Washington State History Lessons

Lesson 5: Washington – Local Governments

Local governments are units of government within each of our 50 states.  Local governments include county, city, and town governments.  The U.S Constitution does not mention local governments.  Instead, each state has the right to decide how to create local governments.  The limits and duties of local governments are defined by each state.

Local governments are very important in our daily lives because some of the basic services are provided by local governments.  These services include:

  • Water and sewage treatment
  • Police protection
  • Fire and emergency services
  • Schools
  • Airports
  • Street and road maintenance
  • Supervision of state and local elections
  • Health Services

Washington state is divided into 39 counties, and each of these counties has a government structure.  Each county has an Executive Branch led by a County Executive, a Legislative Branch called a County Council, and a County Judicial or Court system.  Each county has many towns or cities, and each incorporated town or city also has a government structure.  City governments have an Executive Branch led by a Mayor or City Manager, a Legislative Branch called a City Council, and a Judicial Branch which is usually called Municipal Court.

We live in Whatcom County which was established in 1854.  Whatcom County provides sheriff services to areas outside of city limits, makes sure that local health and safety regulations are carried out, runs the county jail system, repairs county roads, and maintains the county park system.

Each incorporated city in Whatcom County – Bellingham, Blaine, Everson, Ferndale, Lynden, Nooksack, and Sumas – has its own government functions providing police protection, water and sewage treatment, parks, street maintenance, and fire and emergency services.

County and city governments receive the majority of funding from property taxes, local business taxes, and various fees and legal fines.  So, in good economic times, local governments have more revenue to provide services.  In poor economic times, revenues are lower and services are sometimes cut.

Since local government impacts our daily lives, it is important to keep informed of city and county issues and to voice your opinions as a resident of your city and county.  Whatcom County and each of the incorporated cities have web sites that provide good overviews of government services and community goals.

View this chart of all the counties in Washington State and scan information about each of them.

Current Problems Facing Local Governments

Homelessness and a shortage of mental health services are 2 major problems facing communities throughout the state of Washington.   Please read more about these problems:


  • Civics:  Citizens in Action, Merrill Publishing, 1990
  • Civics Today:  Citizenship, Economics, and You, Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2003
  • The Fourth Corner – Highlights from the Early Northwest, Lelah Jackson Edson, 1968, Whatcom Museum of History and Art


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Washington State History (Transitional Learning) by Whatcom Community College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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