County leaders run local elections, implement state and federal laws and provide public services, especially for residents who live outside of incorporated city boundaries. All elected county offices are held for four-year terms.
These bodies serve as the board that governs county government, much like how a city council governs a municipality. The commissioners court adopts a county budget and tax rate, approves county contracts and calls for bond elections to fund roads and construction. This is often where politics or disagreements unfold over funding priorities or taxes, said Drew Landry, an assistant professor of government for South Plains College.
The commissioners court plays an important role in elections by appointing election judges who oversee polling locations in each precinct. The court also conducts the official tally of local votes for county and state elections and can appoint the county clerk or an elections administrator to serve as the voter registrar instead of the county tax assessor-collector.
Counties have less room to enact policies and often must lobby the state Legislature to expand or change the scope of their work, said Jen Crownover, a Comal County commissioner and the first vice president of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas.
“Anything we do has to be found in statute,” she said. “In city [government], it’s the opposite. As long as it’s not against the law and they have the support, then they can do it.”
The county judge presides over the commissioners court the way mayors preside over city councils. Despite the title, county judges do not have to be judges or have a legal background.
A county judge can also issue disaster declarations to request aid from other agencies and to enact emergency measures, as allowed under law. This gives county judges a lot of power during emergencies, but they must be supported by the commissioners court in order to continue emergency declarations and measures, said Tarrant County Judge B. Glen Whitley, president of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas.
In smaller counties, county judges may also carry out judicial duties, including presiding over misdemeanor and small civil cases and appeals from Justice of the Peace Court, according to the Texas Association of Counties.
Each county has four commissioners elected to represent four different county precincts or districts on the commissioners court. Commissioners are in charge of road building and maintenance in their precincts.
Commissioners are elected in staggered terms. This year, commissioners across the state for local precincts two and four are up for election, Landry said.
County treasurers look after county funds, working with banks to receive and deposit county revenue, distributing funds as directed by the commissioners court and accounting for expenses and funds. In some counties, treasurers may also prepare payroll, act as a human resources officer, be designated to invest funds and take on some auditing responsibilities in counties without a county auditor, according to the Texas Association of Counties.
In addition to county taxes, tax assessor-collectors can collect taxes for other taxing entities, such as schools and cities, as well as other fees for the state and county. They can also handle motor vehicle and boat title transfers and registrations, according to the Texas Association of Counties, and register voters. In some cases, they may also run elections.
A county clerk keeps records and carries out administrative tasks for county courts and commissioners courts. This includes maintaining public records — such as birth and death certificates, business names and brands — issuing marriage licenses and taking depositions. In most counties, clerks also serve as the chief elections officer, according to the Texas Association of Counties.