January 30, 1998 98-R-0086
FROM: Judy A. Watson, Legislative Fellow
RE: County Government Abolishment
You asked for reasons why county governments were abolished in Connecticut; a description of their organization; what functions the counties performed when a viable form of government; what taxes, if any, the counties imposed; and how many persons were employed when county government was abolished.
The state legislature exercised much control over the county governments that, in effect, curtailed their power. The state legislature had the authority to re-configure county government's structure, control, and powers and the legislature changed county government frequently. County government, had an appointed three-member board of commissioners with little authority and an elected sheriff (a portion which still exists). They did not have the direct authority to tax except for an annual levy for towns within county boundaries. Eventually, county government functions were transferred to newly-created state agencies until almost no county government functions remained. County government was formally abolished by Public Act 152 during the 1959 legislative session for a variety of reasons most notably their ineffectiveness.
Connecticut county governments were granted only executive authority. No chief executive authority existed; instead, the administrative authority was divided between an appointed three-member board of commissioners and an elected sheriff. The commissioners had no exclusive authority over any single activity. The state legislature appointed the county officials and enacted
county budgets. County operational revenues were generated through a variety of mechanisms including but not limited to: a county tax for towns within the county's jurisdiction, payments from towns for jail inmates, and a share in the state's unincorporated business tax.
The county governments oversaw several functions which could be expanded, deleted or changed at will by the state legislature, which occurred often throughout county government's 294-year history. The functions of county government at its height of power were to:
1. operate homes for neglected and abandoned children,
2. administer widow's aid,
3. grant liquor licenses and collect fees,
4. build bridges over waterways separating towns,
5. construct and maintain roads located within the county
6. supervise bicycle paths,
7. provide Connecticut Bar Association law library quarters,
8. contribute agricultural extension services funds, and
9. oversee county court operations.
Most of the above functions were gradually transferred from county government authority and delegated to newly-created state agencies. For example, the authority to grant liquor licenses was first abolished when Prohibition occurred. When Prohibition was repealed under the Volstead Act, the state legislature created the current Liquor Control Commission, which took control of licensing and its fees.
When county governments were formally abolished on October 1, 1960, they only had one major source of authority left: jail keeping. Other county government functions at that time were: (1) maintenance of state courthouse buildings; (2) inspection of weights and measures; (3) adjustment of road disputes; and, (4) administration of certain types of trust funds, such as cemetery trust funds. These remaining ministerial functions and property were taken over by the state and the relatively few county employees in existence were absorbed into state civil service positions.
The county governments had no direct taxing power; however, a county tax did exist by way of an annual levy upon the towns and cities located within each county.
County governments were legislatively abolished by Public Act 152 (Senate Bill 1182) during the 1959 Connecticut General Assembly legislative session. The reasons for abolishment varied in scope, however, the primary reason is that county government was never restructured from the eight counties established in 1785, even when labor, transportation and communication advances were apparent. As a result, county government gained the reputation of being ineffective. In addition, the formation of state and local governments in approximately 1634 had preceded the original formation of county governments by approximately 32 years and were already firmly entrenched as political and decision-making sources of authority. Because the state and local governments had historically wielded substantial authority within Connecticut, county governments never achieved the authority needed to gain a stronghold as a viable source of government.