Counties

Massachusetts County Government

Massachusetts has 14 counties, all of which were founded as regional administrative districts before the Revolutionary War. Over time the counties administered jails, health facilities, agricultural schools, registries of deeds and probate, county courthouses, county roads and extension services. The counties were funded by local communities and the Commonwealth.

In recent years, there was criticism of county government as wasteful and inefficient. There were recommendations to abolish all county governments and transfer most of their functions to state agencies and their assets (land and buildings) to the Commonwealth.

In 1997, the county governments of Franklin and Middlesex were abolished, followed by Hampden and Worcester in 1998, Hampshire, Essex and Suffolk in 1999, and Berkshire in 2000. Six counties–Barnstable, Bristol, Dukes, Nantucket, Norfolk and Plymouth–still have county governments.

The abolished counties still exist as geographical/political regions; it is only their governments that were abolished.  The functions of abolished county governments were turned over to state agencies. Their Registries of Deeds were transferred to the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Commonwealth and sheriffs and jails to the Office of Public Safety.  Sheriffs in these counties still administer jails, but their employees are state employees.

Even in county political districts where county government has been abolished, registers of deeds and probate, sheriffs, and district attorneys are still elected. In counties that have not been abolished or restructured, county commissioners and treasurers are also still elected.

Home rule legislation allows officials or voters in a county to establish a regional charter commission to study the county’s government. The commission can submit one of three model charters for approval of voters in that county at a statewide election or it can submit a special charter which must first be approved by the state legislature.

Cities and towns may choose a Regional Council of Government charter which will be binding on those communities where a majority of voters in a city or town approve it. The regional council of governments can provide a variety of services to cities and towns, such as planning, public safety, engineering, water and waste disposal, and many other services. The participating communities pay assessments based on local property evaluation.

Massachusetts counties and their cities and towns