The Problems with Cities and Counties
Updated: Oct 15, 2020
In the United States, government is generally built around the concept of cities and counties. Counties are the arm of the state and provide both state level and local level services to the citizens in their area. Among the more local of these services are law enforcement, roads, and other similar services. If citizens in a certain part of the county want a higher level of service, they can form a city. A city is usually a completely separate government, distinct from the county it’s in. The people inside the city continue to pay taxes to the county
The concept of cities in counties is a good one. It ensures that all citizens, anywhere in the state, receive a basic level of service. It lets people decide what level of service they want to pay for by deciding where in a county they want to live. Someone who prefers a more rural lifestyle and couldn’t care less about parks and sidewalks could, theoretically, choose to live in the county and not pay for extra amenities. Someone who wants these types of things can choose to live in the city and pay the extra taxes.
It’s a good system… on paper. In reality, there are many ways that this system can go wrong, and they all have to do with human nature.
The important point to remember is that people living in a city are generally still paying county taxes on top of their city taxes. Their city taxes are meant to supplement what they’re already paying to the county, not supplant them. This also means that a city resident should still be entitled to the same level of county services that their counterparts in the unincorporated areas receive (since they’re paying the same amount of county taxes). In reality, this often isn’t the case. In a small town I once worked in, three-fourths of the county population were city residents. The entire county was approximately 1,000 square miles. The city only accounted for about 5 square miles of that. I paid county taxes (like everyone else), but also paid an additional tax because I lived in the city. What did I get for my city taxes? I received the things that typically come to mind: police protection, fire protection, streets and parks. The streets in our city were paid for by my city tax dollars. It’s important to remember, however, that I was paying the same county taxes as my buddy who lived in a rural area outside the city. So, my county tax dollars weren’t being used to maintain the road in front of my house (my city taxes paid for that). They were being used to maintain my friend’s road, out in the county. My city taxes were paying for the roads at my house, but I was still paying the same county tax as my friend.
The same could be said of police protection. If I had to call the local dispatch center for help, they would send a police officer who was paid for with my city taxes. I was still paying the same county taxes to fund the sheriff’s office that my friend in the county paid. That means my county tax dollars were being used to provide protection to him.
It is only fair to point out that this is a very general way to look at the matter. There are many county services that are in fact used equally by all citizens (city and unincorporated dwellers). For example, most places will have only one county jail. The local county courthouse is another example. Still, the system obviously creates a somewhat unfair situation that often incentivizes citizens to live outside of an incorporated city. Why would they voluntarily be double-taxed when they could benefit from someone else being double-taxed?
Oftentimes, city governments voluntarily take on duties that should rightfully be handled by the county. I’ve seen city governments voluntarily contribute cash payments to projects that are very clearly county responsibilities. These situations are often caused not by an inherent flaw in the system, but by human nature. Individual government officials may be more interested in accomplishing a certain goal than they are to adhering to a specific system and doing their own job. They may financially support a certain project because of pressure from a local person or special interest. Sometimes, they may feel pressure because of what I call the “Somebody’s Got to Do It” Syndrome. If a local official receives numerous complaints about an issue, he or she may feel passionate about addressing it. Their passion may override the fact that the problem is really the purview of another governmental entity. Telling a constituent “I’m sorry, but that’s not a city function, I really want to respect the system” isn’t a great way to get re-elected.
All too often the City-County results in city taxpayers being double-taxed and paying for things they’ve already paid for once, with their county taxes. In many places, it’s also duplicitous and unnecessary. It’s not unusual to find larger communities in which many unincorporated areas are highly developed and impossible to differentiate from the city. In these places, the governments are there for the government sake, not for the sake of the people. But is there a better way to do it?
The City-County System still works fairly well in some situations. In other cases, it’s simply around because old habits die hard. Though it’s difficult to change things, other methods have been tried in some places. The concept of special districts and various forms of governmental consolidation have been used to some success in some areas. Special districts are the idea of a government levying an extra tax to a specific part of its jurisdiction. For example, let’s say a certain area of a county gets especially populated and needs an extra fire department. The other parts of the county don’t need an extra fire department, so it’s not fair to levy a countywide tax and make everyone pay for it. Instead, the county can create a special district and make everyone who will use that fire department pay a little extra to build it. That sounds a lot like the reasoning for cities. However, we avoid creating an additional government that will eventually take on a life of its own. Another option that has been explored in some places is that of consolidation. Some places have effectively consolidated their city and county governments into one entity. This can eliminate some of the efficiencies of the more traditional models. This, however, has its own drawbacks. If we did this in the small town I described earlier, we’d still be treating portions of the population unfairly. We’d simply switch the unfair burden from the city dwellers to the rural population. We’d be asking the rural dwellers on dirt county roads to pay the exact same tax as those living next door to a park in the city area. That would be as unfair as the current arrangement. Consolidation wouldn’t work for everyone. Furthermore, consolidation is exceedingly difficult to enact. Governments, once formed, take on a life of their own. The people in those governments become vested in their existence, and they rarely let them go away without a fight. Consolidation efforts are rarely successful, absent some massive crisis that precipitates the movement.
There are newer and more effective options to ensure that citizens are serviced and taxed in a fair way for local government services. The City-County System is an old one, but still has many benefits. If human nature were removed from the equation, the City-County System would probably work better than any other option. It would provide the greatest level of services to citizens if those involved followed the system and put the interests of their citizens before their own inclinations. That, unfortunately, is not likely to happen. Systems can be changed, but people will always be people.