What Do Counties Do?

Chapter 7:
What Do Counties Do?

What is a County?

Everyone who lives in Pennsylvania also lives in one of its 67 counties. A county is a section of the state that provides services to that area. Each county has boundaries and has its own government. Counties are found in 48 of the 50 states. They were first seen in the original 13 colonies before there was a United States of America.

You can find your county government in what is called the county seat—the town where county offices are found. Some counties need several buildings for their offices, perhaps across the county, while smaller counties usually have their offices in their county courthouse.

A good source of information about what counties do is found at http://www.pacounties.org/PAsCounties/Pages/CountyInformation.aspx. You can find a map of the counties at http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/maps/pennsylvania_map.html. This site also has information about each county—just click on the county on the map that you want to learn about.

Counties Can Be Very Different

The county with the most people is Philadelphia (Philadelphia is a county and a city) with 1,526,006 residents; Cameron County has the fewest residents at 5,085 (as of the 2010 US Census).

One reason counties and their governments are so different is because the number of people who live there and the type/amount of services they need are also very different. For instance, Philadelphia County has 11,379 persons per square mile; Cameron County has 13 people per square mile. The size of their county governments is very different because the number of people is different. It is harder for small counties to provide all the services of a big county because they have less money to spend.

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania says a county is rural when the number of persons per square mile is less than 284. Counties with more than 284 persons per square mile are considered urban. By this definition, Pennsylvania has 48 rural counties and 19 urban counties. The following table shows how the 67 counties differ by population. Notice that 12 counties have more than 300,000 residents. Most counties (48) have 25,000 to 299,999 people. Seven have less than 25,000 residents, and three of those have less than 10,000 residents.

Population differences among Pennsylvania's counties
PopulationNumber of Counties
10,000 or less 3
10,000 to 24,999 4
25,000 to 49,999 16
50,000 to 99,999 13
100,000 to 199,999 13
200,000 to 299,999 6
300,000 to 399,999 3
400,000 to 499,999 2
500,000 to 599,999 3
600,000 to 700,000 1
800,000 to 900,000 1
1,000,000 or more 2
Total 67

It is easy to see why counties are so different. Each county, by law, must provide a basic list of services, but the number of people they can hire and the number of services they can provide are not the same.


Each county in Pennsylvania is run by a Board of Commissioners. There are three commissioners who are elected every four years. It is the duty of the Board to represent their residents and to set policies and rules to run county government. The Commissioners and the Row Officers are the elected officials of the county. So that the General Assembly can address differences by size of county it has assigned each county to a “class.” Counties by class are:

  1. First Class – Philadelphia County
  2. Second Class – Allegheny County
    Second Class (A) – Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties
  3. Third Class – 12 Counties
  4. Fourth Class – 9 Counties
  5. Fifth Class – 7 Counties
  6. Sixth Class – 24 Counties
  7. Seventh Class – 4 Counties
  8. Eighth Class – 6 Counties

Eight counties are “Home Rule.” The eight home rule counties are Allegheny, Delaware, Erie, Lackawanna, Lehigh, Luzerne, Northampton and Philadelphia. This form of government is not exactly the same for each county. In general all of the home rule counties have reconfigured the court-related elected offices as hired staff positions instead, typically with different configurations and titles. Offices include prothonotary, clerk of courts, register of wills, recorder of deeds. Most have kept the district attorney, sheriff (with the exception of Northampton), and controller as elective. Lackawanna County is an exception in most respects; they largely kept the commissioner/row officer form and made most of their changes relative to public accountability, financial management, and other administrative matters.

Row Officers

One of the most interesting things about counties is their nine row officers. Voters from each county elect these officers to a four-year term. They must be residents of the county (at least for one year) and must be 18 years old.

Especially interesting is their titles. These are titles used in the very earliest years of Pennsylvania when they were listed on ballots in a row, and they have been used ever since. Some titles you will recognize right away, such as Coroner, District Attorney, Sheriff, and Treasurer. Others are not so familiar such as the Clerk of Courts, Controller, Prothonotary, and Register of Wills. What do these officials do? Check out the next table.

Row OfficerDuties
Clerk of Courts The Clerk of Courts keeps information about the county’s criminal court cases. The Clerk also keeps records of hearings, trials, and evidence used in a trial. He/she also collects bail money. The Clerk appoints election officials, private detectives, and county constables.
Controller The Controller literally controls the spending of county monies. He/she, though elected by the people, must enforce Commonwealth laws and laws by County Commissioners.
Prothonotary This office takes passport applications, administers oaths, can help you change your name, conducts naturalization swearing in for new citizens, handles divorce and custody cases, forecloses on mortgages, and registers your power of attorney.
Register of Wills This office settles wills (often called probates) and handles estates of deceased residents who left no will. The Register of Wills also collects inheritance taxes for Pennsylvania. You will also go to this office for marriage licenses and to petition the courts to adopt a child.

You can find out more about the clerk of courts at http://ujsportal.pacourts.us/. This position is part of Pennsylvania’s Unified Judicial System. For more information about prothonotaries check out http://www.pacourts.us/courts/courts-of-common-pleas/prothonotaries.

County Services

Counties provide many services. County residents benefit from programs in the criminal justice system, communication programs, planning, social services, veteran services, and parks, to name a few.

Examples of County Services

  • Human Services
    • Crisis Hotline
    • Child Abuse Hotline
    • Mental Health
    • Mental Retardation
    • Early Intervention
    • Youth Services
    • Counseling
    • Parenting Programs
    • Independent Living
  • Aging and Adult Services
    • Adult Living Centers
    • Care Management
    • Caregiver Support
    • Protective Services
    • In-Home Services
    • Senior Citizen Services
    • Assessment of Needs
  • Court System
    • County Judges
    • District Judges
    • Probation and Parole
    • Domestic Relations
    • Public Defender
  • Planning and Economic Development
    • Grant Programs
    • Environmental Programs
    • Planning Commissions
    • Advisory Boards
  • Nursing and Rehabilitation
    • Skilled Nursing Care
    • Short Term Rehabilitation
    • Long Term Rehabilitation
  • Children and Youth Services
    • Child Protection
    • General Protection
    • Foster Care Services
  • Agency on Disabilities
    • Drug/Alcohol Abuse
    • Mental Health Services
    • Recovery
    • Special Needs
    • Disability Programs
  • Community Services
    • Library System
    • Waste Management
    • Recycling Programs
    • Agency on Housing
    • Consumer Protection
    • Military Affairs
    • Training and Education
  • Corrections
    • County Jail
    • Corrections Centers
  • Elections and Voter Registration
    • Provide Polling Centers
    • Poll Workers Training
  • Parks and Trails
    • Public Parks
    • Trails
    • Monuments
  • Veterans Affairs
    • Federal Benefits
    • State Benefits
  • Property and Tax Bureau
    • Property Assessments
    • Tax Collection
  • Row Officers
    • Controller
    • Clerk of Courts
    • Coroner
    • District Attorney
    • Prothonotary
    • Recorder of Deeds
    • Register of Wills
    • Sheriff
    • Treasurer
  • Infrastructure
    • County Road Maintenance
    • Bridge Maintenance
    • Upkeep of Parks
  • Emergency Services
    • 911 Emergency Center
    • Fire Marshal
    • Emergency Management
    • Emergency Health

Services are provided by the larger counties but may be contracted to the private sector by smaller counties. Counties might, for instance, hire contractors to build roads, pave roads, or to run parks. More information about county services can be found in documents provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development at http://www.newpa.com/local-government/publications.

More Information about Counties

A lot of information is reported by county. The following table has examples.

More Information about Counties
Health Profiles http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt?open=514&objID=596007&mode=2
Quick Facts http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/42000.html
Counties By Class http://www.pacounties.org/PAsCounties/Pages/CountiesByClass.aspx
Voter Turnout http://sites.allegheny.edu/vta/pennslyvania-counties-archive/
Demographics http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt?open=514&objID=616669&mode=2
Rural Pennsylvania http://www.rural.palegislature.us/Pop_projections09.pdf
Local Government http://sites.state.pa.us/govlocal.html?papowerPNavCtr=|30207|
Veterans http://www.dmva.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/county_directors_for_veterans_affairs/
Taxes http://munstatspa.dced.state.pa.us/

Each county has its own website with information about how it is governed, services they provide, and how to access these services. You can find each of the 67 county websites at this location http://www.pacounties.org/PAsCounties/Pages/CountyWebSites.aspx.

Many sources of information are put on the web directly by the county or by organizations that serve a county or counties. For instance, specific demographic trends for Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties are put together by the Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development. You can see their reports by accessing http://www.institutepa.org/PDF/Research/populationtrends0510.pdf.