The Florida Association of Counties has an extensive education division that spends much of its time focused on educating commissioners on county government and leadership in the classroom.  In this new feature, FAC will bring a key component of its education curriculum to News & Notes.  The goal of this section will be to remind each of us of the basic tenants of county government in Florida in hopes of reminding many of why we do what we do and re-introducing some to the different approaches to  county government.  

This informative new series includes excerpts from FAC’s Florida County Government Guide. The Florida County Government Guide is a comprehensive reference on all aspects of Florida county government.  The Guide includes information on Florida’s history, the structure of county government, leadership and management, budgeting methods and strategies, economic development opportunities, growth management, human resources, emergency management, purchasing and contracting, health and safety, infrastructure and much more.  To purchase your copy of the entire Florida County Government Guide, please click here.

The Evolution of County Government Structure: A seven part series

Today we are launching a seven part series on the structure of county government in Florida.  Throughout the rest of the year we will look at:  1. The Evolution of County Government; 2. Charter and Non-Charter Counties; 3. Forms of County Government: Commission Form; 4. Forms of County Government: Administrator or Manager Form; 5. Forms of County Government: Executive Form; 6. Assessing the three forms of government; and, 7. Commission District Structures.

Part 1 in a 7 part series

THE EVOLUTION OF COUNTY GOVERNMENT STRUCTURE

All states but Connecticut and Rhode Island have operational county governments, although Alaska calls their county-type government boroughs and Louisiana calls them parishes.P Historically rural county government was the most important type of local government in the southern, Midwestern and western United States (New England relied more heavily on town government). By the early to mid-1800s counties acted as the primary administrative arm of state government in these areas.

Traditional Structure of County Government

Most counties had a similar government structure—the traditional county commission form of government. Under this form, county residents elected a number of officials to oversee administration of specified state responsibilities. County residents might elect a sheriff and judge to maintain public order, a county clerk to keep public records, and a tax assessor and tax collector to bring in revenue. County residents also elected a board of county commissioners who would, in the limited fashion allowed by the state; both make and implement some additional policies for the county.

The legal doctrine known as Dillon’s Rule meant that states could treat their local governments, including counties, as “creatures of the state,” heavily regulating their government structures and rarely allowing them to take independent action.

The historical relationship between Florida and its counties unfolded in much the same way, and so by 1949-1950 in Florida the structure of local government was virtually identical across its 67 counties. Under the traditional commission form of government, the residents of each county elected a county commission (that would select a chairman from its members), county judge, county court clerk, sheriff, tax assessor, tax collector, and registration supervisor. P Florida counties were tightly controlled by the state legislature under the philosophy of Dillon’s Rule. Under this rule, local governments were prevented from doing anything not specifically authorized by state laws. Counties who wanted even small changes in their structure or responsibilities had to petition the legislature to pass a special act—a statute drafted specifically naming a city or county and not applicable to the entire state like a general act. Consequently hundreds of special acts were passed by the Florida legislature each year in a very cumbersome and inefficient process of micromanagement. The flaws in this unwieldy system became more exposed as growth in Florida accelerated by two to three million people a decade in the 1950s and 1960s. Florida’s counties could not take innovative action on the myriad problems caused by massive sustained growth unless specifically authorized to do so by the legislature.

Reforming the Structure of County Government

However, as states across the country became more urban in the 20PthP century, progressive reformers called for change and counties were slowly granted more power and independent responsibility for local governance. These trends were evident in Florida by the 1950s as state and local officials and academics began to question the effectiveness of the traditional commission form of county government in fast-growing counties and began to advocate and allow structures with more independence from the state and with more professional administration or stronger political leadership. PP Finally in the late 1960s and early 1970s Florida made specific constitutional and legal changes to reform county government structure. The state adopted a new Constitution in 1968. P Article VIII Section 1c of the new Florida Constitution gave counties the option of adopting a charter to establish their government. And under Section 1g charter counties gained significant powers of home rule that allow them to do anything not specifically prohibited by state law. Article VIII also set up a system of government for non-charter counties establishing county officers and commissioners and even providing for a more limited version of home rule for these counties as spelled out by state law. Following up on these constitutional changes and to clarify and overcome resistance to home rule, state lawmakers passed legislation in 1971 (the County Home Rule Act), 1973 (Municipal Home Rule Powers Act), and 1974 (the County Administration Law and Optional County Charter Law) setting up a code of county powers that expanded home rule for non-charter counties and repealed a number of laws that narrowed county power.

While these changes did provide counties with more home rule flexibility, the legislature continues to restrain counties in two major ways.  P First the Florida legislature retains strict control over the revenue sources a county can adopt and caps the level of taxes a county can charge. And second, lawmakers continue to pass unfunded mandates that require counties to take on additional administrative and policy responsibilities without providing money to pay for them.

This concludes part one of seven.  This informative information came from excerpts out of FAC’s Florida County Government Guide The Florida County Government Guide is a comprehensive reference on all aspects of Florida county government.  The Guide includes information on Florida’s history, the structure of county government, leadership and management, budgeting methods and strategies, economic development opportunities, growth management, human resources, emergency management, purchasing and contracting, health and safety, infrastructure and much more.  To purchase your copy of the entire Florida County Government Guide, please click here.