Although counties are not required by law to operate a parks and recreation department, many counties do as a service to their citizens. (Photo by Jason King)

There are two types of services that North Carolina counties provide. Some services are required by either federal or state law. These are called mandates. Examples of mandated services include provision of a register of deeds, Sheriff’s Department, public and mental health care, social services and school construction. Counties can also offer other services that are not required by law, but are asked for by the citizens. Examples of services that are not required are public libraries, water and sewer systems, and parks and recreation programs and facilities.

In most cases, state governments administer public assistance programs. North Carolina is one of a few states that have assigned this task to county governments. As a result, counties operate social services programs that are regulated by the state and federal governments – like food stamps or Medicaid.

County public health departments typically hold seasonal clinics to administer immunizations at a minimal cost to citizens considered to be at-risk for contagious disease. (NCACC file photo)

The federal and state governments decide who is eligible for these services, but the county must determine if individuals meet those requirements. The federal government provides most of the funding for these programs but only if the states or counties follow their strict guidelines. Some counties have established their own programs to offer additional help to citizens with emergencies or for those who do not meet requirements for federal or state assistance.

Counties operate public health departments, and – along with other counties – manage community mental health services. Health departments provide a safer living environment for citizens by removing hazards from the environment, educating citizens and providing immunizations to prevent the spread of illness, and providing healthcare for citizens who cannot afford to pay for it. Some of the state-mandated services that health departments provide are inspections of restaurants and hotels.

Counties are required to maintain and operate public health departments. (Photo by Jason King)

Counties are also responsible for inspecting new buildings, including residences, to ensure they are constructed to meet existing state codes.

Schools are a joint program of federal, state and county governments. Counties provide funding for all school systems, including city school systems. Each school system is governed by an elected board of education. This elected board follows guidelines established by the North Carolina Board of Education.

The state requires that counties build and maintain school buildings. The state pays teacher salaries, but teachers are hired by local school boards. Many school boards pay teachers a bonus or hire additional classroom personnel, such as teacher’s assistants, who are paid with county funds. Counties provide equipment, books and other supplies for the schools.

Counties build, maintain and operate jails as part of their role in the criminal justice system. (Henderson County Jail photo courtesy Chris Coulson)

Each county school board adopts a budget for its system, but this budget has to be approved by the board of county commissioners, which ultimately decides how much money the school system will receive.

In addition to schools, the state mandates that counties operate a jail and provide administrative office space for the state’s district and superior courts, even though the court system itself is now a function of state government. The Sheriff’s Department is responsible for operating the county jail and providing security at the courthouse.