Chapter 3: Local Governments

States are part of our Federal System of Government. Their existence is acknowledged by the U.S. Constitution and their powers are limited by the U.S. Constitution, BUT THEIR POWERS DO NO DERIVE FROM THE U.S. CONSTITUTION.

The States derive their powers from the PEOPLE of that state and from their own STATE CONSTITUTIONS.

All 50 States are unitary systems of government. Local and county governments derive their powers from the State Constitution and State Statutory Law. They are administrative subdivisions of the State with limited powers of self-government. They are "creatures of the state."

Local and County Governments are "Creatures of the State".

They are administrative subdivisions of the State with limited powers of local self-government. Whatever local governments do must be specifically authorized by the State Constitution and/or State Statute.


  1. County Government—established by and exists for the convenience of the state government to enforce and administer state laws and programs. The county government is the oldest form of government in the United States. There are over 4,000 units of local government in Texas. Article IX of TX Constitution deals with county government;
    1. Texas has the largest number of counties in the U.S. with 254
    2. In each county, the size and population varies greatly.

a. Largest county in size- Brewster county with 6,000 square miles
b. Smallest county in size- Rockwall county with 147 square miles
c. Largest county in population- Harris County (Houston area) with 3 million people
d. Smallest county in population- Loving county with 100 people

*Referendum: a procedure for submitting proposed laws or amendments to the people

* Initiative: certain number of voters sign petition; goes directly to the ballot for people to vote on

* Ordinance (local law): a statute enacted by a local government; it has the force of law, but must comply with state and national laws; TX cities (not counties) have ordinance-making powers

    1. Commissioners Court: The court consists of four commissioners and a judge.  Commissioners are elected in precincts, which, according to Avery v Midland Co., must be as equal in population as possible;
  1. Duties
  1. to set tax rate and adopt county budget
  2. appoint county officials
  3. fill county electives and appoint vacancies
  4. administer elections
  5. let contracts and authorize payment of all county bills
  6. build and maintain roads
  7. build and maintain prisons
  8. libraries, hospitals and medical care for poor
  9. provide emergency relief
  10. provide fire protection
  11. draws precinct lines—must have equal population as mandated by U.S. Supreme Court case Avery vs. Midland County

            2. County Judge

       Duties include:

appoints replacement if there is a vacancy within the commissioners

Texas constitution gives the county judge some judicial responsibilities, but does not require the office holder to have a law degree.

Most urban counties have county courts that relieve the county judge of judicial duties

            3. County level Officials

    Sheriff—chief law enforcer—there is one sheriff per county and  the constitution allows up to four constables per county; Appoints deputies;   In charge of county jail;

    County Clerk—provides the staff support for the commissioners court and is the clerk of district courts—also keeps records in the county court house, such as birth certificates and marriage licenses;

    County Attorney

    1. three levels---county attorney, district attorney, criminal district attorney
    2. represents state in bringing charges against the criminal suspects and trying them in appropriate courts;
    3. provides legal advice and opinions to other county officials;

    Treasure—manages funds for county;    Receives and pays out all county funds;     Job has been abolished in some counties;

    District Clerk—assists county clerk by maintaining court documents and records;

    Survey—determines property lines (most counties do not have this position—no need for it)

    Tax Assessor and collector—collects taxes for county and state, also handles voting registration in some counties unless commissioner's court designates otherwise; It also license fees for vehicles;

    Auditor—all counties with 10,000 or more in population are required to have an auditor—they are appointed by the district judges of the county for 2 year terms—responsible for reviewing every bill of the county to assure its accuracy.

    1. Source of Income
    2. Property Tax— about 50%

  1. county wide tax appraisal district—created to determine the value of the property;
  2. commissioners court determines the tax rate, however, can not exceed more than 80 cents per $100;

Fees and Fines—tickets not given within the city limit and on local option basis counties may levy an additional local road and bridge free up to $10;

Intergovernmental transfers—grants from the state and federal government (Individual Texas counties vary greatly in both revenue and expenditures, depends on whether rural or urban, small or large, poor or rich);

* Densely populated counties will tend to spend the most on hospitals, health and welfare;
* Rural counties tend to spend more on highways and transportation;

* Counties do not have complete control over their spending;
*Roads and bridges are the most expensive outlays;

    1. Structure of county government is obsolete
    2. Lack of centralized authority (no one person in charge)
    3. Lack of ordinance making power (no power to make laws)
    4. Corruption and nepotism
    5. Policy of maintaining roads and bridges by each precinct
    6. Decentralized purchasing (not buying in bulk)

II. City or Municipal Government

    1. Functions
    1. Protection (Fire and Police)
    2. Mass transportation
    3. Traffic control
    4. Garbage pick up
    5. Parks
    6. Road maintenance
    7. Sewage
    8. Electric and gas
    9. Responsible for zoning (to keep the value of land stable and aesthetics)
    10. Regulate human behavior
    1. water conservation
    2. smoking laws
    3. curfews
    4. leash laws
    5. building safety
    6. fire arms
    7. fire works
    8. noise control
    1. The Home Rule—cities of more than 5,000 in population are allowed to write their own constitution and choose any organizational form or policies as long as they do not conflict with the state constitution or the state laws.

    Mayor-Council Form

    Among the major cities in the U.S. this form is the predominate structure;       Used by most cities in the U.S.

    Strong mayor-council

            Mayor has more power
    Appoints or removes department heads
    Veto power

    Weak mayor-council
    Mayor lacks the above powers


    started from the city of Galveston in the 1900’s. They combined the legislative and executive branch thinking it would be more efficient without the middleman. The commission serves as a policy making branch of the city and individual commissions function as an executive.    No TX home-rule city uses this form

    Council Manager

      Used by most TX cities
Members elected at-large or in single-member districts
City manager appointed and removable by the city council
City manager implements the city council’s policies

2. The General Law—cities of fewer than 5,000 in population or those who do not adopt the Home Rule structure are required to organize their governments in one of the two basic forms.

  1. Mayor Council
  2. Council-Manager

           Once chartered, an increase or decrease in population does not change a city’s status; voters would decide if they wanted to change their system
       Most city councils consist of from 5-9 members
       Most councils serve without pay or for token pay
    1. Tax—In Texas, the property tax is still the primary source of municipal income.
    2. Sales Tax—The constitution authorizes municipal governments to levy sales tax, but can not be more than 2.00%.
    3. Grants—from federal or state governments for projects such as public housing, water supply, getting rid of slums and clean environments.
    4. Bonds—borrowing money that the voters have approved

    General Obligation Bonds—redeemed out of the city’s general revenue fund—city’s budget

    Revenue Bonds—backed by and redeemed out of the revenues from the property or activity finances by the sell of bonds—special funds

    1. Most Texas cities hold non-participant elections
    2. Elections are won by the candidates' personality
    3. At large elections handicap minority groups

III. Special Districts—a unit of local government created by an act of legislation to perform limited functions, examples-school, water, and hospital

    1. of the special districts in Texas are governed by boards or commissions—elected by the people within district
    2. the other are head personnel that are appointed by governor, mayor, councils or county commissioners
    1. School Districts

    Independent School Districts—(1100 in Texas)—These are headed by boards that are elected for 4 year terms. Function is to provide public education. Most important and visible special districts; Members elected at-large or single-member districts;    Members not paid;

    -In 1983, U.S. did a study about public education and Texas ranked well below natural average in SAT scores, student/teacher ratio and in teacher salaries. Ranked 42nd among states in percent of students who finish high school.

    -Governor Mark White made a committee to pass a legislation to improve Texas public education and the committee passed HB72, which included TAAS testing (state tests), and teacher competency testing.

    -In 1989, Texas Supreme Court case, Edgewood ISD vs. William Kirby declared funding of school system does not meet the requirement of Texas constitution, so the Robin Hood Plan was developed—taking money from the rich districts and giving to the poor, but soon was founded unconstitutional.

    Community or Junior College Districts-offers 2 year educational programs beyond high school and provides different technical and vocational programs. They are fastest growing level of post-secondary education;

    -All are a board of trustee that meets once a month governs.

    -Funded—15% from tuition and fees, 20% by local tax, 60% by state funding and the rest by federal assistance and private donations.

    2. Non-school Districts-largest number are water or utilities, some have to do with hospitals and mass transportation

Advantages of Special Districts

    1. Easy to establish and operate
    2. State participation a minimum

Disadvantages of Special Districts

    1. Hidden government
    2. Overlapping functions and duplication of effort

IV. Council of Governments (COGs)

      * Perform regional planning activities
*   Membership is voluntary

Multiple Choice Questions

Web Links
Chapter 3: Local Governments
Texas Cities, Counties, Special Districts and COG's
State of Texas
Bexar County
Travis County
Texas Education Agency
Houston Independent School District
Tyler Junior College District
Austin Community College District
Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority
Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County