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County Government - what is it?

>One of the most frequently askedquestions in the USA is what is county government and how does it differ from state or city government? In this article, Roy Wilson, a County Supervisor in Riverside County, California, explains all.



What does a County Supervisor do?

Cities v Counties - is there a conflict of roles?



When your Editor-in-Chief, Ian Ralston, e-mailed me that question from the UK, I decided it was time to spell out those differences in writing. I'll address the answerby talking about Riverside County in California, where I serve asone of five supervisors (in other states they are often calledcommissioners) elected to govern the county. California has 58 counties and Riverside, located in the southern part ofCalifornia, is one of the larger urban counties located adjacent to Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego and San Bernardino counties.

Geographically, Riverside County is thefourth largest in California and it is larger than 10 states inthe US. It covers 7,295 square miles and extends 184 miles across Southern California from the Arizona border to within 10 miles ofthe Pacific Ocean. It has a population of 1.4 million people andan annual budget of $1.4 billion.

County government in California is a political subdivision of state government, responsible for providing basic services to citizens who live in unincorporated(outside city boundaries) areas. Many of these services are the same as those provided by cities: police, fire, building andsafety inspections, road repair, etc. However, county government also handles many other functions for all residents, regardless of whether they live within a city or in the unincorporated area.These include: an agricultural commissioner's office to handle pest control and pesticide enforcement; the county coroner's office; courts (civil, criminal, family law and juvenile); the district attorney and public defender's offices; the probation department; health services for the poor and indigent, including the operation of a county hospital and clinics; animal control; environmental health; mental health programs, including alcohol and drug abuse; an office on ageing; job training programs; welfare, which includes dispensing of federal welfare funds and food stamps; tax collecting and property assessments; conducting elections, and handling, storing and dispensing all official records, such as birth certificates, marriage licenses and death certificates. The county also operates six airports and a county library system, builds and maintains flood control channels, operates numerous landfills for trash disposal, has a housing authority to build and place people in low and moderate income housing, and has an extensive economic development outreach program. The county's large sheriffs office also contracts policeprotection to a number of cities.

Being vast geographically, Riverside County has large urban cities, mountain resorts with mountain peaks exceeding 10,000 feet, (3000m) and a great expanse of desert, which includes destination resorts in the Palm Springs region of the Coachella Valley. The two largest industries are agriculture and tourism. Milk production is the number one agricultural product,with table grapes, citrus, vegetables and dates also producing large cash crops.

So much for what Riverside County is andwhat it does. Let's turn to another often asked question: What does a County Supervisor do?

As a county supervisor, my duties are full time and consist of a combination of legislative andadministrative functions. The supervisors represent five geographic regions in the county, based on population, and because my district includes thousands of miles of desert, it is the largest geographic region in the county. The five-member Board of Supervisors meets in a day-long legislative session each Tuesday of the year. I maintain two offices, one in the county seat of Riverside, located 70 miles from my home, the other in the community of Indio, 12 miles from my residence in Palm Desert. My most distant constituents live in the community of Blythe, located on the Arizona border some 110 miles from my home. Obviously, my job consists of a great deal of travelling as I drive to my Riverside office several times a week and I make it a habit to visit my Blythe constituents a minimum of once a month.

County supervisors work with the mayorsand city council members in the cities within their district and serve as the local elected official (replacing mayors and councilmembers) in the unincorporated communities. There are 10 cities within my district and nine unincorporated communities.

Because county government dispenses sucha wide array of services, constituents are constantly calling the county supervisor's office for assistance. Such a demand for assistance makes it necessary for me to have two full-time administrative assistants and three secretaries to staff my offices.

The biggest challenge these days in county government in California is finding ways to deliver county services with a rapidly decreasing budget. As a political subdivision of the state, counties are at the mercy of the state legislature for funding. In recent years in California, which has been hit be a major economic recession caused in part by a reduction in defence industry jobs and closing of military bases, the state has diverted property taxes formerly received by the county to balance its budget. As a result, Riverside County has lost $78 million in annual property tax revenue essential to its operation. This has caused the Board of Supervisors to seek more efficient ways to deliver services through new technologies and staff reductions. It has also forced county government to be more aggressive in its economic development efforts to bring in more industry and jobs.

Cities vs Counties - is there a conflict of roles?

Historically, development, especially commercial and industrial, has occurred within incorporated cities, leaving the remaining undeveloped and oftenrural/agricultural areas under the County's jurisdiction. However, this traditional pattern has changed in recent years,with developers seeking to take advantage of generally lower property prices in the unincorporated areas. As well, industrial development often lends itself to areas with less or lower residential density in the immediate area.

As a result, counties and cities, both faced with shrinking revenues, often "compete" for major projects, seeking to put together the most attractive package of incentives. The only real winner in this environment has been business, which has reaped an unprecedented reward of incentives to development due to county-city conflict which is predominantly based on economic considerations, versus the more traditional political or geographic issues.

However, Riverside County, working in concert with the City of Indio, recently took an innovative and co-operative approach to bringing industry and jobs to the region by jointly agreeing to a revenue-sharing agreement. Rather than compete, we worked together to ensure the development located in this region. This successful effort is the first of its kind in Riverside County, and hopefully will be a precedent for other co-operative ventures, resulting in more "win-win"outcomes for local jurisdictions. If local governments in the USA - i.e.,cities and counties - are going to survive in the 21st century,there will have to be more co-operation and consolidation instimulating the economy and delivering services to the citizens.

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