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County Classification and Creation

Introduction

Article XI of the Washington State Constitution provides for the organization of county government. Article XI, Secs. 1 and 2 recognized the counties of the Territory of Washington which existed at time of statehood, and Article XI, Sec. 3 provided for the creation of new counties. When the state constitution was adopted, 34 counties already existed. The remaining five counties were created by the legislature between 1899 and 1911. The same 39 Washington counties have existed since 1911 and no new counties have since been created. The geographic boundaries of Washington's 39 counties are fixed by state statute.

County Classification and Organization

Article XI, Sec. 5 of the Washington State Constitution authorizes the state legislature to provide for a system of county classification based on population. However, in 1991, the legislature abandoned the system of formal county classes and substituted the use of the most current county population figures to distinguish counties.

Official population determinations for counties and cities are made by the State Office of Financial Management (RCW 36.13.100 and Ch. 43.62 RCW). These population determinations are used to allocate certain revenues and to determine governing law where the applicable law is based on total county population.

With few exceptions, the general state law governing counties and county government is set out in Title 36 RCW and applies equally to all counties. Different provisions can apply based upon county population. For example, the minimum annual salary for elected county officers varies depending upon population (RCW 36.17.020), and counties with a population of at least 300,000 may expand the size of the board of commissioners from 3 to 5 members without the need to adopt a charter (RCW 36.32.055). Counties with a population of one million or more (currently only King County) are subject to different purchasing and bidding laws and laws governing solid waste disposal than counties under one million (RCW 36.32.235 and RCW 36.32.240).

In contrast to counties, there are several classifications of cities and towns (e.g., first class, second class, towns, optional municipal code and unclassified cities).

Creation of New Counties

Article XI, Sec. 3 of the Washington State Constitution authorizes the legislature to provide for the creation of new counties by general law. However, the state legislature has never adopted any laws to guide such a process.

After adoption of the Growth Management Act in 1990, interest in formation of new counties increased, and some counties have experienced active "new county movements" by citizens dissatisfied with county efforts to implement state-mandated land use and environmental laws. Lawsuits over the procedures for formation of new counties have resulted. In 1998, the state supreme court decided a case (Cedar County Committee v. Munro, 134 Wn.2d 377 (1998)) involving a citizen petition for the creation of a new county, Cedar, in eastern King county. The court's decision makes clear that in order for counties to be created the state legislature must enact legislation providing for their creation.

In recent years, various bills establishing procedures for creating new counties and to create specific new counties have been introduced, but none have been successful in gaining final passage. In the absence of any legislative action it is unlikely that any new counties will be created. The most recent attempt, HB 3011, introduced during the 2000 Regular Session, died in committee. As a result, there still remains some confusion over the requirements and process for creating new counties.

Legal References

Statutes

Constitutional Provisions

  • Art. XI, Wash. Const. - City, County and Township Organization
  • Art. II, sec. 28(18) - Provides an exception to the prohibition on special legislation for changing county lines and locating or changing county seats, but not for creating new counties
  • Art. II, � 28(18) - Provides an exception to the prohibition on special legislation for changing county lines and locating or changing county seats, but not for creating new counties
  • Art. XI, � 3 - New counties - Conditions for creation of new counties. Requires that new counties be created pursuant to general law applicable to the whole state

Court Decisions

The state constitution does not provide a right of citizens for citizens to form a new county; and the voters may not create a county by petition. Consequently, no action my be maintained in the name of a political entity that does not exist. The discretion and power to create or decline to create a new county resides in the legislature alone.

The state supreme court rejected the argument that the Washington Secretary of State was required to certify that citizen petitions for the formation of a new county (Cedar County in King County), submitted under Art. XI, � 3, of the Washington Constitution, constituted an "election." The supreme court also held that the State Legislature could not be compelled by petition to create a new county and that the discretion and power to create - or decline to create - a new county belonged to the Legislature alone.

Holding that the Cedar County Committee, a non-profit corporation formed for the purpose of creating a new county out of a portion of King County, is a "grass roots lobbying campaign" that must comply with the state public disclosure commission's requirements under the Fair Campaign Practices Act, Ch. 42.17 RCW.


Last Modified: May 11, 2016