County Government in Utah
County government first came to Utah with the Mormon pioneers, shortly following their arrival in the state in 1847. In 1849, five counties in what was then the Territory of Deseret were incorporated: Great Salt Lake, Sanpete, Tooele, Utah, and Weber.
Interestingly, the Utah State Division of Archives does not treat these five counties as having been created until 1852, when the territorial legislature first met and adopted territorial laws recognizing counties. At that time five more counties were included: Davis, Iron, Juab, Millard, and Washington. Utah’s youngest county is Daggett, incorporated in 1919.
Over the years several counties have been created in Utah only to become obsolete in later years. As the original territory of Deseret included much of the current state of Nevada, the counties of Carson, Humboldt, Rio Virgin, and St. Mary’s (all incorporated in the mid-1850s) became Nevada counties. For those who think that “Tooele” is a difficult enough county name, be aware that included within its current borders was the original county of “Shambip,” incorporated in 1856 and dissolved in 1862.
Structurally, counties have remained much the same since their creation. However, there have been some important changes that are worth noting.
In 1896, there were 15 county classifications, based on valuations. A first class county had to have property tax valuations of at least $20 million, while a 15th class county was one with valuations of less than $300.
Somewhere along the way the number of classifications was reduced to 14, until 1945 when they were drastically reduced to just five. In 1953 that number was again modified to our present number of six classifications, still based on valuations.
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the Legislature decided that valuations were not the best factor in classifying counties and changed the code to establish population as the better number.
County Legal Status
Until 1972, counties (along with cities and towns and other local government authorities) were recognized in the Utah Constitution (Article XI) as “legal subdivisions” of the State and as such subject to a uniform system of governance established by the Legislature.
However, the differences in area, population, and wealth had become contrasting enough that the Legislature had agreed to allow for more local control over how a county was organized.
So in 1972 the Legislature amended the State Constitution (Section 4 of Article XI) to read that the Legislature was obligated to “prescribe” optional forms of government that “best served” the needs of counties. This opened the door for counties to eventually change forms of government from the long-held commission form to the council form and other variations that exist in six counties (Cache, Grand, Morgan, Salt Lake, Summit, and Wasatch) today. However, counties are limited to those alternate forms of government established by the Legislature.
Also in that year the State Constitution was amended, at Section 26 of Article VI, to permit the Legislature to enact different laws based on different county classes.Prior to 1972, what was good for one county was good for all counties. But, under the amendment, the Legislature can enact laws based on county classifications. For example, in 1993 the Legislature allowed for the creation of a new tax called ZAP (Zoo, Arts, and Parks) for first class counties only (in this case Salt Lake County). This cleared the way for a ballot measure that the citizens voted on and passed.
Boundaries, Class, and County Seat
Under state law, counties are divided into classes based on population. First class counties have a population of over 700,000; Salt Lake County is the only such county in Utah. Second class counties have populations between 125,000 and 700,000. This includes Utah, Davis, Weber, and Washington counties. Third class counties have populations between 31,000 and 125,000, including Cache, Tooele, Box Elder, Iron, and Summit. Fourth class counties have populations between 12,000 and 31,000; they include the counties of Uintah, Sanpete, Wasatch, Sevier, Carbon, Duchesne, San Juan and Millard. Fifth class counties have populations between 4,000 and 12,000 and include Emery, Juab, Grand, Morgan, Beaver, Kane, and Garfield. Lastly, sixth class counties are those with populations less than 4,000, and include Wayne, Rich, Piute, and Daggett. The class of a county may change, obviously, based on population growth. The Lieutenant Governor’s office is charged with monitoring county populations based on the US decennial census. Whenever a county’s population moves up from one class to another, the Lieutenant Governor’s office prepares a certificate indicating a change in county class.
Utah county boundaries were originally determined by the Utah Legislature; now, an official directory of county boundaries is maintained by the Lieutenant Governor’s office. Any change in county boundaries or disagreement between counties as to actual boundaries is governed by state statute. A disputed boundary is resolved by the agreement of the two counties’ surveyors; if those two individuals cannot agree on the true location of the county boundary, the matter is referred to an independent surveyor and to the State Engineer for final determination. Minor adjustment of county boundaries may be necessary in circumstances in which individual properties are bisected by a county boundary (residential properties bisected by a county boundary create special problems). Minor adjustments of up to 1,000 feet in either direction may be made by a joint resolution of the two counties’ legislative bodies following a joint public hearing on the proposed boundary adjustment. Substantial changes in boundaries, including annexation of parts of a county by its neighbor, are permitted only after a general election process in which the voters of both counties decide the matter.
Each county in Utah is required to designate a municipality as its “county seat.” In counties with populations greater than 8,000, the elected county officers are required to maintain their offices in the designated county seat. Many counties, of course, also maintain other subsidiary offices or shops in other locations throughout the county. A county seat can be changed to a different municipality through a petition and election process. The petition must be signed by a majority of registered voters in the county and the election requires a majority of votes in favor of the change.