County Government in Texas: The Basics

County governments serve a smaller area than states and a larger area than cities.  Article 9 of the Texas Constitution of 1876 grants the Texas Legislature the power to create counties, subject to limitations relating to geographic size.  Today, Texas has a total of 254 counties – more counties than any other state.

Texas counties operate under Dillon’s rule.  Texas counties are considered extensions of state government: their structure is defined by the statutory law, and they may only exercise the powers that have been specifically granted to them by the state of Texas.  As such, Texas counties use a one-size-fits-all approach to local governing authority.

Commissioner’s Court

County governments in the United States usually use one of three basic structures:

  • commission system, in which an elected commission serves as the governing body of the county
  • council-administrator system, in which an elected council appoints an administrator to oversee the daily operation of county government
  • council-elected executive system, in which voters elect both the members of the council and the executive

In Texas, we use a commission system: county government is led by a commissioner’s court, which consists of four county commissioners, each of whom represents one of four geographic districts within the county, and the county constitutional court judge.  The commissioner’s court acts as a legislative body and an executive body.

Legislative Functions

  1. Limited authority to pass ordinances that govern the county
  2. May determine the types and rates of taxes to fund county government
  3. Pass the annual county budget

Executive Functions

  1. Administer state and federal funds for local government use (this relates to fiscal federalism)
  2. Oversee the various county departments and agencies
  3. Hold final responsibility for the conduct of elections in the county

County Commissioners

County commissioners are chosen using single-member district plurality elections, in which voters in each district cast one vote for their most preferred candidate, and whichever candidate wins the most votes wins the election.  Note that “most” is not the same thing as “majority” (50% + 1 vote).  To uphold the principle of “one person, one vote”, these commissioners’ districts are redistricted every ten years, following an election.

Each county commissioner is responsible for running the county government in his or her district. County commissioners do not have to work collectively but may act solely in the interests of their precincts; however, in some counties, commissioners agree to pool resources and make decisions collectively in the interest of the whole county.

County Constitutional Court Judge

The constitutional county court judge is elected by the county in an at-large election.

The county constitutional court judge serves as the presiding officer of the commissioner’s court, certifies elections, and appoints temporary commissioners when a commissioner resigns before the end of an elected term.  In smaller counties, the judge for the county constitutional court also performs judicial duties.

Other Key County Officers

In addition to a commissioner’s court, most Texas counties also have an auditor, who oversees county finances; a tax assessor, who collects county taxes and user fees; a county clerk, who maintains county records and, in some counties, oversees elections; justices of the peace, who acts as judicial officers for minor criminal and civil cases; constables, who act as judicial officers for minor criminal and civil cases and assists the justice of the peace in his or her duties; a sheriff, who oversees county law enforcement; and a county attorney, who represents the county in legal activities and offers legal advice to county government.

Functions of County Governments

Early county governments in Texas were given responsibility for performing several functions on behalf of the state, including:

  • operating justice of the peace courts, county constitutional courts, county statutory courts, statutory probate courts, and district courts
  • maintaining vital records, including marriage licenses, birth certificates, death certificates, and property deeds
  • collecting funds for state government, including property tax and motor vehicle registration fees
  • conducting elections
  • road construction and maintenance

As Texas’s population increased throughout the 20th century, “county operations expanded to include such additional programs as health and social welfare, solid-waste management, and housing and community development” (Smith, County Organization, n.d.).

Texas counties are granted limited authority to set property tax rates and may employ the power of eminent domain, or the ability to expropriate private property for public use with the payment of compensation.

County Finances and Operations

Day-to-day county operations are funded primarily by a small portion of property taxes collected by that county.  Because of this, some counties have significantly more revenue and can provide significantly more services than other counties.

County government may choose to contract with private businesses to provide basic services to county residents either through privatization, in which a service is transferred from public to private ownership, resulting in residents working with private entities to receive these services, or contract outsourcing, in which the county enters into a contract with a private entity and agrees to pay the private entity in exchange for the delivery of a service.

Citizens within counties may create special districts to provide additional services that are not provided by the county government.

Counties and cities may also enter into interlocal agreements to share services.  We see this occur frequently with property tax collections, with counties collecting property taxes and fees on behalf of county government, municipal government, and special districts.