The Way We're Governed
In Georgia, unlike most states with large cities, the county is still the center of political and cultural life for a majority of the state's residents. Counties carry out locally a variety of state programs and policies, including collecting taxes, overseeing elections, conducting courts of law, filing official records, maintaining roads, and providing for the welfare of citizens.
The Peach County government, under the leadership of a five-person elected commission, provides high quality essential services for Peach residents and as many other services as tax revenues allow.
Counties were created by a rural society that looked to government to keep the records straight and the justice swift. To help counties administer state programs and conduct state courts, the state constitution originally created four elected county officers: the Sheriff, the Tax Commissioner, the Clerk of the Superior Court, and the Judge of the Probate Court.
In 1868 the state began creating the position of County Ordinary to administer the general operations of the county. The 1868 constitution provided that “courts of ordinary shall have such powers in relation to roads, bridges, ferries, public buildings, paupers, county offices, county funds and taxes, and other matters, as shall be conferred on them by law.” However, the 1868 constitution also authorized the General Assembly to create county commissioners “in such counties as may require them, and to define their duties.” Upon ratification of the 1868 constitution, every county in Georgia was governed by the county ordinary. But, this changed quickly.
In 1869, the General Assembly passed a local act creating the state's first “board of commissioners of roads and revenues,” a three-member commission for Harris County. By 1877 more than half of Georgia’s counties were governed by county commissioners rather than ordinaries. The sole commissioner form of government has been phased out for the most part with only 8 of Georgia's 159 counties being governed by a sole commissioner.
County constitutional officers are elected for four-year terms and have such powers and duties as provided by general law. Although dependent upon funding from the county commission, county constitutional officers have a degree of autonomy in carrying out their duties not enjoyed by other county government officials.
The Sheriff enforces the law, maintains peace in the county, and serves as the jailer.
The functions of the Tax Commissioner resemble those of an accountant for the county. He or she receives all tax returns, maintains the county's tax records, and collects and pays tax funds to the state and local governments. To assist the tax commissioner, the Board of Commissioners in some counties has established a Tax Assessor's Board, an Equalization Board, and/or a Board of Appraisers. The purpose of these appointed, not elected, boards is to ensure that everyone pays his or her fair share of taxes.
The Clerk of the Superior Court is the primary record keeper for the county. The clerk maintains all the court records and supervises the registration of property transactions. Each Board of Commissioners also has its own County Clerk, who is responsible for keeping the records for the Board.
The Judge of the Probate Court has a broad range of powers, mostly unrelated to criminal matters. He or she oversees matters pertaining to property deeds, marriage licenses, guardianships, and wills; supervises elections; and administers public oaths of office. To assist the Judge of the Probate Court, the state has created a local Board of Elections in almost every county.
Beyond the powers assigned to the constitutional officers, the Board of Commissioners is the county governing authority. It has the power to adopt ordinances, resolutions, or regulations relating to county property, county affairs, and the operation of local government.
Every county conducts local courts of law, voter registration, and elections; sells motor vehicle tags; files official records of property ownership; builds and repairs county roads; probates wills; and administers welfare and public assistance programs. The 1983 Constitution added supplementary powers to this list of county duties. Counties are allowed to provide:
- Police and fire protection
- Garbage and solid waste collection and disposal
- Public health facilities and services, including: hospitals, ambulances, emergency rescue, and animal control
- Street and road construction, including curbs, sidewalks, and street lights
- Parks, recreational areas, facilities, and programs
- Storm-water and sewage collection and disposal systems
- Water utilities
- Public housing
- Public transportation
- Libraries, archives, and arts/sciences programs and facilities
- Terminal and dock facilities and parking facilities
- Codes, including building, housing, plumbing, and electrical codes
- Air quality control
- Planning and Zoning
These supplementary powers address the need to improve and maintain the state's quality of life. Cities and towns have long offered these services, but they were seldom seen outside the urban environment. As Georgia's population has grown, so too has the number of residents who want citylike services. According to the U.S. census, approximately 67 percent of Georgians lived outside a city by 2000, and many expected the same quality of life as their city-dwelling friends and relatives.