Local Governments in the United States: An Overview of Cities and Counties

  • Roger L. Kemp International City/County Management Association
  • Barbara H. Moore International City/County Management Association


America’s local governments, while still evolving over time, trace their roots back to the English shire from centuries ago. The shire had a dual function, serving as the administrative arm of the national government as well as the citizen’s local government. The structural form of the shire was adopted along the eastern seaboard of North America by the original colonists, who adapted it to suit the diverse economic and geographic needs of each of the original colonies. When the United States national government was formed, the framers of the Constitution did not provide for local governments. Rather, they left this matter to the states. Subsequently, early state constitutions generally embraced local governments as arms of the state. Currently, the term county is used in 48 of the 50 states of the United States to describe that tier of government below the state. Louisiana has government entities similar to counties, but they are called parishes. Alaska is divided into boroughs, which typically provide fewer services than most counties, since the state provides most services directly to citizens. Units of government below the county level are often referred to generically as cities, but they are known by a host of different names that vary greatly from state to state. Common terms include towns, townships, boroughs, villages, and municipalities.