In Georgia, unlike most states with large cities, the county is still the center of political and cultural life for a majority of the state’s citizens. Counties carry out locally a variety of state programs and policies, including collecting taxes, overseeing elections, conducting courts of law, filing official records, maintaining roads, and providing for the welfare of citizens.
How Many Counties Does It Take to Run a State?
The first state constitution in 1777 created eight counties: Burke, Camden, Chatham, Effingham, Glynn, Liberty, Richmond, and Wilkes. These were carved out of the coastal areas that were settled when Georgia was a British colony. Since then, each revision of the state constitution has increased the number of counties, until the total reached 159, the limit specified in the Constitution of 1983.
Only Texas, which is considerably larger in area, has more counties than Georgia does. According to anecdotal history, Georgia established enough counties so that a farmer traveling by mule-drawn buggy could go to the county seat, take care of business, and return to his farm in the same day.
Politically, it served Georgians, the majority of whom lived on farms in rural areas, to have smaller counties. Each county has at least one representative in the General Assembly, the state’s governing body. Moreover, many towns wanted to be a county seat, the location of the courthouse and jail and the center of local political activities, social gatherings, and trade. Having a large number of counties gave Georgians more representatives in state government and more business in towns.
From Rural Districts to Urban Governments
In many rural socities, people do not expect many services from their government. Georgia’s counties were formed mainly as a convenient way to determine jurisdictions for state representatives. Historically counties also served the state justice system by conducting local courts of law. The local court judge handled cases, filed records, and probated wills. Today the services a county offers have expanded to meet the growing demands of residents.
Every county conducts local courts of law, voter registration, and elections; sells motor vehicle tags; files official records of property ownership; builds and repairs county roads; probates wills; and administers welfare and public assistance programs. The 1983 Constitution added supplementary powers to this list of county duties. Counties are allowed to provide:
—police and fire protection
—garbage and solid waste collection and disposal
—public health facilities and services, including hospitals, ambulances, emergency rescue, and animal control
—street and road construction, including curbs, sidewalks, and street lights
—parks, recreational areas, facilities, and programs
—storm-water and sewage collection and disposal systems
—libraries, archives, and arts/sciences programs and facilities
—terminal and dock facilities and parking facilities
—codes, including building, housing, plumbing, and electrical codes
—air quality control
—planning and zoning
These supplementary powers address citizens’ demands to improve and maintain the state’s quality of life. Cities and towns have long offered these services, but they were seldom seen outside the urban environment. As Georgia’s population has grown, so too has the number of residents who want citylike services. According to the U.S. census, approximately 67 percent of Georgians lived outside a city by 2000, and many expected the same quality of life as their city-dwelling friends and relatives.
Organizing County Government
Counties were created by a rural society that looked to government to keep the records straight and the justice swift. To help counties administer state programs and conduct state courts, the state constitution originally created four elected county officers: the sheriff, the tax commissioner, the clerk of the superior court, and the judge of the probate court. In 1868 the state began creating the position of county commissioner to administer the general operations of the county. Today every county has a commissioner; many have a board of commissioners (BOC). As part of general county operations, the BOC must finance county programs and pay the salaries of constitutional officers.
The sheriff enforces the law, maintains peace in the county, and serves as the jailer. In some counties the BOC has established a county police department. The county police force may supplement the law enforcement ability of the sheriff but does not replace the sheriff.
The functions of the tax commissioner resemble those of an accountant for the county. He or she receives all tax returns, maintains the county’s tax records, and collects and pays tax funds to the state and local governments. To assist the tax commissioner, the BOC in some counties has established a tax assessor’s board, an equalization board, and/or a board of appraisers. The purpose of these appointed, not elected, boards is to ensure that everyone pays his or her fair share of taxes.
The clerk of the superior court is the primary record keeper for the county. The clerk maintains all the court records and supervises the registration of property transactions. Each BOC also has its own county clerk, who is responsible for keeping the records for the board.
The judge of the probate court has a broad range of powers, mostly unrelated to criminal matters. He or she oversees matters pertaining to property deeds, marriage licenses, guardianships, and wills; supervises elections; and administers public oaths of office. To assist the judge of the probate court, the state has created a local board of elections in almost every county.
Beyond the powers assigned to the constitutional officers, the BOC is the county governing authority. It has the power to adopt ordinances, resolutions, or regulations relating to county property, county affairs, and the operation of local government. Larger, more urban counties distribute governmental responsibilities among many departments, whereas smaller, more rural counties often employ only a few officials, each of whom serves several functions. For example, Clayton County (with a 2010 population of 259,424) has a police chief, a fire chief, a warden, a sheriff, an emergency management agency director, and a public safety director to ensure the safety of its citizens. In Clay County (with a 2010 population of 3,183), on the other hand, the sheriff also acts as the emergency management agency director.