What Does a County Commissioner Do?

The roles and duties of county commissioners are numerous and varied. Counties are complex organizations, operating literally dozens of distinct business functions and overseen by a three person commission that acts as the executive, legislative and the judicial branch of government at various times. The job of commissioner is, therefore, necessarily complex. Commissioners must understand each level of their responsibility to effectively lead a county.

Under the commission form of county government, the Jefferson County board of county commissioners consists of three members that serve as full-time executives and legislators (or policy makers) for the county.

Jefferson County employs a County Manager, County Attorney,Director of Development and Transportation, Human Service Director, Health Department Director, along with six other elected officials (Sheriff, Coroner, Assessor, Clerk and Recorder, District Attorney, and Treasurer). Although their responsibilities may vary, the people serving in these positions work on a daily basis with the commissioners and the other appointed officials, to carry out the policy directions of the board, to supervise departments under the board and to coordinate the work of the other officials and staff. This is level of management and oversight as Jefferson County is home to 582,000 residents and has an average operation budget of $580,000,000.

The primary legislative responsibilities include budgeting and appropriation of funds for all county activities; building and maintaining county roads; making and enforcing civil and criminal resolutions and ordinances not in conflict with state law, including those for land use and building construction; 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 and its subordinate jurisdictions; authorizing payments owed by the county and auditing all officers having control of county monies; managing county property and county funds; and prosecuting and defending all actions for and against the county.

Policy Making Role
As a commissioner you are authorized and required to make policy for the county. Policy-making means defining high-level goals and long-range outcomes for county government. This includes choosing the direction, the ways and the means to achieve those outcomes and to guide the decision making process leading to them.

Goal-Setting and Long Range Planning
County policies will have an impact on the lives of its citizens, and for that reason those citizens expect county commissioners to influence the direction of county government. Policy-making is far more art than science. The key to good policy-making is to see ‘the forest for the trees.’ Keep in mind the mission of the organization, and whether the county is following that direction to realize your long-range outcomes. Policy-making describes outcomes; it describes what you want. How your ideas are realized is administration.

It is essential to recognize competing interests among the public and staff, and to cultivate support from these groups by involving them as stakeholders in your policy development. How to do this varies greatly from county to county and from board to board. Generally, policy development first requires you to affirm or define the county’s mission and direction. In other words, make sure you can answer to your own satisfaction the question, “To what purpose is the county here and where must it be pointed to accomplish that purpose?” After that:

1. Identify issues and needs that are obstacles to your mission and direction;
2. Set goals and objectives to address obstacles and to realize your mission;
3. Determine strategies to meet goals and objectives;
4. Set priorities and timelines for completing goals and objectives;
5. Accomplish the work;
6. Evaluate the results.

Commissioners are directly responsible for the first two or three of these elements; and there are opportunities throughout for the involvement of stakeholders.

Making Policy Through The Budget
The county will only do what commissioners authorize it to pay for; conversely, nothing that commissioners refuse to pay for will get done. The most basic definition of ‘policy’ is ‘what you do,’ so the budget becomes commissioners’ main tool for affecting policy. Commissioners also provide overall organizational leadership and are expected to create paths to better management. The budget is also a management tool; it is the only mechanism for managing all the manifold activities of county government at once. This comprehensive document sets the limits for spending for every program and department in the organization. The only way to see the complex relationship of all the moving parts that compose the county is through the budget. State law requires the board of county commissioners to adopt a budget every year.

The Budget Cycle
The county budget cycle typically starts in the spring with an estimate of revenues for the next year. Based on this forecast, commissioners set guidelines for the budget. These include compensation targets and whether budgets may grow or must be reduced. Spending proposals are submitted by elected officials and appointed managers in mid-August. These proposals are reviewed by the board of commissioners throughout the fall. Final adoption of the budget occurs in December.

Theory and Practice
In theory, broad goals are developed by the board early on as the framework for the annual budget process. In reality, most budget decisions continue previously set policies or confirm policies adopted at other government levels. Decisions to set new policies are typically incremental and at the margins of the entire budget; the vast majority of budgets are already committed to baseline activities and mandates. Department heads, elected officials, and community groups often come to the board of commissioners with unforeseen financial needs during the budget year. These ‘emergencies’ can have more of an impact on policy than the annual budget development process. These isolated spending requests are difficult to link with spending priorities which have been considered as a whole during the formal budget process. So even though it may be occasionally necessary, making budget decisions out of the context of the larger budget process makes commissioners’ jobs more difficult.

Fund Structure
The complex fund structure of the county makes the overall weighing of priorities more difficult. There may be as many as 40 to 80 or more separate funds, most of which are dedicated for specific purposes. It is like having 40 or more separate companies, each with a separate set of books. The general fund is often referred to as the current expense fund. It typically funds most criminal justice functions, internal services, other elected officials’ departments, and portions of zoning and building code enforcement. It is where most of the “action” occurs in the budget process.The next most important fund is typically the road fund. It is referred to as a special revenue fund because its revenues are dedicated for the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges. Decision-making is often less contentious for this fund than it is for the current expense fund; it has far fewer officials competing for it because its revenues are dedicated for limited purposes. This is true for most other funds, except the general fund, as well.

Land Use Policy-Making
A broad understanding of land use issues is essential if you wish to be an effective commissioner. In most mid-size to larger counties with urbanized areas, commissioners spend a great deal of time working on land use policy. Citizen participation is encouraged in shaping land use policies and much of the input from constituents will continue to be on environmental and land use issues. Difficulty with land use planning issues has been brought to the forefront with high density development, and it is likely to remain a difficult area for commissioners to find community consensus.It is especially important with land use professionals that you make your expectations clear. If commissioners set a general direction and clear expectations about how to interpret the county’s land use code,staff will bring only those options to constituents, disarming many potential confrontations with the board.

Policy Making and Non-County Boards
Regional support networks for mental health, regional transportation planning councils, housing authorities, air pollution control authorities, and area agencies on aging are boards where commissioners serve. There are many more such organizations, some unique to Jefferson County.

Each of these boards set policy for complex and highly specialized services. Most are highly regulated by and receive money from the state and federal governments. The boards often meet monthly and usually have a wide diversity of membership.

Executive Duties
The board of commissioners not only sets policy but is also responsible for its implementation. Commissioners are the chief executives of the county organization. The executive role of a commissioner varies greatly from county to county. The role may be determined by prior executive experience, or it might be tailored to the particular circumstances in the county. It may be defined by the existing commissioners or by historical tradition.

Hiring and Supervising Management Staff
The Commissioners havea role in hiring and supervising the management staff. Who you hire and how they perform reflects directly on the performance of the board.

Other Executive Duties
Other executive duties of the commissioners may vary greatly. They may include negotiating contracts with vendors, interviewing and selecting consultants or managing construction projects. A commissioner’s executive and administrative responsibilities are very time consuming, and consequently, boards of commissioners should seriously consider hiring professional staff for managing the day-to-day affairs of the county.