From the National Association of Counties 2010
The California Constitution and California Government Code create counties as political subdivision of the State of California and empower the legislature to lay out county responsibilities. The constitution creates boards consisting of five supervisors and vests them with legislative authority, as well as establishing several other offices. The commission or legislative body has the authority to consolidate some of the constitutional offices with other non-constitutional offices, however, as well as to elect a chairman from among the supervisors. Counties are considered bodies politic and corporate with all the powers attributed thereto by statute. While largely limited by state statute, the miscellaneous powers of the county does include a provision enabling the county board to appropriate money to meet any social need of the county in the areas of healthcare, law enforcement, public safety, rehabilitation, welfare, education, and legal services, as well as the needs of disabled, handicapped, or mentally handicapped persons.
The board of supervisors has final budgetary authority in the county, with the power to make appropriations, expend money, and examine the county’s accounts. The county board of supervisors is also the only body authorized to levy a property tax on assessable property in the county, including real and personal property, as well as improvements on real property. Any increase in property tax must be approved by the electors residing within the county before the increase may take effect. No special district board may levy any taxes; such power is reserved to the county board. The board may place any money it collects into special funds for the execution of specific county purposes, including capital funds, revolving funds of various types, and enterprise funds. The county is authorized to make appropriations for a variety of public purposes, including funding the construction of a storm sewer, drainage sewer, or sanitary sewer.
While county commissions are authorized to contract debt by issuing general obligation and revenue bonds, no commission may contract debt which exceeds the projected revenue for the coming fiscal year without the assent of two-thirds of the voters in the county. Moreover, the county may never extend its credit or any revenue to a private individual or corporation unless specifically authorized to do so by legislative action. Any public entity, including municipal corporations, public waterworks, mosquito abatement districts, hospitals, public cemeteries, and other public institutions are eligible to receive funds as loans or grants from the county. Pursuant to this power, the county may establish a revolving fund to loan out money. The county commission is the only body with the authority to review and discharge claims against a county, or to challenge such claims in court.
[This is what justifies establishing a county public bank WITHOUT becoming a charter county.]
The county has the authority to purchase any equipment or other articles necessary to the execution of its duties. This includes any papers or books necessary for the functioning of county courts and departments. The county board may appoint a purchasing agent to coordinate purchasing activities and make purchases in bulk to save county funds.
The counties of California may enter into such contracts as may be necessary to the exercise of its powers, including any provision of service which it may lawfully provide under California law. The county board, which has legislative power, is authorized to make any contract permitted in state statute or in the constitution, which is legitimately linked to the county’s execution of its duties.
Zoning and Land Use:
As bodies politic and corporate, counties may purchase, lease, receive by gift, or exercise eminent domain to acquire and hold land; however, no purchase may be made in excess of $50,000 without notification of the county’s electors. In addition, the county may make contracts to execute functions on its land. The county may also sell or lease out such land as no longer serves a public purpose to the federal government for federal purposes, as well as to other political subdivisions and private entities. Counties may take all of the above action related to public lands in other counties, provided they have a legitimate county purpose for doing so.
To stimulate economic development, counties may additionally sell or lease public land, with a lease period not to exceed 99 years, to a public or private entity, individual, or corporation. The agreement to sell or lease must come with an agreement to the board of supervisors to stimulate economic growth by constructing and operating a facility of cultural, residential, commercial, or industrial use or development. The lessee or buyer must also agree to participate in public works of residential, commercial, or industrial significance.
The county board may additionally establish, construct, furnish, repair, and renovate public buildings on county lands alone or jointly with municipalities. Public buildings may include hospitals, almshouse, courthouse, jail, historical museum, aquarium, library, art gallery, art institute, exposition building for exhibiting and advertising farming, mining, manufacturing, or livestock raising, and other resources of the county, stadium, coliseum, sports arena, or sports pavilion or other building for holding sports events, athletic contests, contests of skill, exhibition, spectacles and other public meetings, and such other public buildings as are necessary to carry out the work of the county government.
State code typically authorizes counties to construct the above buildings in separate parts of the state code, which is reflected in other parts of this report by separating county authority to construct public buildings into different sections. California code empowers counties to construct all of the above buildings in one place in the code, California Government Code 25351, and this report is organized to reflect that.
The board may also obtain interest in a condominium for use by the city or county government or any private firm or person. The county board must operate a jail and a courthouse, as these are vital to the preservation of justice and public safety. In addition, however, the county may lease or sell public buildings to nonprofit and municipal corporations. To assist with the construction of public buildings, the county may own and operate a cement plant and may sell the products thereof to another political subdivision, the state, the federal government, or to an individual or private entity.
County commission may establish service districts, which contain all of the unincorporated areas of the county, whether contiguous or noncontiguous. In the event a municipal corporation wishes to join the service area, the corporation may request to be included. The county commission may, upon receipt of a petition of the individuals living within the proposed district or by resolution of the commission, hold an election regarding the establishment of a service district. The board may exercise all its legislative powers, including the power to tax, issue bonds, expend funds, and exercise eminent domain, to assist in the formation of the district by purchasing equipment and facilities, as well as land. Allowable services include: law enforcement or police protection, fire protection and nuisance abatement, emergency medical and ambulance service, recreation, libraries, television translator stations, water service, sewerage and storm water drainage service, road improvement and construction, street-light operation, solid waste disposal and recycling service, land use planning, soil conservation, cultural centers, sports facilities, airports, flood control, and open-space preservation. In the case of California, the state code includes all service in one section. To reflect that, all services which the county may lawfully provide under California Government Code 25312 are listed here.
The county board of supervisors serves as the administrative head of any special district, which it may create by resolution. This includes the authority to establish a budget for the district, levy county-wide property taxes to fund it, appropriate a proportion of such taxes to the district, levy district-specific property taxes, levy benefit assessments, establish user fees, appropriate general county funds to the district, and appropriate up to two million dollars from the county revolving fund to finance any additional services the district may require to execute its duties, such as architects, engineers, or auditors. The county board may additionally issue general obligation and revenue bonds to provide capital finance for the project rather than waiting on the collection of taxes or assessments.
If the county commission finds that providing service to the entirety of the county creates obstacles to financial solvency, if the residents of a particular part of the county want a service that no other part of the county desires, or if the residents of a particular part of the county do not want a service that other parts of the county desires, it may establish service zones which do not consist of the entire unincorporated county. In such zones, the county may provide different authorized service, different levels of service, or raise different revenues.
Counties may create low-rent housing districts to serve their residents with low and moderate incomes; however, the county may not create such a district without the approval of the people living within the county.
Public Safety, Health, and Sanitation:
The county is constitutionally authorized to make any law related to police or sanitary regulations to protect public health and safety. In line with that power, county commissions may establish departments of corrections with a head officer to administer the department. Such an officer will have responsibility for all corrections activities, including the jail. The corrections officer may provide any rehabilitation programs the county commission may authorize and fund. In addition to the corrections department, the board may establish law enforcement, police, and fire protection districts, as well as provide such districts with the appropriate facilities, equipment, and buildings. These districts and facilities are discussed above in the “zoning and land use section.” The police power of the board extends to disallowing the discharge of firearms within certain areas of the county. The county may also provide relevant educational programs at public libraries regarding fire safety and prevention, as well as personal safety.
“Zoning and land use” additionally discusses the county’s authority to provide emergency medical and ambulance service, hospitals, and other healthcare services in special districts, as well as the county’s authority to construct hospitals and related facilities and equipment. See that section for a more thorough description of the county’s authority to finance and administer these facilities and districts. Whenever the county has individuals providing foster care service within its corporate boundaries, it may extend insurance to the providers.
The county also has the authority to regulate and abate public nuisances. Nuisances include graffiti, excessive vegetation, mosquitoes, wild animals, roaming domestic animals, and other such nuisances the commission may define. To enforce this authority with respect to animals, the board may establish a pound. The county has the authority to do so on both public and private land. If private land is afflicted with a nuisance, the county may enter on it, abate the nuisance, and charge the cost of the abatement to the owner of the property.
In the interest of public health, the county may create special service districts to provide sewerage, water, and solid waste disposal services; however, unlike other state codes which divide such districts based on the type of service provided, California statute defines all service districts similarly. California additionally gives counties the power to construct any facility or acquire any equipment pursuant to the proper functioning of any of the above districts. See the above “zoning and land use” section to read about county powers related to the establishment and finance of these special service districts. The county may acquire water rights pursuant to the provision of water or sewerage service.
Any county may establish a hydroelectric facility or a wind farm to generate electricity in the county. The board may also establish transmission lines to supply electricity. The county board may lease such a facility to be operated by a private company or by a pre-existing public utility. The county may not acquire an existing public utility to execute this function, however.
Roads, Bridges, and Transportation:
County commissions are charged with laying out, maintaining, vacating, and constructing public roads, rights-of-way, easements, bridges, and other infrastructure the county provides. The board is additionally empowered to provide street lights on public highways. See “zoning and land use” for a comprehensive description of the county’s financing and legislative authority in road districts. In addition to these more traditional types of transportation, counties may provide airport service districts and facilities. If the county does not provide airport facilities but a municipality contained therein does, then the county may appropriate and expend money to fund the city’s operations. In addition to the above mentioned modes of transportation, counties may establish, construct facilities for, and operate public ferries to cross bodies of water.
The county commission may grant franchises to operate piers, wharves, chutes, and booms, as well as grant the authority to charge assessments when the franchise is granted. In addition, the county may grant franchises along public highways for all lawful purposes, which may be conducted along them. A county granting road franchises may require that such lines as may be required to provide any service to county residents by laid underground. Any funds received for the sale of franchises may be placed in the county general road fund to improve public highways.
Recreation, Leisure, and Culture:
County commissions may acquire land for and establish parks, recreational facilities, sports facilities, cultural facilities, libraries, and community centers in special service districts. In said districts, the county may construct museums, libraries, convention centers, sports facilities, and a variety of other cultural and recreational institutions. California code enumerates these powers in the same section as it enumerates other services and buildings counties may provide, ergo this report places them together. See “zoning and land use” for a more thorough description of the county’s authority to finance and administer these special districts. Any county operating one of the above facilities may charge a reasonable admission to enter any event. Parks, which include streams, may be stocked with fish by the county board.
County boards may elect to join fair associations, erect permanent buildings on county fairgrounds, and levy a special tax to promote agricultural, viticultural, and horticultural, and pastoral pursuits in the county. The county may additionally conduct research and publish it at said fairs for the benefit of county farmers, as well as sell surplus plants and agricultural implements acquired in pursuing said research. The fair is to stimulate the exchange of agricultural information, as well as to advertise county products and provide a market for the sale and purchase of agricultural implements. The county may make an appropriation of up to $50,000 to advertise county products and advantages at any fair in the United States. If the board does not wish to execute this authority itself, it may contract with a nonprofit organization to run the fair.
County boards may acquire land for the preservation of any historical landmark or site by keeping such property in the care of the county. The board may levy taxes, issue bonds, and make contracts related to the preservation of historical land. The county may also preserve historical documents within the county from destruction by time or by man for future historical research.
Any land, which the county is using for park purposes, may be conveyed at no cost to a municipality to operate as a city or municipal park, except that the municipality must assume any outstanding debt. Park purposes may include recreational facilities and sports facilities, or any of the other facilities defined above. In addition, counties may vacate park lands by selling them to an interested buyer, provided the park lands no longer serve a county purpose.
The board, to preserve California’s resources, may designate a variety of protection areas in which it may limit driving, residential and commercial use, and herding. Allowable districts include wildflower protection districts, forest planting districts and commissions, stream protection districts, and water reclamation districts.
Alternative Forms of Government:
California’s counties may adopt a charter to provide for their own government. A charter commission may be created by either initiative or county board resolution to draft a charter outlining governmental structure as well as county authority. The charter is not valid until approved by a majority of county electors voting in an election and then filed with the Secretary of State. In addition to creating a charter county government, the county may co-author a charter with one or more cities located within its corporate boundaries to form a city-county consolidation.