The Role and Powers of County Government – Part 4

October 17, 2013  

By Travis County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Dougherty

This is the final in a series of articles about the role and powers of your County Government. I’m doing this as an effort to enlighten you about what we as your Commissioners Court are mandated to do, what we’re allowed to do if we choose, and what we cannot do because we don’t have the authority to do so.

We’ve learned that counties are local subdivisions of the state created by the state to administer state law, that we have only those authorities granted to us by the state legislature and the state constitution, and that we have very limited rights for local self-government. Last time I talked about two of the most important mandated powers of your Commissioners Court….setting the County’s property tax rate and approving the County’ budget. I also talked about my role in that process this year, as one of the five members of your Travis County Commissioners Court.

Now let’s look at more specifics regarding these words: MANDATED…. ALLOWED…. CANNOT. That last word is the simplest to cover. If the State Constitution or state law does not specifically say the Commissioners Court SHALL (mandated), or MAY (allowed), then we CANNOT. That’s why we have staff County attorneys who explain the intricacies of the law to help inform us what we as a Commissioners Court shall, may, and cannot do.

To give you an idea of where we look to find our authority, and why it can be very complicated in determining the limits of our authority, here’s a partial list of all the different statutes we must consult:

The State Constitution… Local Government Code… Government Code… Vernon’s Revised Civil Statutes… Transportation Code… Health & Safety Code… Parks & Wildlife Code… Agriculture Code… Election Code… Civil Practice and Remedies Code… Natural Resources Code… Code of Criminal Procedure… Tax Code… Property Code… Water Code… Occupations Code… Education Code… Texas Family Code.

The most important of these is the Texas State Constitution. It grants fourteen specific powers to the Commissioners Court, and can only be changed by a constitutional amendment approved by the people of Texas. Probably the most known and important power of these fourteen is “set the rate of taxation on property”. Other familiar powers are “redistrict the Commissioners precincts” and “set salaries of county officials”. Here’s an interesting Constitutional power we have: “establish and operate a county poor farm for taking care of, managing, employing and supplying the wants of its indigent and poor inhabitants”. Did you know that Travis County did have a poor farm from 1887 to 1908? It was located in the area now bordered by Mopac, Burnet Rd, & West Anderson Ln.

In addition to the State Constitution, the list above shows the locations of statutory powers and duties granted to the Commissioners Court by the State Legislature over the years. Probably the most important statute is second on that list…the Local Government Code. That code is referenced on every duty and responsibility we have, while all the other codes are interspersed among those many duties and responsibilities.

These statutory powers are all restrictive in nature, saying either “shall” or “may”. If we want any additional powers, we can only gain them by a constitutional amendment, or by an act of the State Legislature. That’s why we have to go to the State Legislature if we want more authority in areas we presently don’t have. But we also have to be aware of any proposed bill that would add to our authority and duties, especially if it’s a mandated (shall) duty for which the Legislature provides no funding… ie those infamous “unfunded mandates” that would require us to raise taxes to pay for that function.

Some of those statutory powers you’re familiar with are: “building and maintenance of public roads”, “issue bonds to finance functions authorized by legislation”, “conduct and pay for county elections”, and that very important power… “approve the county budget”. Other familiar powers are “regulatory responsibility” (subdivision plats & development)… “public health and welfare” (social services, parks & recreation)… “judicial responsibilities” (jails, criminal justice).

The best place for you to find detailed information on the role and powers of your Commissioners Court is to go to the Texas Association of Counties website www.county.org and find THE GUIDE TO LAWS FOR COUNTY OFFICIALS. This 171 page document is our go-to reference source that outlines all the statutes we must follow. As the governing body for Travis County, your Commissioners Court must constantly be aware of the powers and authority we do have as we make decisions on items that come before us every Tuesday during our weekly voting session.


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