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Local Government in Texas: Cities, Counties, and Special Districts. Background. Local governments are founded on concept of local sovereignty Jefferson believed local sovereignty was rooted in the sovereignty of the individual

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Local Government in Texas: Cities, Counties, and Special Districts

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Local government in texas cities counties and special districts

Local Government in Texas: Cities, Counties, and Special Districts



  • Local governments are founded on concept of local sovereignty

  • Jefferson believed local sovereignty was rooted in the sovereignty of the individual

  • Local government probably best represents the interests and desires of the electorate

  • Texas, as most states, uses a unitary system, where local governments hold only those powers delegated by the state

  • The Dillon rule now prevails in most states, which allows the state to grant or deny rights to local as it wishes

Local governments in texas

Local Governments in Texas

  • All are created by the state and operate under limits placed by the Constitution and the Legislature

  • Capabilities and resources are often burdened by growth and unfunded mandates

  • The state relies on local governments to carry out many of its responsibilities

Local governments in texas1

Local Governments in Texas

  • Statehas primary responsibility for

    • Highways

    • Public welfare

    • Public health

  • Citieshave primary responsibility for

    • Police protection

    • Sanitation

    • Parks, recreation and libraries

  • School districts take care of education

  • Counties do very little

Municipal government

Municipal Government

  • At the time of the 1876 constitution, more than 90% of Texas was rural and agrarian

  • Since 1970, 80%+ of Texans live in cities

  • Houston (1,953,631 - 4th), Dallas (1,188,500 – 8th) and San Antonio (1,144,646 – 9th) are three of the ten largest cities in the U.S.

  • Growth rates vary due to economics, annexation policies, in-migration, and birth and death rates

Municipal government1

Municipal Government

  • Texas cities have relatively low population to area ratio

  • Cities have tended to expand outward rather than upward, and have used annexation powers to block expansion of nearby smaller municipalities

  • Population density affects land use, police and fire protection, number of city facilities (e.g. parks) and water and sewer development

Municipal government2

Municipal Government

  • Five of the ten largest cities have “majority minority” populations

  • Texas has about 1,200 incorporated municipalities, whose governments are defined in statutory and constitutional law

  • During much of the 20th Century urban problems were neglected since Texas was primarily rural, but Legislature has been more responsive in the last few decades

  • TML supports member cities as a lobbying arm

Municipal government3

Municipal Government

  • Cities with fewer than 5,000 residents are general law cities, with restrictions in organizing their government, setting taxes and annexing territories. They are allowed only those rights specifically granted by the legislature.

Municipal government4

Municipal Government

  • Cities of greater than 5,000 may adopt any form of government, provided it doesn’t conflict with the Texas Constitution. These are home rule cities, and the city adopts a charter under which the city operates. The charter establishes the governing body, organization of agencies and courts, and procedures for elections, annexation and revisions to the charter.

Forms of city government

Forms of City Government

  • Mayor-Council

    • Most common form among all Texas cities

    • Legislative power lies with council, executive with mayor

    • Mayor is elected city-wide and acts as a CEO, although most Texas mayors are weak

    • Usually has limited appointment or removal power, limited budgetary authority and shares power with other council members

Forms of city government1

Forms of City Government

  • Mayor-Council

    • Strong mayors

      • have appointive and removal powers, but such appointments require council approval

      • Supervises budget preparation

      • Found in mostly smaller cities, but also in Houston and El Paso

Forms of city government2

Forms of City Government

  • City Commission

    • Originally traced to Galveston as a result of the 1900 hurricane

    • Designed to be more responsive by giving legislative and administrative functions to five city commissioners

    • Once used in many larger cities, but only a few small cities still use this form

Forms of city government3

Forms of City Government

  • City Commission

    • Combination of executive, legislative and administrative was designed to provide efficient services, BUT

    • No single person is in charge

    • Minimal policy and budget oversight

    • Commissioners are elected as policy makers, and usually have little administrative skills

Forms of city government4

Forms of City Government

  • Council-Manager

    • Most popular among home rule cities

    • Professional city management

    • Non partisan city elections

    • Clear distinction between policy making (council) and administration (manager)

    • Some councils choose their own mayor from within, while other cities have mayor as separate position on the ballot

Forms of city government5

Forms of City Government

  • Council

    • Creates, organizes and structures city departments

    • Approves budget

    • Establishes tax rate

    • Enacts local laws (ordinances)

    • Hires City Manager

Forms of city government6

Forms of City Government

  • Manager

    • Administers city on a day-to-day basis

    • Hires assistants and department heads

    • Supervises employees

    • Translates policy directives into action

    • Effectiveness depends on relationship with council, ability to develop support for recommendations, and overall financial and managerial skills

Municipal elections

Municipal Elections

  • Virtually all are non-partisan, but party affiliation can play a role in getting out the vote

  • Most held on the first Saturday in May

  • Most are at-large elections, where everyone is voted on by entire electorate, though some use single-member districts or a variation, the place system

  • Usually are decided on plurality basis

Municipal finance

Municipal Finance

  • Most are dependent on regressive taxes, such as property or sales taxes

  • Citizens can request a rollback election if taxes are raised by more than a certain percentage

  • Much construction is done through general obligation bonds – some funding also comes from revenue bonds

Urban challenges

Urban Challenges

  • “Graying” of cities

  • White flight

  • Declining infrastructures

  • Crime/Violence

  • State/Federal mandates (transportation, water/air quality, disabled services)

County government

County Government

  • Mexico had large land areas with presidios for military protection

  • 23 were in existence in 1836, and they became the first 23 counties

  • The Constitution allows the legislature to create or abolish any county at any time, or to alter its size

  • Any new county is required to meet certain size and proximity to county seat

County diversity

County Diversity

  • Largest in population is Harris (3,400,578) and smallest is Loving (67)

  • Largest in size is Brewster (6,204 square miles) and smallest is Rockwall (147 square miles)

  • Some counties have county seats “in the middle” while others are located far away from the center

County structure

County Structure

  • Governing body is commissioners court, which consists of county judge and four commissioners

  • County judge is elected at-large, while commissioners are elected from precincts

  • Each serves a four-year term

  • Avery v. Midland County (1968) brought one-man, one-vote rule” to county elections

County structure1

County Structure

  • County Judge

    • Presides over commissioners court

    • Fills vacancy in commissioners

    • If judge vacates, commissioners choose replacement

    • Proposes county budget

    • Need not be an attorney, although has judicial power through the constitution

County structure2

County Structure

  • Commissioners

    • Fill midterm vacancies in other county offices

    • With Judge, approves and controls county budget

    • Sets salaries and authorizes personnel positions and office expenses

    • Supervises road and bridge construction in their precinct, unless unit system is adopted

County structure3

County Structure

  • County Clerk

    • Serves as clerk of commissioners court, county courts and in smaller counties, the district court

    • “dumping ground for miscellaneous functions”

    • Keeps birth and death records, documents relating to real estate transactions, issues marriage licenses and other licenses required by state (beer and wine, etc.)

    • Serves as elections administrator (if no other)

County structure4

County Structure

  • District Clerk

    • Keeps custody of district court records

  • County and District Attorneys

    • County attorneys prosecute misdemeanors and provide county with legal advice

    • District attorneys prosecute felonies

    • Some counties combine prosecutorial functions in a criminal district attorney

County structure5

County Structure

  • Tax Assessor-Collector

    • Ascertains property ownership, determines taxes owed and collects tax

    • Also provides driver’s license renewal and voter registration

    • Tax duties are handled by sheriffs in counties with less than 10,000 population unless voters decide differently

    • Appraisal district determines tax values

County structure6

County Structure

  • Sheriffs

    • Has countywide jurisdiction

    • Primary law enforcement in smaller counties

    • Administrative officer for district and county courts

  • Constables

    • Assigned to JP precincts

    • Can patrol, make arrests but primary duty is administrative to JP, helping serve subpoenas and other legal documents

County structure7

County Structure

  • Coroner/Medical Examiner

    • Mostly in larger counties

    • Appointed

    • Determines cause of death in unusual cases

    • JP does coroner duties if none exists

  • Probation Office

    • Handles probationers from the courts, with Chief appointed by District Judges

County structure8

County Structure

  • Auditor

    • Required with population of 10,000 or more

    • Appointed by District Judges

    • Reviews all expenditures and income as check and balance to commissioners court and other elected officials

  • Treasurer

    • Receives and disburses funds – some counties have abolished office and have auditor handle

Special districts

Special Districts

  • More than 2300 such units in Texas

  • Include drainage districts, navigation districts, water supply districts, river authorities, sanitation districts, housing authorities and soil conservation districts

  • It’s a unit of local government created by the state for a specific function

Special districts1

Special Districts

  • Most are for a single function and are designated as single-purpose districts

  • Some are multi-purpose (water,drainage, firefighting)

  • Allows costs to be spread over greater area

School districts

School Districts

  • Previously could be formed by any group with county judge appointing trustees or by cities with city councils appointing

  • Independent districts were authorized in 1879, with their own elected trustees and power to tax

School districts1

School Districts

  • Some 1050 districts ranging in student population from 16 to over 200,000

  • School board governs; most have seven members

  • Trustees are elected in nonpartisan elections, most serving three-year terms

  • Most important decision is the hiring of a superintendent

School districts2

School Districts

  • Board should set overall policy and superintendent carry out the policy

  • As a practical matter, superintendent sometimes set the agenda because board members do not have enough time or expertise

Cog s


  • Councils of Government help to provide planning and services in job training, economic development, transportation and many other areas



  • Privatization can reduce costs

  • Cities can annex land through annexation power and extraterritorial jurisdiction(up to five miles out) in order to subject areas to building codes, zoning, land use restrictions and street specs

  • Can annex up to 10% equivalent per year; no vote of “annexees” required, although services have to be provided within three years



  • County modernization could come through home rule process, granting of legislative powers to county, and creating a county administrator (much like a city manager)

  • Cities and counties are now using financing techniques to provide economic growth (development impact fees, special district assessments, tax abatements)



  • Interlocal contracting, such as aviation, water and wastewater management

  • Consolidation of some government entities might help

  • Public improvement districts can be created upon request of property owners in a specific area or ETJ, solely for specific purpose and funded through assessments on affected property

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