Are Michigan counties a local government, or just a branch of state government?

The Guide to Michigan County Government is a great source of detailed information about the structure, function, and services provided by counties in Michigan.

Is county government in Michigan a local government, or merely a branch of state government? Ken VerBurg, Michigan State University professor emeritus talks about this subject in the 2007 edition of his book, Guide to Michigan County Government.

“State officials as well as many citizens think of county government as an “agent” of the state, a role developed in England and carried forward in America. County government in Michigan remains in that role to a degree. County governments exist to extend some powers of state government throughout the state. For example, the state requires county prosecutors to enforce the state criminal laws. Registers of deeds receive and maintain custody of land records and other property-related documents. And clerks administer elections for the state and exercise other duties that are of particular interest to the state. These officers perform these functions for the general well-being of the state. They are duties the state would probably exercise itself if there were no counties.

But counties are local governments as well. They carry out programs that benefit primarily a local population. County parks and recreation programs, county water and sewer systems, county airports, or community crisis centers are supported by counties because local residents want and need them. The state does not require counties to engage in these programs but in some instances practical considerations leave little other option.

Thus, while counties continue to function as agents for the state, they are also genuinely local governments. As such, state law gives them their own legal identity with the right to sue and be sued, enter into contracts, hold real and personal property, borrow money for legal purposes, perform acts necessary to safeguard county property, and conduct county affairs. But while counties are “legal persons,” we should not stress the concept too vigorously because the source of county legal power is still the state constitution and law.”

So the answer is that counties serve both purposes. They extend many services of the state so that citizens across the state receive essentially the same service regardless of which county they reside in; and they also provide services which are unique to their own county, and serve as a local government which is close to and responds to the needs of local citizens.

Watch for future Michigan State University Extension articles with more information about county government. Professor VerBurg’s book, Guide to Michigan County Government, Fourth Edition, is available in electronic form online on a CD or a USB drive with nearly 500 pages of detailed information about county government, with extensive footnotes to constitutional and statutory information. The update process is underway to be sure the information and statutory notations are current, with rollout of the Fifth Edition expected in fall 2016.

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