When discussing politics, Americans and the U.S. media seemingly always focus on Washington. After all, the nation's capital is home to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches that determine the executive orders, statutes, and constitutional legality thereof that affect Americans all over the country. However, while we constantly keep track of what the president is doing or saying on any given day and Congress' clamoring about issues on which the members of the bicameral legislature cannot agree, we often neglect to follow state, county, and local governance to the same degree.
America's system of federalism establishes that the nation's 3,069 counties are a key level of government, as county officials closely and regularly interact with their constituents and attend to issues that hit close to home. Whether serving only 45 people (Loving Co., Texas) or over 9.8 million people (Los Angeles Co., California), in a jurisdiction as small as 26 square miles (Arlington Co., Virginia) or as large as 87,860 square miles (North Slope Borough, Alaska), counties provide services that are essential to our well-being. Take a look at these five reasons why county government is more important than you think, and maybe you'll feel compelled to follow a closer government a little more closely.
While Congress and the president spend some of their time on issues abroad, counties focus all of their time on issues outside your doorstep. Counties own and maintain 44% of America's roadways, one-third of the country's transit systems and airports, and 228,026 bridges. Counties collectively spent $60 billion on infrastructure (highways, roads, bridges, utilities, water, and sewers) and $34 billion on county facility construction in 2007 alone.
Counties own 964 hospitals and spent $68.3 billion on health care services in 2007. They provide flu shots and other preventative health services, including mental health assistance, through 1,947 health departments. They also ensure that the food we eat is safe by conducting restaurant inspections. Counties remain important in the end of our years, as they own 75% of all publicly owned nursing homes.
3. Law Enforcement
Counties are crucial in maintaining safe communities, as they operate 911 emergency systems and spend about $28 billion on law enforcement annually. There are 3,105 county sheriff and police departments nationwide, and 2,914 counties own a jail or participate in a regional jail. In most cases, county-level police and firefighters respond to crimes and disasters without assistance from other levels of government.
Counties spent $63 billion on education in 2007 and collectively spent nearly half of their resources on social services and education combined in 2002, according to the National Association of Counties. Virginia counties, for instance, allocated 55% of their total expenditures to educational services (including library services) in fiscal year 2001-02.
Counties fund more than 112,000 polling places, hiring and coordinating about 700,000 poll workers every two years. They determine many aspects of the polling places, and this power is extremely important in maintaining the fair and free elections critical in a democracy. As such, many of the jurisdictions covered by the enforcement power of the recently struck down Voting Rights Act's Section 4 were counties.
Counties employ 3.3 million construction workers, doctors, nurses, policemen and women, security guards, teachers, school support staff, librarians, and more in the five sectors above, as well as employees who manage recycling, solid waste management, parks and recreation, record keeping, and more. Plus, we employ the 19,300 county board members and executives when we elect them to manage the $481.2 billion that counties spend annually — so shouldn't we pay more attention to them?