Modernizing County Government Needed to Allow Local Officials to Address Challenges

Preliminary reports from the 2020 census confirm that Tulsa County’s population will exceed 650,000. What may go overlooked in the report is that even though Tulsa County has 10 incorporated cities, over 35,000 citizens live in the unincorporated areas of Tulsa County. That means the unincorporated areas of the county have more population than 44 of the 77 Oklahoma counties and more than seven of the 10 cities in the county.
Citizens choose to live in the unincorporated areas of the county for many reasons. Even though they choose to live outside of a city doesn’t mean they don’t expect some of the same benefits and services as those who live within a city. For those citizens it falls to the county government to provide those services and to respond to their concerns and requests.
In Oklahoma, since statehood, counties have been unable to provide services to the citizens in the unincorporated areas in the same manner as the services provided to those who choose to live within a city in the county. This could be in the areas of disaster response, storm water management, public safety, code enforcement, road and bridge improvements, trash and environmental issues, fire code protection, and many others.
Citizens who live in these unincorporated areas have a right to expect similar services from their county government. Many citizens are unaware that county government is very limited in its ability to address these and other issues.
The reason counties cannot respond and serve those citizens is that counties do not have the authority to adopt regulations, codes, and ordinances like cities have. Cities, through their Councils, Mayors, or City Managers can address quality of life issues. Counties cannot.
Like cities, counties also have the responsibility to provide these services efficiently to taxpayers of Tulsa County. Doing so is a priority of the Board of County Commissioners. Unfortunately, current law prohibits counties from doing even mundane task without asking the legislature for ordinance or rule making authority. Counties have to ask the Legislature for permission to start programs, improve services, manage county personnel, or take any steps to modernize county government.
Most Legislators believe there are many legislative request from counties to make productive changes that should come from those closest to the problem which is the counties, not the states, responsibility.
Having to go through the Legislature for issues which have no impact or benefit to the state government takes a great deal of time from members of the Legislature and their staff. Time which would be better spent focusing on issues of state importance.
It is time that counties were on the same plane as cities by having the ability to provide what is needed for a modern and responsive county government. While this will be new for Oklahoma, our neighboring states of Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, and Kansas currently allow county leaders to govern, not just manage, county affairs.
The pathway to modernizing county government is for the Legislature to allow counties the opportunity to address those areas where the elected Board of County Commissioners can fulfill the duties and responsibilities owed to the citizens they were elected to serve. This would be achieved by the Legislature passing the county modernization legislation allowing ordinance making authority.
To be clear, even with the passage of this legislation there would still be guardrails to limit the counties authority. This modernization would change the functions of county government, not the form of county government.
For example, counties could not approve something which state law prohibits, counties would still be obligated to follow all of the requirements under the authority of the State Auditor, and counties could not attempt to regulate a business or industry which is already under the regulatory control of a state entity. These are the guard rails which cities currently operate within. Counties would follow the same.
Like cities, these are the same areas where state legislation would be required and necessary to provide continuity and uniformity across county lines. In those cases counties would continue to work with state leaders to educate them on county needs.
Modernizing county government by allowing locally elected county officials to address local challenges and opportunities with local solutions is in the best interest of both the citizens in the county and the state. It’s time we provided our county leaders with the tools and opportunity to achieve the county government of the future in Oklahoma.