Local Goverment 101 - Basics of Local Government

Who Decides?

How local governments are organized and who has decision-making authority varies across North Carolina. All North Carolinians live in a county, and while more reside in municipalities, the overwhelming majority of counties remain rural.  The majority of the population living within 80 of our 100 counties reside in unincorporated areas. The table below outlines the functions of North Carolina’s cities and counties.

Municipal Government

All municipalities in North Carolina are governed by an elected board called a City or Town Council, a Board of Commissioners or Board of Aldermen. The municipal charter determines the number of members, method of election and whether they represent district or at-large seats. The governing body has the following responsibilities and authorities:

  • Approves the budget annually and authorizes annual transfers of funds to other local government entities as allowed by statute, such as to School Boards.
  • Sets rules and policies governing the administration of public services.
  • Sets property tax rates and issues bonds.

The municipal charter also establishes how the government is organized. According to the North Carolina League of Municipalities, municipal governments may take the following forms.

County Government

At the county level, a board of county commissioners is elected and has the following responsibilities and authorities:

  • Sets county policy
  • Sets county property tax rates
  • Adopts the budget for the county each year

The county can appoint a county manager or administrator to oversee day-to-day operations.

How Do Local Governments Interact?

Local governments work together to deliver public services. The connections between local government entities take different forms including: shared decision-making, transfer of funding and pursuit of joint use or delivery of public services.


Decision Making

In the majority of North Carolina school districts, local school boards are an example of shared decision-making between a county and municipalities. Some regional entities also exist, particularly those that have been established through local initiatives with support of non-governmental entities.


The largest source of shared revenue across a county and municipalities within its borders is local sales tax. Revenue collected through occupancy tax at the county level also sometimes shared with municipalities for tourism-related expenditures, such as construction of performing arts centers or to promote tourism. Federal funds are often distributed by the state to county agencies that may use them to deliver services through municipalities.


While the delivery of public services is the designated responsibility of a specific local government entity, there is some overlapping authority. Joint delivery agreements exist to ensure adequate support and efficient delivery of public services. For example, several counties have joined together to form a purchasing cooperative to support child nutrition. In some counties, emergency response management is shared across county and municipalities through shared service agreements.

How Do Policies Get Implemented?

The county and municipal budgets are tools to expand early childhood investments in your community. In addition, there are other local policy levers available. Budgets and legislative acts are referred to as ordinances when enacted by local governments.

Budget Ordinance

The Budget Ordinance is prepared by the Budget Officer to establish spending priorities and revenue collection anticipated by a local government entity. The Budget Ordinance is then implemented under the coordination of a Budget Officer and Finance Officer and with the support of local agency leadership.

Local Policy

This is rule of conduct passed by a local governing body to establish local laws. These extend beyond policymaking areas with a fiscal impact and can include regulations seeking to curb or incentivize certain behaviors (such as a noise ordinance).


Resolutions are non-binding statements adopted by local governments that can serve to promote or seek action on an issue by the appropriate decision-makers. For example, resolutions by local government entities have been used to recognize an important person or date in the community’s history or call on state policymakers to enact legislation. 

Internal Administration Practice

For administration of programs and services, there is some capacity for developing manuals of practice and procedure within agencies or for specific functions. While most rules are set by federal and state legislation to govern the administration of education and social service programs, there remain areas of rule-making of local government. In the process of designing rules, there are often opportunities for input at public meetings or written comments.

Motions or Orders

These are generally defined as the process by which a local government entity makes their decisions known.