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How Florida's Local Governments Operate

As you move through your local community, think about how much of what you see is provided by your local government. You will pass schools, police cars, fire stations, libraries, parks, hospitals, and other facilities that are maintained by government units. Florida's local governmental units fall into three major categories: counties, municipalities, and special districts.

County Government
If you look at a county map of Florida, you can see that it is divided into 67 counties of different sizes and shapes. Counties in Florida range in population and area from very small to very large. The smallest county is Union at 245 square miles. The largest county is Palm Beach at 2,578 square miles.

Florida's county governments were created by the state legislature as an arm of the state to provide state services at the local level. The 1968 Constitution made two important changes to the power and structure of county governments: It established home rule and it permitted counties to establish a county charter. The home rule power grants all counties the power of self-government. When a county becomes a home rule unit, its government becomes more powerful. The county charter gives charter counties broader home rule powers over local matters.

Florida's constitution sets forth the organization of county government. Each county's voters elect a sheriff, tax collector, property appraiser, supervisor of elections, and clerk of courts to four-year terms. A board of county commissioners elected to four-year terms governs every Florida county.

The Constitution identifies the responsibilities of the counties. These include law enforcement, tax collection, road maintenance, and public health. In some metropolitan areas, county governments perform some of the functions that cities once handled. For example, the government of Miami-Dade County administers transportation, water supply, and other services for the Miami area.

Organization of County Government

Municipal Government
Florida’s many municipalities—its cities, towns, and villages—were created by the people to serve the citizens’ needs. A municipal government is formed when a community creates a charter that allows the community to set up its own government and the state legislature passes a special act that permits the community to incorporate, or set up, a legal community. There are more than 400 municipalities in Florida today.

Florida’s municipal governments provide many services, including police and fire protections; parks and recreation; electricity, water, and sewer service; traffic control; and parks. The services provided vary from one local government to the next. In some counties, one or more cities provide most of the services. In other counties, county government is largely responsible for public services.

Every municipal charter provides for the form of government the community will have. The most common form of municipal government in Florida is the council-manager form. Under this form of government, legislative and executive powers are separated. The council makes policy for the municipality. A manager carries out the council’s policies. The council-manager form usually includes a mayor with limited powers.

Special Districts
Floridians sometimes face such problems as providing a safe water supply and adequate transportation. From time to time, to solve these problems, either the state legislature or local governments establish special districts that are better able to respond to specific problems than are other units of local government. The state legislature sometimes creates a special district for a specific purpose, to be provided in a certain area. Funded and governed by the legislature, these districts are called independent special districts. Examples of independent special districts include fire service, water management, and inland navigation. Florida's counties and cities may also create special districts. These are called dependent special districts. They receive their authority and funds from the local government. There were more than 1,100 special districts in Florida in 2003.

Other Units of Government
Each county is a school district. District officials are in charge of providing public education for local students from kindergarten through grade 12. The State Board of Education coordinates public education for the 67 school districts and makes policy regarding public school operation, educational opportunities, and rules.

Other units of government in Florida include the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribe Special Improvement Districts. The Seminole and Miccosukee operate their own government according to the laws of the United States and based on their own constitution and laws. Therefore, federal, state, and tribal laws govern the affairs of each tribe.