County government structure varies from state to state

The Guide to Michigan County Government is a great source of detailed information about the structure, function, and services provided by counties in Michigan.

What is county government? Is the structure different in different states? Ken VerBurg, MSU Professor Emeritus gives us a brief description in the 2007 edition of his book, Guide to Michigan County Government

“In some states other than cities, county government is the only form of local government and residents depend on the county for a great many of their local governmental services. In other states, the counties are a kind of intermediate government between the state and the cities and townships within the county. Some of these counties may provide little more than the basic governmental services people need to get by. But we also find counties elsewhere operating as a kind of regional government, generating a broad array of services for cities which then distribute the services to their residents and businesses.” 

“Furthermore, the structure of county government differs greatly from state to state and often even within a state. Some counties, for example, have powerful elected county executives. They are a kind of counterpart to the governor or to the mayor of a large city. Others depend on a group of part-time commissioners or supervisors to look after the affairs of the county and elected officials who administer some of the departments.” 

“Such variety makes describing county government difficult. In a way, counties are like people ⎯ they are complex because they are the products of past events that have shaped their personality and character. What they have been, what they are, and what people expect of them are based on a political culture that is unique in each county. This culture is shaped by time, where the settlers came from, the type of work they did, and by the events that have taken place over the years.” 

Michigan counties share many common elements. All local government is created by the state. The basic structure of counties is defined in the constitution and many other state laws. Fortunately, those laws also give counties many options to customize their governing to meet local needs. Many of the services counties provide are authorized by state law, but are optional for counties to provide. Even the level of service for those services mandated by the constitution and other laws can be adjusted to meet local needs and preferences. 

Watch for future Michigan State University Extension articles with more information about county government. Professor VerBurg’s book, Guide to Michigan County Government, Fourth Edition, is available in electronic form online on a CD or a USB drive with nearly 500 pages of detailed information about county government, with extensive footnotes to constitutional and statutory information. The update process is underway to be sure the information and statutory notations are current, with rollout of the Fifth Edition expected in fall 2016.

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