Counties, Cities, Towns, Villages,
Hamlets, Special Districts,
& Postal Zones in New York State
A Confusing Picture but We Love It!
New York State is organized governmentally very much on the New England model in which the most important governing units are Towns (and Cities). Historically, counties have had the weaker governmental role.
The land area of New York State is divided into counties. There is no portion of the State that is not within a county.
A county is a municipal corporation, a subdivision of the state. It’s principal responsibilities in the 19th century and earlier included a civil and criminal court system (although Towns also had courts for “petty” crimes), the sheriff’s office (primarily concerned with maintaining the county’s jail, but with some law enforcement responsibilities — most towns, cities and villages had their own police departments), prosecutors (district attorney), registry of wills and deeds (county clerk), welfare (poor houses and orphanages), and some roads (most roads were the responsibility of the towns, villages and cities).
All counties are divided into cities, towns and Indian reservations. There is no portion of a county that is not in one of these three entities.
From the middle of the 20th century and earlier, all counties were administered by the towns (and cities) within their bounds. The county’s Board of Supervisors consisted of the supervisor (chief executive officer) of each town (or city) within its bounds. There was no chief county executive, and the county departments mostly reported directly to the Board of Supervisors or were semi-autonomous. As a result, the real political power within a county was with the towns. Since representation on a county’s Board of Supervisors was base on geography, not population, small towns (such as tiny Shelter Island in eastern Suffolk County) had the same representation as large towns (such as Brookhaven). By the late 20th century, the one-man one-vote principal was applied to all of New York State’s counties, and I believe all New York State counties are now governed by a legislature with legislators directly elected from equal population districts.
Over time, counties in the more urban areas of the State have come to be more like “regional” governments, taking on functions such as police protection and planning — traditional responsibilities of Towns. These responsibilities are not uniform throughout the State, however. For example, in Suffolk County, the county police department jurisdiction is only for the five western Towns; each eastern Town has it’s own police force. Most upstate counties have no county-wide police department except through the county Sheriff’s office, and I believe some still do not have a County Executive.
A city is a unique governmental entity with its own special charter. Cities are not sub-divided, except into neighborhoods, which are informal geographic areas. A city is not within a town, and has all the responsibilities of a town. In addition, a city may have additional responsibilities depending on it’s charter; for example, cities are usually responsible for the schools within its bounds, and for public safety functions such as police and fire protection.
Unlike many parts of the country, there are relatively few cities in New York State, and typically they are the larger population areas. Despite the density of population on Long Island, outside of New York City there are only two incorporated cities on Long Island — Glen Cove and Long Beach, both in Nassau County.
New York City is a special case, which I won’t go into much detail. The City actually encompasses five counties — New York (Manhattan), Kings (Brooklyn), Queens, Bronx, and Richmond (Staten Island). These counties also define the city’s boroughs. Some few county functions continue — such as each county/borough has it’s own elected district attorney — but for the most part the City has subsumed the traditional role of a county. The area now covered by New York City originally had Towns, but these were eliminated as the City expanded. Many of the old Town names survive as neighborhood names. New York State laws often have a wonderful phrase in legislation that applies to cities — “except in cities of more than one-million in population” the following applies …. Of course, the only city fitting this definition is New York City. Why they don’t just say “except in New York City” is only understandable to lawyers.