What is a county class?
April 30, 2010 1:32 PM   Subscribe

Are county classes nationwide, and if so what are they?

My company is working on a proposal, and in my research for said proposal I came across the following reference:

"The selection committee was comprised of representatives from each of Utah’s Class Two counties (jurisdictions with a population between 125,000 and 700,000)."

The existence of a Class Two indicates to me that there is probably a Class One, and maybe a Class Three. I cannot, however, find any information on whether county classes are a nationwide standard of reference and what population slices they represent.

I have also seen reference to county classes in Ohio, but my google-fu is utterly failing me in an effort to find out whether county classes are consistent across states or are used only in certain states, or what population sizes the different classes represent.

Anybody have any insight into the classification of counties in US states?
posted by pdb to Law & Government (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Pennsylvania has them, but with different populations. There are nine classes. It so happens that Philadelphia County is the only county of the first class (although it's just over the line of 1.5 million), and Allegheny County (which contains Pittsburgh) is the only county of the second class; I don't know if this is done intentionally (to allow the state to make laws that are specific to those counties without it looking like that's what they were doing?)
posted by madcaptenor at 1:39 PM on April 30, 2010

I'm 99% sure this varies by state.

For instance, in Virginia, there are several cities that exist in no county (they're called independent cities), and several counties that contain no cities.

To confuse things further, the distinction between what is a town, city, township, village, hamlet, etc. can be absurdly complex.
posted by schmod at 1:51 PM on April 30, 2010

You might check with the National Association of Counties. They have a really nice database of county-level statistics.

Schmod is correct that local government issues vary by state. You would need to go through each state to see if they have a classification system in their statutes or regulations. Or, find someone that has already done it - often termed a "fifty state survey."

States might even have different classification systems for different purposes. I have a hunch that Texas does - but can't put my finger on it at the moment. At least, various regulations point to population levels explicitly rather than a standardized classification scheme.
posted by GPF at 2:32 PM on April 30, 2010

I lived in Massachusetts for several years and I don't recall anything about the counties I lived in. Every single square inch of the state (er, the "commonwealth") was part of a township, and as a practical matter the state (commonwealth) and townships were the two tiers of government that mattered.

For instance, I don't think I ever saw a sheriff car; it was either town cops or state troopers. I don't ever remember voting in an election for county positions. I'm not even certain the county had any significant government. (The only thing about the counties that I remember was that Norfolk county was south of Suffolk county.)

In Los Angeles, city and county are merged, sort of. They each have their own fire departments, but IIRC there's only one police force.

Here in Oregon cities cannot cross county boundaries. (Which is why Portland can't absorb Beaverton; Beaverton is in Washington county, and Portland is Multnomah county.) But NYC covers territory in several counties. (Like three on Long Island alone, isn't it?)

There's no national standard for this kind of thing. It's a state thing, and every state has their own policy. (Especially the states that are really commonwealths.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:01 PM on April 30, 2010

Just guessing here, but it probably is just a codification of what those counties are allowed/forced to do for themselves, and what they aren't.

Similar in Illinois law is the concept of a home-rule city- if a city is a certain size, it gets "home rule" which means it can have different laws. For example, red-light cameras. There are state-wide standards for what signs there must be and so on, but home rule cities don't have to.
posted by gjc at 4:55 PM on April 30, 2010

@Chocolate Pickle: in the late 1990s eight of the fourteen counties of Massachusetts had their governments abolished. (But "abolished" counties still have a judicial system. At least, I lived in Middlesex county and was called for jury duty by their courts.)
posted by madcaptenor at 6:56 PM on April 30, 2010

Wisconsin has four classes of city, in addition to villages and townships (all rural areas of counties are divided into towns), but all counties are the same.
posted by dhartung at 10:55 PM on April 30, 2010

Thanks all for your help. I was hoping to find that I could use "county class" as a nationwide identifier of counties, but it turns out I cannot - I appreciate the information.
posted by pdb at 11:29 PM on April 30, 2010

Chocolate Pickle could not be more wrong about the LA thing. There's actually a pretty strong rivalry between Los Angeles city and Los Angeles county, and the police forces are *not* immune. LAPD (the one you've heard of, the famous one) serves Los Angeles the city and LASD (the county sheriffs) serves those cities of the county that do not have their own police force (Santa Monica, for example, has its own). This is coming to you courtesy of an LAPD cop friend of mine, who would not be pleased to be confused with LASD. In fact, Los Angeles city and county are one of the more complex examples of city and county relationships in the United States.

As for the original question, GPF has got it. Counties vary by state, and there's not a simple US-wide classification level (i.e. to my knowledge, there's no way to compare a "Class II" in Pennsylvania with a "Class II" in Nevada, and Nevada may not even classify counties that way). You may find NACo's "The History of County Government" to be enlightening.

Also, when people ask me for help with doing data comparisons involving municipal areas, I usually refer them to the Census and recommend comparison by Metropolitan Statistical Area. Here's a link to the table of MSAs.
posted by librarylis at 11:30 PM on April 30, 2010

My apologies.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:06 AM on May 1, 2010

I lived in Massachusetts for several years and I don't recall anything about the counties I lived in... For instance, I don't think I ever saw a sheriff car; it was either town cops or state troopers.

County Sheriffs in MA run the county jails, and certainly do have cop cars. Break the law and you go to county court and maybe county jail. Most county duties in MA are legal, all of your land deeds and records are kept at the county seat and as madcaptenor mentioned the district courts operate at a county level too. Sometimes there are more than one courthouse per county.

But, to answer the direct question: no, Massachusetts does not use a tier or class level to organize it's counties.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 2:23 PM on May 1, 2010

When cities and their surrounding counties merge, the result is generally called metro or consolidated city-county government. The amount of actual government services that merge varies, though, especially because often there are non-merged municipalities within the pre-existing county. In the most attenuated form, which isn't really true consolidation, municipalities may merely contract for services with the county; this seems to be what is going on with the LA Sheriff's Department, which is probably how Chocolate Pickle got confused.
posted by dhartung at 4:25 PM on May 1, 2010

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