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Local Government

Last Updated: 2006

Local governments are organized closest to where people live in order to meet community needs, solve problems, and deliver basic life amenity services. In the United States, as in most federal countries, local governments are supervised by state governments but are independent jurisdictions and active players in the intergovernmental system.

Like the national and state governments, most local governments have elected and appointed executive officials, legislative councils, and, in counties and larger cities, court systems. Local governments are organized at the community level and usually have two basic functions: to meet needs and solve problems of a local nature and to deliver such basic life amenity services as water, sanitation, streets, fire, police, and citizen protection. Over the twentieth century, local governments have also become partners in first-line implementation of federal and state programs. While local governments were usually the “first” governments in federal systems and were once very independent, they gradually came under control of state government, although they retain degrees of local autonomy and discretion.

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Virtually every federal country includes other local governments in addition to cities, towns, and villages. Local governments in the United States vary according to the way that each state organizes them, but the most common form includes multiple and overlapping units: counties; municipalities; townships; special districts, including school districts; and, in some cases, metropolitan-level authorities. By the early twenty-first century there were 87,900 governmental units in the United States, of which 87,849 were local government jurisdictions. The 50 states include 3,034 counties, 19,431 municipalities, and 16,036 townships. Special-purpose governments number 48,878, of which 13,522 are school districts (U.S. Bureau of Census 2002). The number of units of local government varies considerably by state, although most states have large numbers of them. The range is from only 4 in Hawaii to over 11,000 in Illinois. The trend has been toward a decrease in the number of school districts, due to state-encouraged consolidation of small and rural districts, and an increase in all of the other types of governments but counties, primarily due to the pressures of urbanization, the demands of state standard setting, and tax limitations.

Local Functions

The delivery of services to their citizens is at the heart of local government functions. This includes such routine services as drinking water and waste water, refuse collection and solid waste management, fire protection and prevention, transportation and streets, recreation and leisure activities, cultural events and sports, education and public schools, and services for the disadvantaged. Some local governments are also responsible for public utilities like electricity and gas. Local governments also perform important regulatory functions, the most important of which are powers over zoning and land-use policy, and also include noise control, smoking regulations, and building codes. These regulations and services are governed and managed by local councils and executive officials. Many local-level decisions are made with a great deal of citizen input and consultation, and services like recreation, culture, schools, and land use employ citizen decision bodies or advisory boards. City and county governments’ ability to pay for these services requires facilitating a good economy and positive business climate. In order to pay for these services, cities and counties must facilitate a good economy and positive business climate to attract and retain the businesses and jobs that compose a strong tax base. Local governments try to attract businesses and expand their local economies through such means as offering promotional programs, tax incentives and relief, and regulatory adjustments; providing needed infrastructure; and entering into partnerships with such other local organizations as chambers of commerce and local economic development corporations. Local programs are financed through a combination of property taxes, user fees, sales taxes, utility charges, and state and federal aid. Some local governments also levy minimal income taxes.

Powers of Local Governments

The U.S. Constitution neither delegates nor reserves powers to local governments; there is no mention of them. Lacking constitutional status, local governments are at the legal mercy of the states, which have imposed the ultra vires rule. According to this rule, a political subdivision can exercise only those powers granted it specifically by the overseeing authority. State courts further limited local governments’ powers by narrowly interpreting local government powers.

Early in American history, the states largely ignored local governments. Local governments were considered small “civil communities” that in many ways combined to form the colonies and later the states. Early state constitutions accepted their authority, along with the legitimacy of their prerogatives, and in many states they were offered direct representation in state legislatures. Based on the U.S. pioneer tradition, they were considered to be self-organizing and self-governing communities. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America in the 1830’s, “In all that concerns themselves alone the townships remain independent bodies, and I do not think one could find a single inhabitant of New England who would recognize the right of the government of the state to control matters of purely municipal interest.”

This pattern began to change by the middle of the nineteenth century as local governments were legally redefined as creatures of state governments. New York was the first state to adopt constitutional provisions regulating cities; other states soon followed. The constitutional shift moved local governments to a status where their powers are derived from and subject to the sovereign state legislature rather than as component units of a quasi-federal government. This “unitary” relationship of subordination of local governments was solidified in legal doctrine through “Dillon’s Rule.” It is based on an Iowa state court case where Judge John Dillon ruled that municipalities could exercise only those powers that were expressly granted by the state or that could be reasonably considered to be indispensable to those declared purposes (Clinton v. Cedar Rapids and Missouri River Railroad, 24 Iowa 455, 476 [1868]).

Dillon’s Rule remains in good standing in a legal sense, but it has been modified in practice over the years. The most important modification is of “home rule,” or the state authorization of broad discretionary authority to petitioning local governments, particularly municipalities. A home rule government can draft its own charter, choose its form of government (e.g., mayor-council or council–city manager), organize its administration, tax, regulate, and so on, subject to state law and constitutional provisions. Joseph Zimmerman in State-Local Relations (1995) indicates that local governments have also been able to expand their discretionary authority from the states through many other means: (1) through political leverage where state “political cultures” value local governments, (2) by constitutional revision, (3) due to part-time and short-term state legislative sessions, (4) by taking the route of lobbying using associations of local governments and of local officials, (5) by acting in situations of limited state oversight and supervisory efforts, (6) as a result of the judicial widening of local authority, and (7) through the pressure of rapid population growth, which encourages local officials to exercise their authority to the fullest. As a result, in most states Dillon’s rule has been effectively reversed by actions of local governments as they tax, regulate, and deal with matters of local concern, unless such matters are prohibited by state statute.

Local governments now stand somewhere between closely regulated supervision and total local discretion to act on behalf of their citizens. A gradual evolution of intergovernmental programs and standards has meant that both federal and state governments affect the way local governments operate. Federal civil rights and environmental regulations, for example, reach the hiring practices, accessibility, facilitation, and water and air quality programs of virtually every local government. States are even more involved in locally administered programs, for example, education, law enforcement and criminal law, land use, food regulation and safety, elections administration, and the regulation and licensing of professions and occupations. In these arenas, local discretion is regularly set aside by acts of state legislatures, in effect preempting local discretion. A good example is that of food regulation and safety. Most local governments operate their own food establishment inspection units, but the code of regulations has become the state code. As a result, local units merely implement state regulations as they inspect restaurants and food retailers. Education as well has become standardized in terms of curriculum, ability examinations, qualifications for graduation, staffing patterns, approved textbooks, and many other areas. Also, federal and state court rulings in many arenas—franchising and merchandising, hiring practices, wages and hours, accessibility of the handicapped, and tort liability—expand the legal codes guiding local governments.


Local governments, however, are not exactly passive agents in the federal system. Studies of managers and officials operating with state and federal programs indicate that local officials not only regularly make contacts to seek additional funding and regulatory/standard interpretations but also actively negotiate and bargain in many ways to change statutory interpretations, seek favorable regulatory rulings, ask for supervisory flexibility, apply for a waiver of standards, effectuate changes in policy, and propose their own agendas that advance local interests. Daniel J. Elazar in Illinois Local Government (1961) once outlined the essential intergovernmental position of local government in the federal system. Working with their citizens and groups in the community, as well as with state and federal officials, local officials play five essential collaborative roles: (1) acquirer of external aid for local needs, (2) adapter of government functions and services to local conditions, (3) experimenter with new functions and services (or new versions of traditional ones), (4) initiator of governmental programs that spread across state and nation, and (5) underlying the others, provider of a means by which a local community can pay the “ante” necessary to “sit in the game,” that is, to secure an effective voice in governmental decisions of local impact.

Local governments also take horizontal or interlocal actions within the federal system. Around half of U.S. cities and counties engage in intergovernmental contracting for procuring services. Nearly 60 percent of cities and counties enter into joint service agreements with neighboring local governments. The most frequent joint/contracted services include almost the entire range of local services: jails/detention homes, sewage disposal, tax assessing, animal control, water supply, solid waste disposal, police/fire communications, tax utility bill processing, sanitary inspection, libraries, fire suppression/prevention, medical/ambulance, animal control and recreation facilities, and traffic signal installation/maintenance. In addition, local governments are involved in a broad range of other procedural actions, including informal consultation and cooperation, agreements to take parallel or similar actions, mutual obligation compacts, and conferences on common problems, Finally, while less frequent in adoption, local governments engage in joint structural actions, such as the transfer or consolidation of functions from one jurisdiction to another, city-county separation in order to maintain two levels of services, the creation of special districts to carry out designated functions, the creation of special authorities that cross jurisdiction lines (e.g., transit authority), and the merger/consolidation of two or more governments into a larger unit.

In some metropolitan areas, there have been attempts at city-county megaconsolidation into a single metropolitan government, or some form of “metropolitan federalism” where cross-boundary problems like transportation, solid waste disposal, water supply, and land use have been transferred upward from cities and counties by state legislatures. With the exception of transportation, examples of the latter have been quite limited in the United States. The Portland-Multnomah County area in Oregon has been the most successful in controlling urban sprawl, regulating land use, and promoting public transportation. A small number of city-county mergers have consolidated most local government functions into a single unit: Miami-Dade County, Florida; Nashville-Davidson County, Tennessee; San Francisco City and County, California; Philadelphia City and County, Pennsylvania; and, most recently, Louisville-Jefferson County, Kentucky. In addition, all of the State of Virginia is similarly organized. These consolidations are harder to achieve even though they may lead to many service efficiencies because they are politically controversial and threatening to local officials, and thus more politically infeasible than all of the procedural and the other structural adjustments.


Local governments in federal systems have had to face similar challenges. First are issues related to territorial division and reform. The United States, Germany, and Australia have been dealing with the challenges of rapid urbanization and the creation of new local units to deal with expanding populations in rapidly growing metropolitan areas. This, in turn, has accelerated the need for horizontal cooperation. Sparsely populated areas of Canada, by contrast, have faced consolidation of rural governments combined with services distribution over very large areas. Second, local government financing patterns are shifting everywhere from property taxes to user fees, and in Germany, Australia, and Canada intergovernmental transfers or grants have picked up larger shares of local financing. Most important, in all federal countries local governments have had to become more creative in financing by creating new user fees, entering into joint ventures with nongovernmental organizations, and seeking private sponsorship for some programs. Third, in federal countries like the United States, Canada, Germany, Australia, and Switzerland the traditional policy role of local governments is shared through networks of local actors that put nongovernmental organizations—for-profit and nonprofit—together at the table with local government officials. For example, this is the most important means through which local governments engage in economic development and business promotion. And fourth, local governments in all federal countries face the challenge of engaging new services. Among the emergent services are protection and security against terrorism, the settlement and integration of foreign immigrant populations, alcohol and substance abuse programs, accessibility to public facilities for handicapped populations, and support for art and music programs.

While legally controlled and at the “bottom” of the U.S. federal chain, local governments follow the Anglo-American tradition of local self-government with measures of autonomy and continue to experience certain degrees of higher-level respect for “place” and jurisdiction. They have survived legal control and intergovernmental regulation to exercise four pillars of autonomy: (1) the power of initiative, or the ability to act in a purposeful fashion; (2) the power of immunity, or the ability to act without fear of the direct supervisory oversight authority of higher tiers; (3) some freedom from higher-level preemption; and (4) abilities of concurrence, that is, to be able to act through intergovernmental relations. In a nonlegal sense, local governments maintain their autonomy from their ability to speak for citizens at the community level and from their capacity and standing as jurisdictions, as they participate actively in decisions by other governments that affect their interests and functions.

SEE ALSO: Civil Rights Act of 1875Civil Rights Act of 1964County GovernmentDillon’s RuleEconomic DevelopmentEducationHome RuleIntergovernmental LobbyingIntergovernmental RelationsJefferson, ThomasLand UseLocal GovernmentPreemptionSchool DistrictsSpecial DistrictsState ConstitutionsState CourtsState GovernmentState LegislaturesState-Local RelationsTransportation Policy


Robert Agranoff and Michael McGuire, Collaborative Public Management: New Strategies for Local Governments (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003); David R. Berman, Local Government and the States: Autonomy, Politics, and Policy (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2003); Daniel J. Elazar, The American Mosaic: The Impact of Time, Space, and Culture in Politics (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994); Daniel J. Elazar, “Local Government in Intergovernmental Perspective,” in Illinois Local Government, ed. Lois Pelekoudas (University of Illinois Press, 1961); Bernard H. Ross and Myron A. Levine, Urban Politics: Power in Metropolitan America, 6th ed. (Ithaca, IL: F. E. Peacock, 2001); Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1966); U.S. Census, 2002,; and Joseph F. Zimmeran, State-Local Relations: A Partnership Approach (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995).