Counties of the United States
A county of the United States is a local level of government smaller than a state but generally larger than a city or town, in a U.S. state or territory. The actual term "county" describes them in 48 of the 50 states; Louisiana uses the term "parish" and Alaska uses the word "borough." Including those, there are 3,086 counties in the United States, an average of 62 counties per state. The state with the fewest counties is Delaware (three), and the state with the most is Texas (254). In many states, counties are subdivided into townships or towns and may contain other independent, self-governing municipalities.
The term county equivalents includes in addition three types of units outside that definition:
- Alaska census areas: Most of the land area of Alaska is not contained within any of Alaska's 16 boroughs. This area is referred to by the Alaska government as the "unorganized borough" and, outside municipal limits, has no local government. The United States Census Bureau has divided the unorganized borough into 11 census areas for statistical purposes.
- Independent cities: These are cities that legally belong to no county in a state. As of 2004, there are 42 such cities in the United States:
- The District of Columbia, a federal district under the absolute jurisdiction of the US Congress, which has for the last several decades allowed the District a limited home rule.
Including these jurisdictions, the United States has 3,141 counties and county equivalents.
As noted, the territory of most counties includes that of municipalities, within and smaller than the respective counties. However, there are three kinds of exceptions to this arrangement:
- By a series of annexations or other mergers, a city government may come to have exactly the same territory as the county that contains it, even though they remain separate governments. This is nearly the case in Jacksonville, Florida, which has incorporated all of Duval County except for four smaller suburban cities.
- Several cities and counties around the country have consolidated city-county governments and are considered both a city and a county under state law. Denver, Colorado and San Francisco, California have been coextensive with their respective counties since the counties were created; on the other hand, Indianapolis, Indiana, Louisville, Kentucky, and Nashville, Tennessee unified with their respective counties after the two entities existed separately. There is also the "City and County of Honolulu", but this is unlike the others in that Hawaii has no incorporated cities and thus the "city" part of "city and county" is in this case a misnomer. Honolulu County contains the entire island of Oahu, which includes many dozens of communities and rural areas in addition to the urban area designated as the Honolulu CDP.
- The area now forming the five boroughs of New York City consisted, into the late 19th century, of three typical counties and parts of two others, each containing at least one city or town. These are still counties in name and in state law; nevertheless, since 1898 they have been entirely contained within the boundaries of the city, and following the creation of Bronx County in 1914, each borough now corresponds exactly to one county.
- In several states (including Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah), a city may annex land within an adjacent county. That land is then subject to city government, but the respective counties continue to provide county-specific services and residents vote for county officials in the respective counties. Major cities that lie in multiple counties include: Houston, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; Atlanta, Georgia; and Kansas City, Missouri.
- In Michigan, the city may petition to change the county boundaries to accord with the city boundaries. Historically, however, this has rarely been exercised. There are many cities that span county boundaries in Michigan.
Main article: County statistics of the United States
At the 2000 U.S. Census, the median land area of the 3,066 U.S. counties was 1,611 km² (622 sq. miles), which is only two-third of the median land area of a ceremonial county of England, and only a little more than a quarter of the median land area of a French département.
This figure, however, is hiding large differences between the eastern and western United States. The land area of counties in the western United States is much larger than the land area of counties in the eastern United States. For example, in the eastern United States the median land area of counties in Ohio is 1,138 km² (439.5 sq. miles) and in Georgia it is 888 km² (343 sq. miles), whereas in the western United States the median land area of counties in California is 3,977 km² (1535.5 sq. miles) and in Utah it is 6,286 km² (2,427 sq. miles)
By area, the largest county in the United States is North Slope Borough, Alaska at 94,763 square miles (245,435 km²) and the smallest county in the United States is Kalawao County, Hawaii at 13 square miles (34 km²).
However, when county equivalents are included, both lose their status. The largest county equivalent by area is Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, Alaska at 147,843 square miles (382,912 km²) and the smallest is the independent city of Falls Church, Virginia at 2.0 square miles (5 km²).
At the 2000 U.S. Census, the median population of the 3,066 U.S. counties was 24,544 inhabitants, which is 33 times less inhabitants than the median population of a ceremonial county of England, and 21 times less inhabitants than the median population of a French département.
At the 2000 U.S. Census, only 16.1% of U.S. counties had more than 100,000 inhabitants, while 83.9% of U.S. counties had less than 100,000 inhabitants. This reflects the essentially rural nature of U.S. counties, whose grid was designed in the 19th century, in a country still largely rural and only marginally affected by urbanization. Today, the vast majority of people in the United States are concentrated in a relatively small number of counties.
The most densely populated county (or county equivalent) is New York County, New York with 66,940 people per square mile (ppsm) as of 2000, and the least densely populated county is Lake and Peninsula Borough, Alaska with 0.08 ppsm as of 2000. The least densely populated county equivalent is Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, Alaska with 0.04 ppsm as of 2000.
Scope of power
The power of county governments varies widely from state to state, as does the relationship between counties and incorporated cities.
- In New York:
- In contrast to other counties of New York state, the powers of the five boroughs of New York City are very limited, and in nearly all respects subordinate to the city's.
- In New England:
- Counties function at most as judicial court districts (in Connecticut and Rhode Island, they have lost even those functions) and most government power below the state level is in the hands of towns and cities. However, in several of Maine's sparsely populated counties, small towns rely on the county for law enforcement.
- County government was abolished in Connecticut in 1960, although the names remain for geographical purposes.
- In Hawaii:
- The county is the municipal level of government; there are no incorporated cities other than the consolidated City & County of Honolulu.
- In California:
- The county is the default unit of local government (all parts of the state's land are allocated to one of the state's 58 counties). Each county has a Board of Supervisors and is subject to mandatory duties under state law to provide its residents with services like law enforcement, healthcare, road maintenance, and so on. Balancing a county's mandatory and discretionary duties is a very difficult task; any sufficiently injured county taxpayer has standing to sue the county to enforce certain duties where financial distress is no excuse, such as healthcare.
- If residents of a sufficiently large piece of unincorporated county land do not like their county's resource allocation decisions, they can incorporate a city. The city government then takes some of the tax revenue that would have gone to the county, and can impose additional taxes on its residents. It can then choose to provide almost all the services usually provided by the county (and more), or provide only a few and pay the county do the rest. A city in this last arrangement is called a contract city; it was pioneered by the city of Lakewood in the 1950s.
- The idea of "opting out" of county control in California has been taken to its logical extremes. Almost all of the city of Vernon is one large industrial zone, while almost all of the town of Los Altos Hills is zoned as residential.
- Due to geographical variations in property tax and sales tax revenue (the primary revenue source for cities and counties) and differing attitudes towards priorities, there are interesting variations in the levels of various services from one city to the next. For example, the city of Santa Monica is far more generous when it comes to helping the homeless than other cities in Los Angeles County or the county government.
- Also, county ordinances do not apply to cities unless they are ratified by each individual city. Thus, for instance, in Los Angeles County, a few cities have not ratified the ordinance requiring the posting of restaurant food safety ratings — even though it was passed many years ago — and in those cities, ratings need not be posted.
- In Maryland:
- Outside of Baltimore, which is an independent city, the county is the default unit of local government. Under Maryland law, counties exercise powers reserved in most other states at the municipal or state levels; hence, there is little incentive for a community to incorporate, especially in the urbanized home-rule counties. Many of the state's most populous and economically important communities, such as Bethesda and Silver Spring, are unincorporated and receive their municipal services from the county. In fact, there are no incorporated municipalities at all in either Baltimore County or Howard County.
- The county (or Baltimore City) is also the provider of public schools. School districts as a separate level of government do not exist in Maryland.
Lists of counties by state
Number of counties per state
County name etymologies
Main article: Lists of U.S. county name etymologies
Many states have counties named after U.S. presidents such as Washington, Madison, Polk, Jefferson, etc. Counties are also commonly named after famous individuals, local Native American tribes once in the area, cities located within the county, and land or water features (Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, meaning "Fat Hill" in Spanish, and Lake County, Illinois, on Lake Michigan).
- In Alaska, the borough is what would be a county in other states (apart from Louisiana). Three consolidated city-county governments exist—Juneau City and Borough, Sitka City and Borough and Yakutat City and Borough. Also, the state's largest city, Anchorage, is legally the Municipality of Anchorage and is included in no borough, making it an independent city. Unique to Alaska, not all of the land area of the state is divided into boroughs. The remainder, comprising over half of Alaska's land area, is called the "unorganized borough" and, outside municipalities, services are provided by the state. The United States Census Bureau has divided the unorganized borough into census areas for statistical purposes.
- The state of California has one consolidated city-county, San Francisco. The city's board of supervisors govern both aspects, and there is both a city police department and a county sheriff, the latter mostly responsible for operating the county jail (which is located in adjacent San Mateo County).
- Colorado has two consolidated city-counties—Denver and Broomfield.
- In Georgia, three consolidated city-counties exist—Athens (Clarke County), Augusta (Richmond County) and Columbus (Muscogee County).
- In Kansas, Wyandotte County and the city of Kansas City, Kansas operate as a unified government.
- The two largest cities in Kentucky, Louisville and Lexington, are "urban-county governments," Kentucky's legal term for a consolidated city-county arrangement.
- In Louisiana, parish is the name used instead of county. As such, the parish seat would be the equivalent of the county seat. The city of New Orleans is coterminous with, and identical to, Orleans Parish.
- In Maryland, the City of Baltimore generally possesses the same powers and responsibilities as the counties within the state. It is an entity lying geographically within, but separate from, the County of Baltimore, which has its county seat in Towson
- In Missouri, St. Louis City is separate from St. Louis County and is referred to as a "city not within a county."
- Montana has two consolidated city-counties—Anaconda with Deer Lodge County and Butte with Silver Bow County. The portion of Yellowstone National Park that lies within Montana is not part of any county.
- Nevada's state capital of Carson City has been an independent city since 1969.
- In some New England states, such as Connecticut, parts of Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, counties are only geographic designations and do not have any governmental powers. All government is either done at the state level or at the municipal (town or city) level.
- New York City encompasses five counties, and is the county seat of all five of them: New York County (Manhattan), Kings County (Brooklyn), Bronx County (The Bronx), Richmond County (Staten Island), and Queens County (Queens). Because each borough has a separate main post office (and Queens has four), the county seats of the five boroughs are often stated in terms of those main post offices: New York (Manhattan), Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island, and Jamaica (Queens), NY. However, the communities served by those main post offices are all within the city limits of New York.
- In Pennsylvania the City of Philadelphia is coterminous with Philadelphia County, and governmental functions have been consolidated since 1854.
- In Tennessee, the city of Nashville and Davidson County operate under a unified government. Similar arrangements exist between the City of Lynchburg and Moore County, as well as the City of Hartsville and Trousdale County.
- In Virginia, many county seats are politically not a part of the counties they serve; under Virginia law, all municipalities incorporated as cities are independent cities and are not part of any county. Some of the cities in the Hampton Roads area (Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Newport News, Hampton, and Suffolk) were formed from an entire county. These cities are no longer county seats, since the counties ceased to exist once the cities were completely formed, but are functionally equivalent to counties.
Proposals for new counties
- Adirondack County, New York : Proposed county made up of part of Essex County and of Franklin county. 
- Peconic County, New York : Proposed county made up of the eastern part of Suffolk County, New York.
- Proposal for a new county in rural areas of King County, Washington. Proposed name are Cascade or Cedar County. It would be Washington State's 40th county., . . A bill is being debate in the state lesgislature  .
- Proposal for the split of Los Angeles County, California by Pete Knight, former state senator of California.
- Catoctin County, Virginia: Proposed county consisting of the western part of present Loudoun County, Virginia; proposed by residents dissatisfied with the present county's land-use policies. Leesburg Today article
- Milton County, Georgia: This former county was annexed during the 1930s to Fulton County. A commission is working on a project to recreate the county.
- Mission County, California: Proposed county consisting of the northern half of Santa Barbara County, California, by residents.
- County (for other countries)
- County statistics of the United States
- FIPS county code
- List of U.S. counties that share names with U.S. states
- List of extinct U.S. counties
- Political divisions of the United States
- List of counties in alphabetical order
- National Association of Counties
- County Government: Management and Services
- Counties in the United States
- Ranking Tables for Counties
- County and County Equivalent Areas Cartographic Boundary Files Descriptions and Metadata
- NIST FIPS 6-4: Counties and Equivalent Entities of the United States, its Possessions, and Associated Areas
- 2002 Census of Governments