What exactly goes on in the county courthouse? Where do my county real estate taxes go? How does the average citizen take advantage of programs offered by county government? These questions are common to county commissioners all over the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Here are some answers.
What is county government? Pennsylvania has 67 individual governmental units designated as counties. Counties are distinguished into different classes based on their population, ranging from the 1st class county of Philadelphia to 8th class counties like Cameron, Forest, Fulton, Montour, Potter and Sullivan.
Unlike most other states, Pennsylvania's counties geographically overlap municipalities such as boroughs, townships and cities, but they provide a different set of services. Therefore, every Pennsylvanian is both a resident of their county and their city, borough or township at the same time.
Most counties are governed by a board of three county commissioners elected every four years by the voters who live there. The board of commissioners oversees the entire operation of the county and represents the best interests of the citizens. Other officials are also elected to perform certain functions: the controller, the treasurer, the coroner, the recorder of deeds, the prothonotary, the clerk of courts, the register of wills/clerk of the orphans' court, the sheriff, the district attorney and jury commissioners. Under the direction of these officers, the county maintains important legal records such as real estate deeds, marriage licenses, adoption papers and court records. Different counties have different elected officials, depending on their class.
Other counties have adopted a "home rule" form of county government. They may have an elected county executive and an elected county council. These counties are Allegheny, Delaware, Erie, Lackawanna, Lehigh, Luzerne, Northampton and Philadelphia. They also have other elected county officials to help perform important duties.
Counties are required by law to provide certain services to their citizens. Each county performs a wide range of different functions:
The Court of Common Pleas and the magisterial district courts are administered by the county. Each county has one or more judges who are elected to sit on the bench and hear criminal and civil court cases. Magisterial district judges do criminal bookings and small claims such as traffic tickets. Counties support the courts with corrections and criminal justice programs such as the county prison, juvenile detention center, probation and criminal investigation units.
Counties are closely involved in economic development and planning to improve our communities. The county may play a role in locating a new factory and creating jobs, repairing or replacing a bridge in a local municipality or planning for new transportation infrastructure.
Counties are also important in protecting the environment. They are responsible for comprehensive land use planning, storm water management planning, and planning for the proper disposal of solid waste.
Counties operate emergency management agencies, responsible for the creation and implementation of plans to respond to and recover from emergencies such as storms, floods, explosions or other disasters. They also plan for what to do if hazardous materials are spilled or released into the environment.
Counties also provide 911 emergency call-taking and dispatch service, making sure the police, ambulance or fire companies get to where they are needed.
Philadelphia, Allegheny and Erie Counties have their own health departments. The balance of Pennsylvania counties work cooperatively with the Pennsylvania Health Department on medical issues.
In Pennsylvania, county sheriffs serve process, provide transport of prisoners, and may provide security at county properties. Unlike other states, they do not perform traditional police functions.
Counties are required to provide protective services for children and youth; mental health and intellectual disability programs; drug and alcohol awareness programs; and services for the aging. A large part of the funding for these programs comes from grants from the state and federal government. Each year counties help thousands of families in need of assistance.
Counties also oversee all elections, the basis of our democracy. They keep a registry of voters, make sure election equipment is in good working order and ensure that polling places are accessible to everyone who wants to vote.
To fund all these important programs, counties rely on taxes based on the value of real estate in the community. Real estate includes the buildings and land of our homes and businesses. Your local city, borough or township, and your school district also rely on the real estate tax information.
Different counties have different ways of doing each of these things, but all of them have one thing in common--commitment to their citizens. Counties are a very important part of our community. Contact your county commissioners or county council members to find out more about what your county is doing.