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County Government

In Georgia, unlike most states with large cities, the county is still the center of  political and cultural life for a majority of the state's residents. Stephens County, created in 1905, is the 143rd of Georgia's 159 counties.

County governments carry out a variety of state programs and policies, including collecting taxes, overseeing elections, conducting courts of law, filing official records, maintaining roads, and providing for the welfare of their residents. County services have expanded over the years to meet the growing demands of residents.

Every county conducts local courts of law, voter registration, and elections; sells motor vehicle tags; files official records of property ownership; builds and repairs county roads; probates wills; and administers welfare and public assistance programs. The 1983 Constitution added supplementary powers to this list of county duties. Counties are allowed to provide:

  • Police and fire protection
  • Garbage and solid waste collection and disposal
  • Public health facilities and services, including hospitals, ambulances, emergency rescue, and animal control
  • Street and road construction, including curbs, sidewalks, and street lights
  • Parks, recreational areas, facilities, and programs
  • Storm-water and sewage collection and disposal systems
  • Water utilities
  • Public housing
  • Public transportation
  • Lbraries, archives, and arts/sciences programs and facilities
  • Terminal and dock facilities and parking facilities
  • Codes, including building, housing, plumbing, and electrical codes
  • Air quality control
  • Planning and zoning

These supplementary powers address the demands of Georgia's residents to improve and maintain the state's quality of life. Cities and towns have long offered these services, but they were seldom seen outside the urban environment. As Georgia's population has grown, so too has the number of residents who want citylike services.

According to the 2000 census, approximately 67 percent of Georgians live outside a city, and many expect the same quality of life as their city-dwelling friends and relatives.

Organizing County Government

Counties were created by a rural society that looked to government to keep the records straight and the justice swift. To help counties administer state programs and conduct state courts, the state constitution originally created four elected county officers: the sheriff, the tax commissioner, the clerk of the superior court, and the judge of the probate court.

In 1868 the state began creating the position of county commissioner to administer the general operations of the county. Today every county has a commissioner; many have a board of commissioners (BOC). As part of general county operations, the BOC must finance county programs and pay the salaries of constitutional officers.

The sheriff enforces the law, maintains peace in the county, and serves as the jailer.

The functions of the tax commissioner resemble those of an accountant for the county. He or she receives all tax returns, maintains the county's tax records, and collects and pays tax funds to the state and local governments.

To assist the tax commissioner, the BOC in some counties has established a tax assessor's board, an equalization board, and/or a board of appraisers. The purpose of these appointed, not elected, boards is to ensure that everyone pays his or her fair share of taxes.

The clerk of the superior court is the primary record keeper for the county. The clerk maintains all the court records and supervises the registration of property transactions. Each BOC also has its own county clerk, who is responsible for keeping the records for the board.

The judge of the probate court has a broad range of powers, mostly unrelated to criminal matters. He or she oversees matters pertaining to property deeds, marriage licenses, guardianships, and wills; supervises elections; and administers public oaths of office. To assist the judge of the probate court, the state has created a local board of elections in almost every county.

Beyond the powers assigned to the constitutional officers, the BOC is the county governing authority. It has the power to adopt ordinances, resolutions, or regulations relating to county property, county affairs, and the operation of local government. Larger, more urban counties distribute governmental responsibilities among many departments, whereas smaller, more rural counties often employ only a few officials, each of whom serves several functions.

Excerpted from The New Georgia Encyclopedia