We clearly remember a comment made to us years ago by the budget director of Cuyahoga County in Ohio. We were talking about the general lack of understanding of county government. She sighed and made the following poignant comment.
“I’ve worked for Cuyahoga County for more than a decade and my mother still thinks I work for the City of Cleveland.”
Counties are hardly inconsequential. There are 3,069 county governments in the U.S., which have 3.6 million employees and spend over half a trillion dollars annually. But many Americans have no idea what counties do or how they operate.
Bill Chiat is director of the California’s CSAC Institute for Excellence in County Government, which provides ongoing professional development classes to county managers and other high level staff who work in California’s 58 counties. Here’s what he told us.
“I’ve often thought about this. We have an overall problem that people aren’t engaged with their local government. But there’s a popular understanding of what a city does and not as much understanding of what a county does.
“Most people aren’t even aware that counties provide services. In California, the services that counties provide are the invisible services that many voters don’t know or care about – human services, criminal justice. They don’t realize that the District Attorney is a county service or that food stamps are coming through the county. But that’s the challenge. A lot of what counties provide are not popular things.
“Even if you think about movies that involve the public sector, there’s always city hall. When was the last time you saw a county administration building in a movie? People say, ‘I’m going to fight city hall.’ Nobody says, ‘I’m going to take this fight to the county board chambers.
“One of the issues is that counties vary so much. What a city does is pretty universal across the United States and across the world. But what a county does varies so much from state to state. It’s hard to say what counties do and have it ring true across the country.”