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Who Does What? A Snapshot of County Government in Texas

Starting in March, many members have reached out trying to understand what authority our local, state, and federal officials have to shut down businesses, require citizens to wear masks and many other questions. As you know, since March our country has faced unprecedented circumstances and a bright spotlight has been placed on what our elected officials can and cannot do.

Who does what?

The true power of County Judges and County Commissioners has come to light in the past recent months. Many times, the role of city elected officials, such as Mayors of large urban areas, make the news more often. However, in Texas county elected officials have a vast impact on our every day lives, and it is important to understand their role. 

About Texas Counties

Texas has more than 28 million residents across 254 counties. The size of these counties varies drastically with the smallest county, Loving, having just under 100 residents to Harris County, where the HAR Central office sits, having more than 4.6 million residents. 

County government includes numerous elected positions including the County Judge, County Commissioner(s), County Attorney, Tax Assessor Collector, District Attorney, County Engineer, and District Clerk. These are the positions we primarily work with in the real estate industry. The major responsibility of Texas county governments includes: 

  • Providing public safety and justice
  • Holding elections at every level of government
  • Building and maintaining roads, bridges and in some
    cases, county airports
  • Providing emergency management, health, and safety services
  • Collecting property taxes for the county
  • Registering voters

County Judges

The main duties of the county judge are to serve as presiding officer of the county commissioners’ court, judge of the county court, and budgeting officer of the county; he also has numerous duties pertaining to elections. In counties having fewer than 3,000 students the county judge serves as ex officio county school superintendent. One popular misconception is that you must be an attorney to be a county judge, and that they are judges in courts of law, however, this is incorrect. There is no law license requirement, and county judges do not make rulings of law in court. 

County Judge and County Commissioners = Commissioners Court

The commissioners’ court is the general governing body of the county. Commissioners have many duties and work with the County Judge these duties include appointing numerous minor officials such as the county health officer, filling vacancies in the county offices, entering into contracts in the name of the county, building and maintaining roads and bridges, administering the county’s public welfare services, performing numerous duties in regard to elections, setting the county tax rate, issuing bonds, adopting the county budget, and serving as the board of equalization for tax assessments.

What can you do?

Stay-at-Home Orders, disaster declarations, a public health crisis and public safety issues have thrust county elected officials in the spotlight during the past few months. However, the Texas Constitution granted county officials these powers hundreds of years ago in the state constitution. It is important we continue to pay attention to decisions being made by our elected officials at all times, not only in times of disaster or crisis. 

Easy ways to stay on top of what your County is doing:

  • Review the Commissioners Court Agenda to see what items they will be voting on
  • Watch Commissioners Court Meetings online 
  • Testify at Commissioners Court Meetings if they are discussing an issue that is important to you

You can find meeting dates, agendas, past videos and watch live videos on the website of each county. Due to coronavirus, most testimony is done virtually via phone. The instructions to sign up to testify during public comment are also found on the county’s website.

Amber Burton-Alfred

Amber Burton-Alfred

Director of Governmental Affairs & Advocacy
amber@har.com

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