated things for most people to understand about local government is the difference between a city and a county.
As previously stated, each state gets to decide for itself what laws to pass for the most part. That means that each state may choose to arrange its local governments differently than other states. Generally speaking, though, most states use cities and counties.
A county is the arm of the state. At some point, when the state was forming its system of government, everyone sat down in the brand new state capital to lay things out. The state government realized that they couldn’t expect everyone from all over the state to come to the capital to do business with them. There had to be some local representation that could provide services to the people in different areas of the state. That’s where counties come from. They’re the state’s representative to local communities. The people forming the new state took a map and divided the state up into a certain number of counties.
A county provides state level services to its citizens. Do you need to renew the tag on your car? There is a probably a local county clerk who manages that service. There’s probably a county appraiser who is responsible for assessing the value of your house for tax purposes. There may also be a register of deeds who is responsible for maintaining records and that sort of thing.
Counties also provide basic local government services. Most counties have a sheriff, who runs a jail and provides a basic level of law enforcement services. They usually have a highway department of some sort, that takes care of roads. County governments are meant to provide these basic, necessity type services.
At some point, a certain part of a county may have a high concentration of people living in it. That area of the county may decide that they want more services than what the county is providing. Instead of basic roads, they want really nice roads. They’d also like some street lights and sidewalks. They like having a deputy sheriff that comes when they call, but it takes him twenty minutes to get there because of the large area he covers. They’d like to have to have their own police officers, who could be there in five minutes. That’s where a city comes in.
A city is, in theory, a group of people in the county who have decided to form their own government and provide a higher level of services than what the county is providing them. It may be helpful to think of them as a higher level neighborhood homeowners association. That's why you may sometimes hear a city referred to as a "municipal corporation" in some places.
The people in a city normally still pay county taxes. In addition, they pay city taxes. The services that a city provides are supposed to be above and beyond what a county provides. Citizens there are, in theory, paying extra to get more police coverage, better roads, more streetlights, and more parks.
Cities also, by their nature, do a lot of things that a county might not. In a rural county area, there may not be any need for extensive zoning codes and restrictions. It might not matter if a person’s grass gets five feet tall, because their nearest neighbor is three miles away. In the midst of a densely populated city, there will likely be ordinances that prohibit grass being too tall or piles of junk being in the front yard. This is due to the fact that the action will likely affect a neighbor in a city.
So, while counties are put in place by the state to ensure a basic level of services to all its citizens, cities are usually something that citizens in an area choose to create of their own volition. They’re supposed to provide a greater level of service, above and beyond what the county is providing. The people in the city are paying for that higher level of services by paying extra taxes.
One of the best examples of the city/ county concept I’ve seen was a town in Kansas I worked in. Goodland was a small town of about 4,500 people on the Colorado border. It was in Sherman County. Including the people in Goodland, Sherman County had a population of about 6,000 people. If you looked at Goodland on an aerial view map, you see a town that was roughly a square. It had roads, buildings, businesses, parks, and the various things you’d expect to see in a City. The people in the City were paying taxes (above and beyond their county taxes) for these things. At the edge of town, you’d see all of that end. Most of what lay beyond that was more basic. The homes and businesses were replaced by farms and cornfields. The paved roads were replaced with dirt roads. Where Goodland had nine police officers to cover five square miles, Sherman County had 5 deputy sheriffs to cover about 1,000 square miles. It was obviously a different level of service.
If anything I’ve described sounds inconsistent with what you see in your local government, it probably is. What I’ve described is a general, academic framework of why we have these different forms of government. The reality is that politics, tradition, and human nature make for numerous exceptions and evolutions of this model. In many ways and many places, these realities have made for many illogical and unfair arrangements. Understanding the basic concept behind cities and counties, however, is an essential starting point for understanding anything about local government.