Local Government Types and Services

Local Government Types and Services

Many local governments work together to provide the public structures on which we depend. The graph below shows the breakdown of local spending by categories of service for each type of local government – counties, municipalities, school districts, and special districts.


Each of the four types of local governments provides a different mix of services.

  • Counties are general-purpose governments that provide services in both the rural and urban areas in their boundaries. They spent $1.6 billion in 2012, about 13 percent of all local government spending. Their spending is distributed as follows:
    • Transportation (mainly roads) and social services (including hospitals and county health departments) each take about a quarter of county spending;
    • Public safety, mainly sheriff patrols and county jails, is the third largest spending item for counties; and
    • Counties also provide library services (included within education), rural area planning and code enforcement, and administrative services like providing space and security for courts, maintaining property and other legal records, and collecting property taxes for all local governments.
  • Cities, or municipalities, are general-purpose governments providing an even wider range of services within their boundaries. Cities spent approximately $5 billion in 2012, or 40 percent of all local spending. Their major services include:
    • Public safety (police, fire, and ambulance);
    • Environment and housing (sewerage, solid waste, parks, and building and code enforcement); and
    • Utilities (water, electric and public transit).

City health spending (mainly hospitals) and transportation spending (streets and airports) represent somewhat smaller shares of all city spending.

  • School districts spent over $5.5 billion in 2012, more than any other local government. They naturally spend almost all local education dollars and use virtually their entire budgets for education. The small amount labeled “Other” is payment of debt on bonds to build schools and purchase equipment.
  • Special districts spend less than all other types of governments, about $531 million in 2012. Nearly half of their spending is for public housing and renter subsidies for low-income housing. Water utilities are the only other large purpose of special district spending.

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