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The Growth and Decline of Local Governments in the U.S.

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The Growth and Decline of Local Governments in the U.S. ( )

Illinois has the most local governments of any U.S. state, according to preliminary data released in the 2012 Census of Governments. Hawaii has the fewest. The U.S. Census Bureau conducts the Census of Governments every five years – for years ending in “2” and “7” – and is “the only uniform source of statistics for all of the nation’s state and local governments.”

Local governments fall into two broad categories: general purpose and special purpose. General purpose local governments include counties, municipalities, and towns/townships.  Special purpose local governments include special districts and independent school districts.

Trends over time

The 2012 data shows a total of 89,004 local governments in the U.S. in 2012, down from 89,476 local governments in 2007. Many factors might account for this decline, including consolidation, some terminations and perhaps some redefinitions. While relatively small in number, the drop is worth noting because it could signal the reversal of a trend, as illustrated by the table below.

Census of Government Year # Local Governments Change from Prior Census
2012 89,004 –   523
2007 89,527 +3,951
2002 87,525 +     72
1997 87,453 +2,498
1992 84,955 +1,769

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Census of Governments, Historical Data

Over time, much of the growth and decline in the number of local governments can be traced to changes in the number of special purpose local governments.

“The decline in local governments over the past few decades is mostly due to consolidated school districts, while most of the increase is a result of the creation of special districts,” notes Michael Pagano, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Co-Editor of Urban Affairs Review.

The consolidation of school districts, a trend evidenced over the past 70 years, likely explains why the number of independent school districts dropped from 14,561 in 2007 to 12,884 in 2012.

The falloff in the number of general purpose local governments compared to the 2007 data is attributable almost solely to the decrease in the ’towns/township’ category, Pagano says. “It’s possible that many townships have been annexed into or absorbed by cities, thereby eliminating certain township governments.”

The Census of Governments reports that ten states had fewer townships as a result of mergers and consolidations. Kansas experienced the largest drop in townships, down from 1,353 in 2007 to 1,268 in 2012, according to the report.

Which states have the most local governments? Which have the fewest?

As illustrated in the tables that follow, Illinois leads the nation with the highest number of local governments, as it did in the 2007 Census of Governments as well. The list of the top five states with the highest number of local governments in 2012 mirrors the list of the top five in 2007 – in the same order.

States with the Most Local Governments

State Total # Local Governments
Illinois 6,968
Pennsylvania 4,905
Texas 4,856
California 4,350
Kansas 3,806

The states with the fewest local governments in 2012 closely matches the list of states with the lowest number of local governments in 2007, with the exception of Delaware, which replaced Maryland in the number five position.

States with the Fewest Local Governments

State Total # Local Governments
Hawaii   21
Rhode Island 134
Alaska 177
Nevada 190
Delaware* 338

*In the 2007 Census of Governments, Maryland came in fifth place, 256 local governments, but that number rose to 347 in 2012.

Which states have the most special purpose local governments?  Which have the fewest?

Most of the “net change” in the number of local governments takes place in the special purpose category, which includes special districts and independent school districts. As shown in the following tables, Illinois – which has the highest number of local governments – also has the highest number of special purpose local governments and the highest number of special districts. More than half of Illinois’ local governments fall under the “special purpose” umbrella.

Special districts can be created, with state approval, to provide specific services such as fire protection, library and transit services.

States with the Most Special Districts

State # Special Districts
Illinois 3,232
California 2,786
Texas 2,309
Colorado 2,305
Missouri 1,837

 

States with the Fewest Special Districts

State # Special Districts
Alaska 15
Hawaii 17
Rhode Island 91
Louisiana 97
New Hampshire 97

Independent school districts include those not operated by a state, county, municipality or township. Texas, California, and Illinois have the most independent school districts, while Rhode Island and Tennessee have the fewest.

States with the Most Independent School Districts

State # Independent School Districts
Texas 1,079
California 1,025
Illinois    905
New York    679
Ohio    668

States with the Fewest Independent School Districts

State # Independent School Districts
Rhode Island   4
Tennessee 14
Nevada 17
Connecticut 17
Delaware 19

Note: Public schools in Virginia are divided into “divisions,” operated which are similar to “districts,” but are not independently operated. Dependent school districts, those operated by a state, county, municipal, town, or township government are not included in these rankings.

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