In Texas, county government is “an arm of the state.” We have 254 counties, and each is charged with carrying out state-decreed administrative and judicial responsibilities, some of which include actual funding.
Go back 200 years. What did every county have? A sheriff, a traveling judge and someone to record legal documents such as marriages, divorces, land sales and lawsuits. Well, it’s bigger, better and much more expensive now.
Let’s look at state-mandated responsibilities of counties. Almost all are poorly funded by the state:
- Process and maintain voter registration and conduct elections. All entities on a ballot contribute to the cost of running that election, such as cities, school districts, water control and improvement districts and state-funded community colleges. These contract entities with county elections departments to conduct their elections but don’t have to; they can run their own elections. It’s cheaper for each entity to join others, with the county conducting the elections.
- Provide public safety with a sheriff’s office; build and maintain a jail system and a juvenile justice facility both incurring high medical costs for inmates.
- Provide courts for civil and felony issues—we have four justices of the peace courts, five district courts and five county courts-at-law, a juvenile justice court and a child support court for deadbeat parents.
- Provide legal defense attorneys for those who cannot afford one; this is very expensive for counties.
- Provide medical care for indigenous county residents.
- Provide local support (generally space) for state agencies such as the Department of State Health Services, the Department of Public Safety, Parks and Wildlife and the Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Ask yourself why.
The county also manages local government responsibilities for county residents.
- Record keeping is one area – all court records, births, deaths, real estate titles, probate records.
- Processes motor vehicle registrations and title transfers, collects and remits state motor vehicle taxes.
- Design, build and maintain roads, often with voter-approved bonds.
- Approve plating of county neighborhoods; with the subdivision rules adopted by the county specifying drainage, road construction, floodplain restrictions, ingress and egress.
- Collect property taxes for the county and other taxing entities that contract with the tax assessor/collector office such as school districts, water improvement districts and community colleges.
Counties may also elect to provide optional services like county parks and trails. Cities have now started partnering with Wilco to fund trails and shared-use paths to connect cities and parks across the southern part of the county where the populations are dense. One day soon you will be able to bike from Cedar Park to Hutto on connected trails. In Wilco, we also have the glorious Expo Center providing space for many diverse events, including rodeos and the county fair. We funded the first county fair in 2021, with a nonprofit overseeing the fair and profits made; it is self-funding now.
Where does all this funding come from? Mostly from all of us through property taxes. Who decides the spending? The Commissioners Court of each county. That administrative court has five members: four commissioners and one county judge who serves as the administrative head of the court, among other things. There has been enormous pushback from counties for state-mandated services without funding or insignificant funding. The Legislature has even passed a bill to eliminate unfunded mandates, but somehow, they keep squeaking through. Then the “state” declares local governments to be essentially evil for the taxes they place on property owners (passed on, of course, to renters).
What I Wish Constituents Knew
- Counties do not have anything to do with issuing drivers licenses. That is a function of the Texas Department of Public Safety. In Williamson County, that building is on the south side of Westinghouse Road just east of Interstate-35. Make an appointment or be disappointed. Actually, you’ll probably be disappointed anyway.
- The county does not provide yard cleanups. If there is a declared disaster, the county may participate in roadside pickups of debris, but county personnel may not make any improvements to private property by law. If the wind blows, and it does, and tree limbs drop, it is generally the property owner’s responsibility to pick them up and take to a recycling center or the county landfill at a cost.
- Counties cannot zone land like cities can. Yep, a manufacturing plant can be established next to a single-family home, ranch or farm.
- Counties have no ordinance declaration capabilities so things like barking dogs, loud noises, obnoxious neighbors are just county life.
- Counties tend to shy from becoming the “enforcers” of plat restrictions. If your county neighborhood has plat restrictions that state “no 18-wheeler parking on the street overnight,” that is an agreement between property owners when the lots were purchased. Resolution may require the neighbors to sue the violator.
- Sidewalk repair – if we didn’t build them or damage them, it is the responsibility of the property owners in county neighborhoods (and most municipal areas) and generally stated on your plat given to you at closing.
- Building noise-reduction walls – we just don’t build walls for any purpose except for retention walls in drainage areas.
- Putting in speed bumps on county roads as a traffic-calming mechanism. Not going there – speed bumps are fine in parking lots where the speed is generally 15 mph or lower. Airborne vehicles are not something we want to see or induce.
- The county doesn’t perform property evaluations to determine home values for taxation purposes. This is the job of a separate government entity, the appraisal district. In Williamson County, the Williamson Central Appraisal District is on Leander Road in Georgetown east of S. Austin Ave.
- Make the public stop using a publicly maintained road. There is a cost for isolation: private road maintenance.
- We cannot request the trapper contracted by the county to simply move wildlife elsewhere. Besides, many species are very territorial and will just find a way to return.
- We cannot legally prevent a new well from being drilled. That is the purview of a water conservation district after a substantial analysis of the region.
In summary, people usually are living in the county because they don’t want to live in cities. If you move into the county with expectations of city services and ordinances, you will be disappointed.
Terry Cook is county commissioner of Precinct 1, which includes most of Round Rock, most of Austin in Williamson County and part of southern Cedar Park.