Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
County (United States)
A county of the United States is a local level of government smaller than a state but generally larger than a city or town, in a U.S. state or territory. The actual term "county" describes them in 48 of the 50 states; Louisiana uses the term "parish" and Alaska uses the word "borough." Including those, there are 3,086 counties in the United States, an average of 62 counties per state. The state with the fewest counties is Delaware (three), and the state with the most is Texas (254). In many states, counties are subdivided into townships or towns and may contain other independent, self-governing municipalities.
The term county equivalents includes in addition three types of units outside that definition:
- Alaska census areas: areas, defined by the United States Census Bureau for statistical purposes, that have no corresponding governmental unit. (In the late 20th century, the totality of these census areas was the "unorganized borough.") Most of the land area of Alaska is divided into these 11 census areas.
- Independent cities: These are cities that legally belong to no county in a state. As of 2004, there are 43 such cities in the United States:
- The District of Columbia, a federal district under the absolute jurisdiction of the US Congress, which has for the last several decades allowed the District a limited home rule.
Including these jurisdictions, the United States has 3,141 counties and county equivalents.
As noted, the territory of most counties includes that of municipalities, within and smaller than the respective counties. However, there are three kinds of exceptions to this arrangement:
- By a series of annexations or other mergers, a city government may come to have exactly the same territory as the county that contains it, even though they remain separate governments. This is nearly the case in Jacksonville, Florida, which has incorporated all of Duval County except for four smaller suburban cities.
- Several cities and counties around the country have unified their governments; these consolidated city-county governments are considered both a city and a county under state law. Prominent examples include Denver, Colorado, Honolulu, Hawaii and San Francisco, California.
- The area now forming the five boroughs of New York City consisted, into the late 19th century, of three typical counties and parts of two others, each containing at least one city or town. These are still counties in name and in state law; nevertheless, since 1898 they have been entirely contained within the boundaries of the city, and following the creation of Bronx County in 1914, each borough now corresponds exactly to one county.
- In several states, (including Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas) a city may annex land within an adjacent county. That land is then subject to city government, but the respective counties continue to provide county-specific services and residents vote for county officials in the respective counties.
- In Michigan, the city may petition to change the county boundaries to accord with the city boundaries. Historically, however, this has rarely been exercised. There are many cities that span county boundaries in Michigan.
Main article: County statistics of the United States
By area, the largest county in the United States is North Slope Borough, Alaska at 94,763 square miles (245,435 km²) and the smallest county in the United States is Kalawao County, Hawaii at 13 square miles (34 km²).
However, when county equivalents are included, both lose their status. The largest county equivalent by area is Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, Alaska at 147,843 square miles (382,912 km²) and the smallest is the independent city of Falls Church, Virginia at 2.0 square miles (5 km²).
Scope of power
The power of county governments varies widely from state to state, as does the relationship between counties and incorporated cities.
- In New York:
- In contrast to other counties of New York state, the powers of the five boroughs of New York City are very limited, and in nearly all respects subordinate to the city's.
- In New England:
- Counties function at most as judicial court districts (in Connecticut and Rhode Island, they have lost even those functions) and most government power below the state level is in the hands of towns and cities. However, in several of Maine's sparsely populated counties, small towns rely on the county for law enforcement.
- County government was abolished in Connecticut in 1960, although the names remain for geographical purposes.
- In Hawaii:
- The county is the municipal level of government; there are no incorporated cities other than the consolidated City & County of Honolulu.
- In California:
- The county is the default unit of local government (all parts of the state's land are allocated to one of the state's 58 counties). Each county has a Board of Supervisors and is subject to mandatory duties under state law to provide its residents with services like law enforcement, healthcare, road maintenance, and so on. Balancing a county's mandatory and discretionary duties is a very difficult task; any sufficiently injured county taxpayer has standing to sue the county to enforce certain duties where financial distress is no excuse, such as healthcare.
- If residents of a sufficiently large piece of unincorporated county land do not like their county's resource allocation decisions, they can incorporate a city. The city government then takes some of the tax revenue that would have gone to the county, and can impose additional taxes on its residents. It can then choose to provide almost all the services usually provided by the county (and more), or provide only a few and let the county do the rest.
- The idea of "opting out" of county control in California has been taken to its logical extremes. Almost all of the city of Vernon is one large industrial zone, while almost all of the town of Los Altos Hills is zoned as residential.
- Due to geographical variations in property tax and sales tax revenue (the primary revenue source for cities and counties) and differing attitudes towards priorities, there are interesting variations in the levels of various services from one city to the next. For example, the city of Santa Monica is far more generous when it comes to helping the homeless than other cities in Los Angeles County or the county government.
Lists of counties by state
Number of counties per state
County name etymologies
Main article: Lists of U.S. county name etymologies
Many states have counties named after U.S. presidents such as Washington, Madison, Polk, Jefferson, etc. Counties are also commonly named after famous individuals, local Native American tribes once in the area, cities located within the county, and land or water features (Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, meaning "Fat Hill" in Spanish, and Lake County, Illinois, on Lake Michigan).
New counties proposals
- Adirondack County, New York : Proposed county made up of part of Essex County and of Franklin county. 
- Peconic County, New York : Proposed county made up of the eastern part of Suffolk County, New York.
- Proposal for a new county in rural areas of King County, Washington. The proposed name is Cascade County. It would be Washington State's 40th county.,  
- Proposal for the split of Los Angeles County, California by Pete Knight, former state senator of California.
- County (for other countries)
- County statistics of the United States
- List of U.S. counties that share names with U.S. states
- List of extinct U.S. counties
- Political divisions of the United States
- List of counties in alphabetical order
- National Association of Counties
- County Government: Management and Services
- Counties in the United States
- Ranking Tables for Counties
- County and County Equivalent Areas Cartographic Boundary Files Descriptions and Metadata
- NIST FIPS 6-4: Counties and Equivalent Entities of the United States, its Possessions, and Associated Areas]
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