West Virginia is one of the most rural states, and West Virginians think of their counties as home in the way urban Americans think of their cities or neighborhoods. County government provides the basic level of government service for most of us. Three-member elected county commissions govern 54 of the 55 counties, while an elected five-member commission governs Jefferson County. England, from which America got the foundation for its governmental structure, at an early date developed shires (now called counties) as administrative subdivisions to govern its rural areas. Virginia adopted the English county system from its early colonial period. West Virginia, after briefly experimenting with the New England township system under the original 1863 state constitution, reaffirmed the Virginia model in the constitution of 1872, which is still in force.
West Virginia county commissions combine administrative, legislative, and minor judicial functions in the one body, so the principle of separation of powers does not prevail. The major functions served by county commissions are to provide general governmental services, such as police and fire protection, health and welfare services, culture and recreation, social services, and education. The main revenue source is the real property tax. Others are the personal property tax, natural resource severance taxes, user fees, and the hotel occupancy tax.
Until November 5, 1974, West Virginia counties were governed by so-called county courts. On that date, voters ratified the Judicial Reorganization Amendment. This amendment to the state constitution moved sections pertaining to county commissions from the part of the constitution dealing with the judiciary to another article dealing with counties. The amendment changed the name ‘‘county court’’ to ‘‘county commission’’ because the governing bodies of counties were not courts, but rather administrative governing bodies. By force of habit, many West Virginians still refer to their county government as the county court.
In addition to the county commissioners, each county has a number of other elected officials. The sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer and also responsible for collecting taxes levied by the county. The prosecuting attorney is the chief legal officer of the county and prosecutes both civil and criminal cases on behalf of the public, is responsible for providing legal advice to county agencies, and represents the state in certain legal matters. The clerk of the circuit court carries out administrative functions for the circuit court system, including maintaining records and various duties with regard to juries, and serves as an election officer to prepare ballots for elections and conduct absentee voting. The county clerk is the chief record keeper for the county commission, maintains vital statistics, records land transactions and wills, and serves as the chief voter registration official for the county. The assessor sets values for real and personal property for purposes of taxation and maintains records pertaining to those values.
This Article was written by Donald R. Andrews
Last Revised on July 24, 2012