In North Carolina, county government is the level of government that most directly impacts every citizen. All North Carolinians live in a county while slightly more than half the population lives within the limits of a city or town.

The Chowan County Courthouse, constructed in 1767, outdates the birth of the United States. It is the oldest government building in the state and the most intact colonial courthouse in the country. (Photo courtesy John Ed Whitehurst)

County governments were originally created by the state to give citizens greater access to government services. Because it was so difficult to travel in the 17th and 18th centuries, citizens could not reasonably be expected to come to the state capital every time they needed to conduct official business. As a result, the state created counties, and the governor appointed justices of the peace to oversee each county and carry out the mandated policies and services of state government.

After the Civil War, the North Carolina Constitution of 1868 gave citizens more input into electing their local leaders. Citizens were given the power to elect the sheriff, coroner, register of deeds, clerk of court, surveyor and treasurer, as well as the newly created board of commissioners. Commissioners replaced the appointed justices of the peace and were given full financial responsibility for the county, which included adopting the budget and setting the property tax rate.

Today, citizens still elect the commissioners, sheriff, register of deeds and clerk of court, although the court system is now a function of state government. Counties remain an arm of state government and carry out the many services that are mandated by the state and federal governments.

Counties exist to help enhance the lives of their citizens. County governments do this by providing needed services, such as public and mental healthcare, schools, libraries and support to senior citizens and children in need. Counties establish important local laws (ordinances) and enforce laws that protect citizens from harmful behavior. They also encourage citizens and businesses to get involved in their communities.