County Government Structure
County government structure is spelled out in the Texas Constitution, which makes counties functional agents of the state. Thus, counties, unlike cities, are limited in their actions to areas of responsibility specifically spelled out in laws passed by the Legislature.
At the heart of each county is the commissioners court. Each Texas county has four precinct commissioners and a county judge who serve on this court. Although this body conducts the general business of the county and oversees financial matters, the Texas Constitution established a strong system of checks and balances by creating other elective offices in each county.
The major elective offices found in most counties include county attorneys, county and district clerks, county treasurers, sheriffs, tax assessor-collectors, justices of the peace, and constables. As a part of the checks and balances system, counties have an auditor appointed by the district courts.
While many county functions are administered by elected officials, others are run by individuals employed by the commissioners court. They include such departments as public health and human services, personnel and budget, and in some counties, public transportation and emergency medical services.
County Commissioners Court
The commissioners court is the governing body of the county. The Texas Constitution specifies that the courts consist of a county judge and four county commissioners elected by the qualified voters of individual commissioners precincts. The county judge is the presiding officer of the county commissioners court. The court has the authority to divide the county into four individual commissioners’ precincts. The court shall exercise powers over county business as provided by law (Tex. Const. Art. V, Sec. 18).
Many state administrative responsibilities rest with the court as well as a growing number of permissive authorities. The Local Government Code contains many of the provisions that guide the commissioners court in carrying out its responsibilities for the operation of county government. For example, the Code covers the duties and authority of the commissioners court and other officers related to financial management, public officers and employees, regulatory matters, property acquisition, buildings, and many other areas of county affairs. Another important statute concerning the commissioners court is Chapter 81 of the Local Government Code, which sets out the following responsibilities and powers:
- Establish public ferries where required.
- Lay out and establish, change, and discontinue public roads.
- Build bridges and keep them in repair.
- Appoint road overseers and apportion hands.
- Exercise general control over all roads, highways, ferries, and bridges.
- Provide for the support of paupers.
- Provide for burial of paupers.
- Acquire property necessary to obtain a surface water supply or to transport and deliver surface water.
Numerous other statutes augment the above grants of authority. To provide an index to the multiplicity of activities of the county commissioners court, the following compilation of statutes summarizes general responsibilities and lists statutory authorizations for each function of the court.