Counties 101

Counties 101

Are you a Washington state student or citizen seeking education on how county government works? You’ve come to the right place!

Counties are remnants of British mode of government, where lands were divided into ‘shires’ and ruled regionally. Everyone in Washington lives in one of 39 counties that make up the state. The effective thing about counties is that they are hyper local – county officials are from the county they are working for! Some more county duties include:


Counties, lead by the county Auditor, are in charge of administering elections. Between mailing and collecting ballots, and keeping all districts, cities, towns, and unincorporated areas organized, running elections is a huge task for counties.


Washington roads are taken care of by either the state, city, or the county. Only eight percent of roads in Washington are maintained by the state, and that means the rest is the responsibility of counties and cities. A large part of county budgets go toward road maintenance every year.

Law Enforcement

The county sheriff and their deputies are responsible for law enforcement on the county level – they are employed by the county and are often an elected position. The sheriff usually has jurisdiction over any unincorporated areas of his or her county. Duties of the sheriff’s office might include: investigating complaints, emergency response, patrolling, resolving disputes, making arrests, criminal investigations, and executing warrants.


Washington has 31 county health departments, three multi-county health districts and two city-county health departments, all known as local health jurisdictions. They carry out a wide variety of programs to promote health, help prevent disease and build healthy communities.

Water Quality

Counties work to protect the environment and provide public water services for county residents. As regulators, counties are often responsible for controlling water pollution at the local level. They may enact rules on illicit discharges, remove septic tanks and adopt setbacks for land use plans. Counties also provide extensive outreach and education to residents and businesses on protecting water quality and reducing water pollution.

Emergency Management

Counties engage in all aspects and phases of emergency management: planning, preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery. This is for emergencies like wildfire, earthquake, storms, and other disasters that affect citizens county-wide.

States, Cities and Counties: How Do They Work Together?

Washington State, cities, and counties all work together to provide services for citizens. Washington State legislature (state house of representatives and state senators) create laws and mandates for the state. It is up to counties to carry out what the state government has passed on. Cities and towns operate within counties, and elect their own form of government, assess taxes and other services for residents of the town or city.


Washington State provides many resources and services throughout the state. Resources such as health, environment, education, and more! State legislature creates laws that counties must carry out.

How does Washington State work?


Counties are tasked with carrying out the laws and rules that state legislature makes. What else do counties do? Counties track public records, provide health resources, maintain roads, provide law enforcement, and more.

County Information


Cities form the smallest type of government. Cities are within counties, with counties comprising of a larger region of administrative oversight. Cities often have their own form of government, law enforcement, municipal services (sewer, water) and other services.

More on Washington Cities

Who Runs a County?

Counties come in all sizes and populations. There are some counties that have many people working for it, and some counties who are smaller. They all have a certain number of elected officials whose job it is to keep the county running smoothly.

County and Home-Charter Rule

Article 11, section 5 of the Washington Constitution makes the commission form the standard form of county government throughout the state for counties that do not adopt a home rule charter and sets forth, in general terms, the governmental structure that all commission counties must have. Of Washington’s 39 counties, 32 “noncharter” counties operate under the commission form of government provided by state law. Essentially, the majortiy of counties operate with three county commissioners managing the county!

The state constitution was amended in 1948 to provide the option for counties to adopt “home rule” charters to provide their own form of government that may be different from the commission form prescribed by state law. Home rule charters can provide for any county officers deemed necessary to perform county functions, but they cannot affect the election of the prosecuting attorney, the county superintendent of schools, the judges of the superior court, and the justices of the peace, or the jurisdiction of the courts. As outlined in the constitution, the charter process involves electing a group of 15-25 freeholders who are responsible for developing a proposed charter that is voted on by the electorate.

Commissioners & Councilmembers

Commissioner and councilmember responsibilities are: budgeting and appropriation of funds; building and maintaining county roads; making and enforcing civil and criminal resolutions and ordinances; supporting and implementing state and federal mandates; executive oversight of all appointed county agencies; construction and maintenance of public buildings; fixing the tax levies for the county; authorizing payments owed by the county and managing county property.

Did you know: there are seven counties that have adopted “Home Rule” charters, and this means that they have a 3 to 9 councilmembers instead of commissioners?

Elected County Officials


The county assessor identifies and determines the value of all taxable real and personal property in the county. These values are used to calculate and set levy rates for the various taxing districts (cities, schools, etc.) in the county and to equitably assign tax responsibilities among taxpayers.


Auditors are responsible for four major categories: supervise elections and voter registration, record and maintain permanent county records, the licensing of vehicles and vessels, and financial services. The largest responsibility of Auditors is to oversee elections in the county. This can be a challenge because some counties have several different voting districts within them!


A clerk’s main responsibility is to ensure a separation of powers among the three branches of government by preserving the integrity of the judiciary. What does this mean? They are in charge of filing and maintaining records and court documents, providing calendars and dockets for hearings and trials, safekeeping of court documents and case files, and more! Some clerks process passport applications, administer the jury system for both Superior and District court, and manage financial collections for criminal defendant obligations.


Coroners are an elected official who has the responsibility for human remains and after a thorough investigation, determines the cause and manner of death. Coroners also identify deceased persons and notify their next of kin, regardless of where they may live in the world.

Prosecuting Attorney

The main responsibility of the prosecuting attorney is to enforce criminal laws and work for the victims of the crime. The prosecuting attorney also acts as legal counsel to the other county departments. To qualify to run for prosecuting attorney, one must have passed the Washington State Bar Exam.


The county sheriff and their deputies are responsible for law enforcement on the county level – they are employed by the county and are often an elected position. The sheriff usually has jurisdiction over any unincorporated areas of his or her county. Duties of the sheriff’s office might include: investigating complaints, emergency response, patrolling, resolving disputes, making arrests, criminal investigations, and executing warrants.


The Treasurer acts as the “bank” for the county, school districts, fire districts, water districts, and other units of local government. They receive, disburse, invest, and account for the funds of each of these entities.

Washington Counties - A History

Did you know that 34 of 39 WA counties are older than the state of Washington? County government is often older than statehood – which is why county government is so well established and the primary unit of local government. In 1889 when Washington achieved statehood, there were 34 counties already established as administrative centers of their regions.


Louisiana Purchase

The United States bought the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, setting into motion the journeys of Lewis & Clark and westward expansion.


The Vancouver District

In 1845 the Vancouver District was created out of Oregon Country – this included parts of present day Washington and Canada. Within the same year, Lewis County was created as a county inside the Vancouver District.


Northern Limits

In 1846 the Oregon Boundary Treaty established the 49th parallel as the boundary between the United States and British territories.


The End of the 1840’s

In 1849 the Vancouver District was renamed as Clark County.

The 1850’s

In 1853 the Washington Territory was separated from the Oregon Territory. Between 1851 and 1859 the following counties were formed: Pacific, Thurston, Island, Jefferson, King, Pierce, Skamania, Whatcom, Mason, Grays Harbor, Cowlitz, Wahkiakum, Walla Walla, Clallam, Kitsap, and Klickitat.

The 1860’s

Between 1861 and 1865 the following counties were formed: Snohomish, Stevens, and Yakima.

The 1870’s

Between 1872 and 1879 the following counties were formed: Whitman, San Juan, Columbia and Spokane.

The 1880’s

Between 1881 and 1888 the following counties were formed: Garfield, Asotin, Kittitas, Lincoln, Adams, Skagit, Franklin, Douglas, and Okanogan.

Vintage map of Washington State, United States.

Washington Becomes a State!

In 1889 Washington achieved statehood, and brought 34 counties with it into the Union! Later, Ferry and Chelan counties were formed after Washington became a state.

The Final Counties

Between 1900 and 1911 the final three counties were added: Benton, Grant, and Pend Oreille. The Washington State Association of Counties was formed in 1906 to support all the counties in Washington State.


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