A Marketers Guide to Understanding Local Governments

Power Almanac blog readers and clients that have been working with local governments for years – and have already found your key decision makers – you can probably skip this article.

But if you’re new to local government marketing, we thought it might be helpful to provide a brief overview of local governments to help you decipher the complex array of entity types with the end goal of helping marketers prioritize and focus their efforts.

This article will NOT be documenting all the countless laws behind the formation of these entities, their history, naming conventions, fund raising and spending procedures, etc. To do so would take a long and boring book, perhaps of interest to academics, but not marketers.

If the system seems confusing, it is not your imagination. According to the National League of Cities, the United States has one of the most complex systems of local government laws in the world.
This report has four sections:

  • Introduction to the five basic types of local government entities
  • For each type
    • Its prevalence
    • Typical areas of responsibility
  • How to find and reach decisions makers
    Introduction to the Five Types

Local government refers to all governmental jurisdictions below the level of state.  Broadly speaking, there are five types of local governments that are in two critically different categories, as follows:

  • General purpose
    • County
    • Municipality
    • Township
  • Special purpose
    • Special district
    • School district

General purpose governments provide a diverse range of services to citizens under their jurisdictions and levy a wide array of taxes and fees to fund those services.  In this category are counties, municipalities and townships.


Counties are the highest level of government below the state.  Generally included in this category are a variety of “county-equivalents”, “parishes” in Louisiana and “boroughs” in Alaska.  The US territories also have county equivalents called by a variety of names (e.g. municipalities, districts, islands and atolls).

Municipalities and Townships

Municipalities and Townships are quite similar in their function and are generally subordinate to county authority.  Municipal governments have a variety of names, including municipalities, cities, villages, boroughs and sometimes (confusingly) towns.  Townships, technically “civil townships”, may be referred to as either towns or townships.

From a marketing standpoint, perhaps the most important difference between the various categories of municipalities is size.  Cities are, on average, 3-4 times larger than towns, villages and boroughs.  A Power Almanac analysis of the 21,000 US sub-county entities with populations exceeding 1,000 people found the following average populations:

If one were to include ALL such entities in the US, including the 18,000 with populations less than 1,000, the averages would drop considerably. By comparison, the average county has a population of about 98,000.

While municipalities and townships of all names are much smaller than counties, their sheer numbers – and the fact that many are neglected by most marketers – make them attractive opportunities for local government marketers.

County – Municipality Hybrids

There are a small number of entities that have elements of both municipalities and counties:

  • Consolidated city-counties, entities that are simultaneously a city and a county (to varying degrees). By some estimates, there are approximately 40 of these nationwide, but the exact count depends on subjective definitions, with prominent examples such as San Francisco, Philadelphia and Denver. A representative list is provided on Wikipedia here.
  • Independent cities , cities that legally are not in the territory of any county, and as such tend to assume the authority normally granted at the county level. There are 41 of these cities (by some estimates), 38 of which are in Virginia. Baltimore and St. Louis are also generally classified in this category.

Special Purpose

Special districts, as defined by the U.S. Census, are local entities “authorized by state law to provide only one or a limited number of designated functions, and with sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate governments; known by a variety of titles, including districts, authorities, boards, and commissions.

Some of the most common categories are summarize here:

  • Transportation related
  • Utilities
  • Land & resource management

Confusingly, organizations with a similar designated function might be a Special District government in one place, and a department within a Municipal or County government somewhere else. For example, there are independent “Water Districts” that are Special District governments managing water supply for a certain geographic area, and there are also many water supply utilities that are “departments” within a municipal government (i.e. the department is not independent; it reports to the municipal officials).

School districts are, of course, focused on delivering educational services, generally at the K-12 levels. There are two important types:

  • Independent school districts, which have sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate, special purpose governments. They operate similar to cities. More than 80 percent are governed by a nonpartisan elected (and/or appointed) board.
  • Dependent school systems, on the other hand, are not counted as separate governments, but rather operate under the control of other local or state government entities.

Most school districts (about 80%) are independent, and therefore qualify as a local government.

Prevalence of Entity Types

The US Census Bureau estimates that there are more than 90,000 local government entities in total, as summarized in the chart below.

The largest category is special districts, with almost twice as many (38,542) as municipal governments (19,495). There are 16,253 civil townships, 12,754 school districts and only 3,031 counties.

The number of local governments in total and by type varies dramatically by state.   Many states in the Midwest for example, have several thousand, while others only have a few hundred (and Hawaii just 21).  For the total by type in each state, see the first Appendix.

Typical Areas of Responsibility

Counties (& Equivalents)

The power and responsibilities of counties varies widely among the states.

Counties in New England tend to have minimal power and budgets, providing at most judicial court districts and sheriff’s departments.  Rhode Island and Connecticut have abolished county governments completely except for administrative and statistical purposes, as has Massachusetts for 8 of its 14 counties.  In New Hampshire, many social programs are administered at the state level.

In the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, by contrast, counties have a moderate level of power.  They typically provide, at a minimum, courts, public utilities, libraries, hospitals, public health services, parks, roads, law enforcement, and jails.  County officials in such states generally include a registrar or clerk, coroner/medical examiner, treasurer, assessor, auditor, comptroller, and district attorney.   In many states, counties control all the unincorporated lands within its borders, although townships tend to control these in states that have them.

In western and southern states, heavily populated counties tend to have the greatest power, often providing much of the following:

  • Facilities, such as airports, convention centers, museums, harbors, clinics and public housing.
  • Services, such as those child and family, elder, mental health, veterans’ assistance, environmental and food safety.
  • Fire & police departments.

Responsibility for law enforcement and courts varies greatly and unpredictably nationwide between state, county and city level governments.

Municipal Governments & Townships

As with counties, the authority of municipalities and townships varies greatly throughout the country.  According to National League of Cities, the primary differences between them is not in the functions they provide, but rather their population size.

The most common governmental responsibilities of these entities include oversight of such things as police and fire protection, road maintenance, land-use planning, and trash collection.  In some cases, they also run local libraries, senior citizen services, youth services, disabled citizen services, emergency assistance, and even cemetery services.

Special Districts

Special district responsibilities are narrowly focused on a single or set of related services, typically defined at the time of their formation.  They often have considerable authority to raise funds to fund these services, via property taxes, service charges, grants, sharing of taxes with other areas, or by levying special assessments or taxes.

The primary categories of functions provided include:

Mass transit
Parking facilities
Sea and inland port facilities
UtilitiesElectric power
Gas supply
Solid waste management
Water supply
EnvironmentalNatural resources
Parks and recreation
EducationEducation (general)
Health CareHealth
Public SafetyCorrections
Fire protection
Mortgage credit

School Districts

As one would expect, school districts are narrowly focused primarily on providing K-12 educational services for their defined geographic areas, sometimes entirely within the boundaries of municipalities or counties, and in other cases crossing over such boundaries.  Charter schools may or may not be within the scope of school district authority, depending on whether they are public charters or not, and many other factors.  School districts have authority to raise funds via taxation and acquire land and property via eminent domain. 

How to Find and Reach Decisions Makers

For the sales and marketing professional, this is where the rubber meets the road.  Finding and reaching decision makes in local governments is more challenging with state government or commercial enterprises due to several key factors:

  •  Limited/ lagging use of technology, such as websites, online staff directories, LinkedIn, etc.
  • When online staff directories are available, omission of key people or contact information, especially email addresses, and failure to update posted information on a timely basis
  • Organizational structures that vary dramatically from entity to entity
  • Confusing job titles often barely indicative of roles and responsibilities
  • Regular turnover among staff
  • Neglect of local government by traditional sales and marketing list providers

To tackle this problem, marketers typically resort to one or more of the following methods:

  •  Looking up or scraping contact information from entity websites (when available)
  • Buying lists from state-wide or function specific associations
  • Buying lists from conference organizers
  • Using email lookup tools and software
  • Subscribing to RFP or other opportunity notification services, which may include limited contact information
  • Attracting inbound calls via content marketing, search engine optimization, PPC advertising, etc.
  • Cold calling
  • Purchasing contact information from list vendors.

Naturally we’re biased, but we believe the last approach is the most cost and time effective for most marketers.  When evaluating a list vendor for local government officials, the following factors should be considered: 

  • Expertise about local governments
  • The number of local government entities included
  • The number and type of decision makers for each entity
  • The method for determining functional responsibilities
  • The procedures for obtaining and verifying contact information (beware of web monitoring/scraping)
  • For what percentage of contacts is email address provided
  • How frequently the information is updated.

We encourage all local government marketers to compare Power Almanac to other list providers on these and other suitable list evaluation metrics.  We are confident that marketers serious about growing their local government business will choose Power Almanac every time.


The following table summarizes the number of entity type by state, according to 2017 census data.

General PurposeSpecial Purpose
Indep. School DistrictsSpecial DistrictsSpecial
Total: All Local Govts
Alaska15149 –1641515179
Arizona 1591 106242310552658
District of Columbia1010112
Hawaii 3 1 4 17 17 21
Idaho 44 200 244 118 808 926 1,170
Illinois 102 1,297 1,429 2,828 886 3,204 4,090 6,918
Indiana 91 567 1,004 1,662 289 687 976 2,638
Iowa 99 943 1,042 348 551 899 1,941
Kansas 103 625 1,265 1,993 306 1,493 1,799 3,792
Kentucky 118 417 535 173 614 787 1,322
Louisiana 60 304 364 69 83 152 516
Maine 16 23 465 504 98 232 330 834
Maryland 23 157 180 164 164 344
Massachusetts 5 53 298 356 85 417 502 858
Michigan 83 533 1,240 1,856 571 436 1,007 2,863
Minnesota 87 853 1,780 2,720 333 590 923 3,643
Mississippi 82 298 380 157 432 589 969
Missouri 114 944 283 1,341 530 1,897 2,427 3,768
Montana 54 129 183 313 730 1,043 1,226
Nebraska 93 529 366 988 269 1,281 1,550 2,538
Nevada 16 19 35 17 137 154 189
New Hampshire 10 13 221 244 168 129 297 541
New Jersey 21 324 241 586 519 233 752 1,338
New Mexico 33 105 138 96 779 875 1,013
New York 57 601 929 1,587 678 1,185 1,863 3,450
North Carolina 100 552 652 318 318 970
North Dakota 53 357 1,308 1,718 179 767 946 2,664
Ohio 88 931 1,308 2,327 666 904 1,570 3,897
Oklahoma 77 590 667 542 621 1,163 1,830
Oregon 36 240 276 230 1,004 1,234 1,510
Pennsylvania 66 1,013 1,546 2,625 514 1,691 2,205 4,830
Rhode Island 8 31 39 4 86 90 129
South Carolina 46 270 316 81 274 355 671
South Dakota 66 311 902 1,279 150 487 637 1,916
Tennessee 92 345 437 14 455 469 906
Texas 254 1,218 1,472 1,073 2,798 3,871 5,343
Utah 29 250 279 41 299 340 619
Vermont 14 42 237 293 277 159 436 729
Virginia 95 228 323 1 193 194 517
Washington 39 281 320 295 1,285 1,580 1,900
West Virginia 55 232 287 55 309 364 651
Wisconsin 72 601 1,251 1,924 438 734 1,172 3,096
Wyoming 23 99 122 55 617 672 794
Total 3,031 19,495 16,253 38,779 12,754 38,542 51,296 90,075

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