The great story of county government

By Eddie A. Jones, AAC County Consultant

Glen Campbell, the Pike County, Arkansas-born singer, guitarist, songwriter, television host, and actor said, “Great stories start with great opening lines. I’m a lineman for the county — what a great way to start a song.” I’m a Judge for the county; I’m a Sheriff for the county; I’m a Clerk for the county; I’m a Treasurer for the county; etc. What a great way to start the story of county government.

I’ve been in county government nearly four decades but some of you are just starting your journey. Do you actually know what you have become a part of and why? Let me say as I begin this story of county government, that if you have been elected to a county government office for any other reason than to be a good and ethical leader of your county you have been elected for the wrong reason.

You may have heard stories like this one before entering county government: A fellow stopped at a rural gas station, filled his tank, and took a break by his car while drinking a soda.

As he relaxed, he watched a couple of men working along the roadside.

One man would dig a hole two or three feet deep and then move on. The other man came along behind him by about 25 feet and filled in the hole. The men worked right past the fellow with the soft drink and went on down the road. Overcome by curiosity, the fellow headed for the first man.

“Hey there,” he said to the men. “Can you tell me what’s going on here with this digging?”

“We work for the county government,” one of the men said.

“But one of you is digging a hole and the other is filling it up. Isn’t that a waste of the county’s money?”

“Well,” one of the men replied, “normally there’s three of us — me, Rodney, and Mike. I dig the hole, Rodney sticks in the tree, and Mike here puts the dirt back.”

“Yeah,” Mike added. “Just because Rodney’s sick, that don’t mean we can’t work, does it?”

Stories like these are fictitious — at least 99 percent of the time.

In the United States, an administrative or political subdivision of a state is a county, which is an area having specific boundaries and a specific level of governmental authority that differs from state to state. The term “county” is used in 48 states. Louisiana has parishes, and Alaska has boroughs — functionally equivalent to counties.

As of 2018, there are 3,142 counties and county-equivalents in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The number of counties per state ranges from only three counties in Delaware to 254 counties in Texas. As you know, we have 75 counties in Arkansas.

The specific governmental powers of counties vary widely between the states. Counties have significant function in all states except Rhode Island and Connecticut, where county governments have been abolished but the entities remain for administrative or statistical purposes. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has removed most government functions from eight of its 14 counties.

The site of a county’s administration and the county courthouse is called the county seat. It’s called the parish seat in Louisiana and the borough seat in Alaska. Several New England counties use the term “shire town” for the county seat, hearkening back to the days in England.

Originally counties were placed so that a county seat would be no more than a day’s journey for everyone within the county borders. That is the principal reason we still have ten counties in Arkansas with two county seats. They are no longer needed for that particular reason, but they still exist and apparently a majority of their residents want it to remain that way. Arkansas ties with Mississippi as the states with the most counties with two county seats.

However, modern U.S. counties share no equivalence in either geographic size or population. Arlington County, Virginia, is 26 square miles in size, while the North Slope Borough of Alaska is 94,796 square miles. Arkansas counties range in size from Lafayette County’s 545 square miles and Sebastian County’s 546 square miles to Union County’s 1,053 square miles. The U.S. County with the largest population is Los Angeles County, California, with 10,163,507. The least populated county is Kalawao County, Hawaii, with only 90 residents. Loving County, Texas, is not far behind with 95 residents. Arkansas counties range in size from Calhoun County’s estimated 2019 population of 5,368 to Pulaski County’s 2019 estimated population of 393,956.

Counties were among the earliest units of local government established in the Thirteen Colonies that would become the United States. Virginia created the first counties in order to ease the administrative workload in Jamestown. The House of Burgesses divided the colony first into four “incorporations” in 1617 and finally into eight shires or counties in 1634. America’s oldest intact county court records can be found at Eastville, Virginia, in Northampton (originally Accomac) County, dating to 1632. Maryland established its first county, St. Mary’s, in 1637, and Massachusetts followed in 1643. Pennsylvania and New York delegated significant power and responsibility from state government to county governments and thereby established a pattern for most of the United States. The first county established in Arkansas was Arkansas County in 1813.

Anthony Albanese said, “Despite the enormous role that local government plays in our daily lives, the constitution makes not one mention of it.” And that’s true. When independence came, as a National Association of Counties (NACo) publication said, “The framers of the Constitution did not provide for local governments. Rather, they left the matter to the states. Subsequently, early state constitutions generally conceptualized county government as an arm of the state.” In the 20th century, the role of local governments strengthened and counties began providing more services, acquiring home rule and legislative bodies to enact local ordinances or laws that do not conflict with state or federal law.

The powers of counties arise from state law and vary widely. In Connecticut and Rhode Island, as I mentioned earlier, counties are geographic entities, but not governmental jurisdictions. At the other extreme, Maryland counties handle almost all services, including public education. North Carolina counties have the responsibility of public education. And there are other states where counties shoulder the responsibility of education, Medicaid and other social services, mental health, community colleges, and the list goes on. Medicaid and Aid to Dependent Children is the largest category of expenditure for New York county government. And now we know why property taxes are so high in some states.

Having taken a quick look at county government structure across the country, let’s bring it home to Arkansas where you serve. A county is defined in the very beginning of county government code in Title 14 of Arkansas Code Annotated (A.C.A.). A.C.A. 14-14-102 says, “A county is a political subdivision of the state for the more convenient administration of justice and the exercise of local legislative authority related to county affairs and is defined as a body politic and corporate operating within specified geographic limitations established by law.”

County government in Arkansas has changed over the years. We have always had a quorum court and the elected officials that we currently have, but the operation has changed. Quorum courts are described in Article 7 of the 1874 Arkansas Constitution. They “sit with and assist the County Judge in levying the county taxes, and in making appropriations for the expenses of the county.”

Quorum courts and county judges were part of Arkansas even during its time as a territory and have been described in all the constitutions of the state. As their names imply, quorum courts, justices of the peace, and county judges originally had more of a judicial function rather than the primary legislative and executive functions they now have. The 1874 Constitution required that each county have one justice of the peace for every 200 voters and a minimum of two per township, but the quorum court met only once each year to levy the taxes and rubber stamp the county budget that had already been drafted. One JP for every 200 voters. Can you imagine the size of the quorum court in Pulaski County under those requirements?

County judges ran the county the rest of the year. By the middle of the 20th century, this unwieldy system had given county judges nearly unlimited power within their counties. Various efforts began to reform Arkansas’ system of county government.

A new Arkansas constitution was proposed in 1970 and it would have replaced the county government system with something similar to what we have today. The voters of Arkansas did not approve that constitution.

Soon after the proposed Arkansas Constitution of 1970 was reduced to shambles by the Arkansas voters’ rejection of it in November 1970, Governor-elect Dale Bumpers of Charleston named a committee to study the possibility of presenting fragments of the document to the voters. Soon after his inauguration, this committee, chaired by Clark County Judge Randall Mathis, one of the few county officials in the state who had supported the Constitution of 1970, began studying the matter. The committee turned its attention from the beginning to that portion of the document that had purported to deal with county government.

During 1971, Mathis’ committee consulted with legislators, members of the Governor’s staff, former Constitutional Convention delegates, the Association of Arkansas Counties (AAC) and county officials in an effort to draft a proposal that would be acceptable to members of those diverse groups. The committee actually began its work by using county government provisions of the Local Government Article of the Constitution of 1970 as a starting point and sought ways to make it palatable to various interest groups and voters of Arkansas. The committee submitted its proposal to the General Assembly in 1973. The General Assembly voted to propose the amendment to the Constitution and place it before the people of Arkansas on the November 1974 general election ballot. It passed narrowly with 51.5 percent of the vote and became Amendment 55 to the Arkansas Constitution. Most of this amendment became effective Jan. 1, 1977.

Amendment 55 radically reformed county government in Arkansas, though the county executive’s titles are relics from the 1874 state constitution. County judges were transformed into county executives in many ways to conduct county business and to carry out and enforce the ordinances enacted by the quorum court. However, the county judge retains some judicial authority under Article 7 of the state constitution as judge of the county court.

One great impact of this reform was reducing the number of JP positions on quorum courts so they could serve as legitimate legislative bodies, thereby increasing legislative efficiency. Justice of the Peace positions were reduced from 2,800 in 1974 to 751 in 1977. The number of Justices of the Peace is currently 783 because of the change in population of counties since the inception of Amendment 55. The county election committee redraws JP districts after each decennial census.

As the legislative body of county government, the quorum courts have the duty to levy taxes and appropriate funds for the county budget. They also fix the number and compensation of deputies and county employees; set the compensation of county elected officials within a minimum and maximum established by law [the fee system of compensation yielded to a salary system under charges that fee-based compensation led to rampant corruption]; and fill vacancies in elective constitutional county offices. They provide for any service or performance of any function relating to county affairs and exercise other powers not inconsistent with law necessary for effective administration of authorized services and functions of county government. [§ 14-14-801(b)]

Each quorum court is now required by state law to meet monthly. The county judge chairs the meeting. The judge has no vote on decisions made by the quorum court but can veto its decisions. The quorum court can overturn the judge’s veto with a three-fifths (60 percent) vote of the entire membership of the court. The size of the quorum court varies by county: the smallest counties have nine justices of the peace, while others have 11 or 13, and the three largest counties — Pulaski, Washington and Benton — have 15. Justices of the Peace on a quorum court are paid per diem [per meeting] rather than receiving a salary. Their pay scale is set by the Arkansas General Assembly, which establishes minimum and maximum per diems depending upon the size of the county.

Amendment 55 also gave counties “home rule” so they could enact regulations and create new programs as long as they were not specifically prohibited by the constitution or state statutes. The first provision of Amendment 55 says, “A county, acting through its Quorum Court may exercise local legislative authority not denied it by the Constitution or by law.” While couched as a general grant of local autonomy, this provision grants significant alterations in the governmental authority and structure of county government. It was a grant of extensive legislative powers over local affairs, contrasting the very limited legislative power the quorum courts had under Article 7, § 30 of the 1874 Constitution.

The second significant change was the reversal of the concept known to students of government and the law as the “Dillon Rule” of municipal corporations. As early as four years after the adoption of the 1874 Constitution, the Arkansas Supreme Court said counties, like cities and towns, were municipal corporations created by the legislature and derive all their powers from it, unless otherwise provided by the State Constitution. The court rearticulated that position on several occasions, reaffirming it again as late as 1967. The practical effect of this general grant of authority in Amendment 55 — home rule — to county government gives the legislative body sufficient flexibility to handle local matters and obviate any inclination it might have to run to the General Assembly for special local authority over specific subject matter. Of course, the General Assembly and the State Constitution can deny or limit the exercise of local authority.

Amendment 55, a concise six-section amendment that can be printed easily on one sheet of paper, was implemented by the General Assembly through Act 742 of 1977 containing hundreds of sections. Those of us who have been around since the early days of Amendment 55 call Act 742 of 1977 the County Government Bible. Amendment 55, Act 742 of 1977 as Amended is a publication available on the AAC website under publications.

Arkansas law does prioritize county budgeting practices by telling counties what they must fund and what they may fund [§ 14-14-802].

Arkansas counties must fund: (1) The administration of justice through the several courts of record; (2) Law enforcement for protection services and the custody of persons accused or convicted of crimes; (3) Real and personal property tax administration, including assessments, collection, and custody of tax proceeds; (4) Court and public records management, as provided by law, including registration, recordings, and custody of public record; and (5) All other services prescribed by state law for performance by each of the elected county officers of departments of county government. I hope you realize that “must listing” is telling county governments that they must adequately fund the county constitutional offices.

That same law provides a laundry list of services and functions that a county may fund, but are not required to fund. And, of course, the “may list” is not all-inclusive because of “home rule” that county government enjoys. Any service related to county affairs may be funded if not specifically prohibited by state or constitutional law.

County government is not solely made up by the quorum court and county judge. All 75 Arkansas counties have the following elected officials in one form or another. The following synopsis is not meant to be all inclusive of the duties of each office.

County Judge — The chief executive officer of the county with the executive powers to preside over the county quorum court, without a vote but with the power of veto; to authorize and approve disbursement of appropriated county funds; to operate the system of county roads; to administer ordinances enacted by the quorum court; to have custody of county property; and to hire county employees, except those persons employed by other elected officials of the county. The county judge actually wears two hats. Not only is he or she the chief executive officer but also is a judicial judge of the county court having exclusive original jurisdiction in all matters relating to county taxes, any other case that may be necessary to the internal improvement and local concern of the county, and other jurisdiction. [Arkansas Constitution, Article 7, § 28; A.C.A. 14-14-1105]

County Sheriff — The chief law enforcement officer in the county. The sheriff polices areas without local police, runs the county jail, and is an officer of the local courts. The sheriff’s office transports prisoners, serves subpoenas and, in many cases, acts as bailiff. The sheriff is also the tax collector in 25 Arkansas counties

County Assessor — Values real property and personal property for taxation and maintains parcel records. In Arkansas the assessor’s office goes through a continual three- or five- year real property reappraisal process.

Circuit Clerk — Collects, files, records, and processes legal court documents and reports to the Administrative Office of the Courts. Also responsible for court notices, warrants, subpoenas and maintaining a list of potential jurors. In Arkansas, with the exception of Sebastian County, the circuit clerk is also the county recorder, keeping an official county record of contracts, mortgages, plats, surety bonds, and deeds.

County Collector — Collects tax revenues for the various tax entities including the county, municipalities, public school district, and numerous types of improvement districts. In many counties the collector also collects county solid waste fees and dues for volunteer fire departments and fire protection districts.

County Coroner – Determines cause and manner of deaths in the jurisdiction. Two counties have an appointed coroner.

County Clerk – The official bookkeeper of the county and payroll clerk [in most cases], maintains voter registration, issues marriage licenses, clerk of the quorum court, and clerk of the equalization board. The county clerk position is combined with the circuit clerk in 18 Arkansas counties.

County Treasurer – Maintains county accounting records and issues monthly and annual financial reports, disburses tax revenues to municipalities, school districts and other jurisdictions, projects revenues for budget purposes; invests county money and acts as the county’s banker and finance officer. The treasurer is also the tax collector in five Arkansas counties.

County Surveyor — A registered land surveyor who surveys at the request of the county assessor or county judge, as well as assisting the public with property surveys or legal descriptions. Many counties have left this position vacant for years.

Let’s go back to the definition of an Arkansas county. It is defined in law, by the implementing legislation of Amendment 55 as “a political subdivision of the state for the more convenient administration of justice and the exercise of local legislative authority related to county affairs...” The word I consider the most important word in this Arkansas law is the conjunction “and.” A word connecting two separate clauses and two separate functions: (1) the state function of justice conveniently administered in accordance with law by county government; and (2) the local function of legislative and administrative authority relating to county affairs.

The State of Arkansas recognized decades ago the moral and legal obligation [Article 16, § 2] they had to counties. They realized the state must provide financial assistance to counties in order for the state’s citizens to have any equity and equality in the justice system that counties are required to provide — state services. I doubt that at the time they had any clue how profoundly correct that was. However, a 2015 study revealed that counties are subsidizing the state court system by about $50 million, not to mention other state mandates that counties are funding to the detriment of county infrastructure and pay for employees. I’ll save this discussion for another article.

If I were running for Governor or for a General Assembly seat — and I’m not — this would be part of my campaign platform: “I’ll work to reverse cuts to the County Aid Fund and will work to increase the appropriation to that fund to cover the costs of our counties in providing and administering state services. They should be able to use their county revenues for county services and for paying their employees a decent wage. I will work with counties across this state to combat the challenges they face. Counties are our partner, our helper in delivering state services. They deserve proper respect of the state. We serve the exact same constituency. County government leaders, I’m on your side.”

So, after finishing my imaginary campaign speech — in all honesty, we need to find a way of having a real conversation on how you fund county government that works under so many state mandates requiring monetary expenditures. Underfunding has been a part of our long history.

Be proud you are a county elected official — a leader. When you are in county government, you are on the ground, and you are looking into the eyes and hearts of the people you are there to serve. It teaches you to listen; it teaches you to be expansive in the people with whom you talk to, and that engagement gives you political judgment.

Jack Gardner said, “Leaders come in many forms, with many styles and diverse qualities. There are quiet leaders and leaders you can hear in the next county. Some find strength in eloquence, some in judgment, and some in courage.” I say just lead in your style — but lead.

I end our Great Story of County Government with a little trivia. The newest county in the United States is the city and county of Broomfield, Colorado, established in 2001 as a consolidated city-county. The newest county-equivalent is the Alaskan borough of Petersburg established in 2013. The newest Arkansas county is not very new — Cleburne County established in February 1883, formed out of parts of White, Van Buren and Independence counties and named after Gen. Patrick Cleburne, a Confederate general of the Civil War.

Back in the day, I was always glad to say, “I’m a treasurer and comptroller for the county.” You fill in the blank for yourself. County government is great and it’s a great story to tell.

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