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Do We Have Too Many Local Governments in Washington?

We recently had the pleasure of meeting with some staff members from the Governments Division of the U.S. Census Bureau who were visiting the state to talk with local government officials about the 2012 Census of Governments. The U.S. Census Bureau conducts a census of all state and local government units every five years, for years ending in 2 and 7, as required by Title 13, United States Code, Section 161. The last census of governments was completed in 2007, so it’s time again for another update. The Census of Governments is a comprehensive assessment of the scope and nature of state and local governments focusing on three major components: organization, employment and finance.

I was particularly interested in the organization component that provides statistics on the numbers and types of governments that exist. I knew roughly how many units of local government we have in Washington, but I wasn’t sure how we compared with the rest of the country. Do we have more or fewer local governments than other states?  What factors drive the numbers of local governments?

How Many Local Governments Do We Have in Washington?

The Census Bureau recently released the preliminary counts of local governments as the first component of the 2012 Census of Governments. According to their initial count, Washington State now has 1,831 general and special purpose governments, including 39 counties, 281 cities and towns, and 1,511 special purpose districts.

One of the most interesting things that our visitors from the Census Bureau shared with us was a map, The Many Layers of Washington Government, depicting the numbers of local governments by county in Washington State. As infographics often do, this map offers some interesting perspectives on the geographic distribution of local governments in the state.

Key Factors

Not surprisingly, three of the counties with the highest numbers of local governments (King, Pierce, and Snohomish), are also the three most densely populated counties in the state. Long-term growth pressures in these counties have resulted in relatively high numbers of local governments, including cities, towns, and special districts. The counties in this top tier group have anywhere from 81 to 142 units of government within their boundaries. Yakima County is the fourth member of the group with 81 units of government. On the other end of the spectrum, seven counties (Wahkiakum, Skamania, Ferry, Franklin, Columbia, Garfield, and Asotin) have between 6 and 25 local governments within their boundaries.  These seven counties are among the least populated and, with the exception of Skamania and Franklin, slowest growing counties in the state. Viewed in this context, it seems clear that high urban growth rates, or the lack thereof, have been key factors in determining the overall numbers of general and special purpose governments in Washington counties.

How Do We Compare with the Rest of the Country?

To see how Washington compares with other states, I looked at the state rankings provided by the Census Bureau’s 2007 Census of Governments. They haven’t provided these yet for the 2012 census. I’m guessing, though, that the overall rankings have not shifted that much in the last five years. In 2007, Washington State ranked 19th in the country with respect to overall numbers of general and special purpose governments (1,845), 33rd in the number of counties (39), 28th in the number of cities and towns (281), and 10th in the number of special purpose districts (1,229). By the way, in 2007, Washington ranked 14th overall in population.

Among the more interesting findings from the 2012 Census of Governments preliminary counts:

  • There are 89,004 local governments in the U.S., down from 89,476 in 2007
  • Illinois leads the country in overall units of local government (6,968)
  • Illinois has the most special purpose districts (4,137)
  • Illinois also has the most municipal and township governments (2,729)
  • Texas has the most county governments (254)
  • Texas also has the most school districts (1,079)
  • Hawaii has the fewest local governments of any state (21) with three county governments, 17 special districts, and one municipal government

So, do we have too many local governments in Washington? I’ll let you be the judge. It's hard to draw many conclusions from comparisons like these. They do, however, offer some interesting and useful perspectives on the question. Certainly we have nowhere near the highest number of local governments overall. Actually, no one does, since Illinois, with their 6,968 units of government (2,000 more than the next highest state!), are in a class by themselves. Still, there are plenty of other states that have more overall units of local government than Washington. We are not ranked particularly high either with respect to the number of general purpose county or city governments. More like middle of the pack. Imagine for a moment having 254 counties like our friends in Texas! I guess they have a reputation to live up to. Finally, even our number ten ranking for the number of special districts is not much of a surprise given our overall rank of 14th in population.

In the end, the more interesting question may be not how many local governments we have, but what factors account for their often impressive longevity (particularly with respect to special districts) once they have been established? Anyone care to offer some thoughts or theories on that question?

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About Byron Katsuyama

Byron retired from MRSC in 2021. He wrote about forms of government, strategic planning, performance measurement, emerging issues, and general local government management.