Political subdivisions of New York State

The definitions of the political subdivisions of the state of New York differ from those in certain other countries or even various other U.S. states, leading to misunderstandings regarding the governmental nature of an area. Some of the subordinate political divisions of New York have executive, legislative and judicial branches, as does the state government.

Whether a municipality is a city, town or village is not dependent on population or area, but on the form of government selected by the residents and approved by the state legislature. New York State considers counties, cities, towns and villages to be "municipal corporations" and "general purpose" units of local government.



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Map of the counties of New York State (click for larger version)

The county is the primary political subdivision of New York State. There are sixty-two counties in the state. Five of the counties are boroughs of New York City and do not have functioning county governments. Counties contain a number of towns and may also contain cities. Towns may contain villages and hamlets. Every county has a county seat, often a populous or centrally located city or village, where the county government is located. In some counties, a hamlet is the county seat.

Counties are responsible for certain functions of planning and governance for all areas within their borders that are not delegated to lower levels of government. These often include overall planning, police service, social welfare, and coordination of special and extended education service.

According to the State of New York Local Government Handbook, "The county is now a municipal corporation with geographical jurisdiction, homerule powers and fiscal capacity to provide a wide range of services to its residents. To some extent, counties have evolved into a form of 'regional' government that performs specified functions and which encompasses, but does not necessarily supersede, the jurisdiction of the cities, towns and villages within its borders."

Most counties of the State operate under the general provisions of the County Law. Nineteen counties, however, are "charter counties". Although all counties have a certain latitude to govern themselves, charter counties are afforded a greater amount of home rule powers.

A county is usually governed by a county executive and legislature. Also the counties have a county court with associated county prosecutors.

In some counties, the legislature is the Board of Supervisors, composed of town and city supervisors of its constituent towns and cities. In most of these counties, each supervisor's vote is weighted in accordance with the town's population in order to abide by the principal of "one person, one vote". Other counties, also in the interest of maintaining "one person, one vote", have legislative districts of equal population which may cross municipal borders. Some counties do not use the term "Board of Supervisors", but instead call their legislative body "Board of Representatives", "Board of Legislators," or "County Legislature".

In non-charter counties, the legislative body exercises executive power as well. Although the legislature can delegate certain functions and duties to a county administrator, who acts on behalf of the legislature, the legislature must maintain ultimate control over the actions of the administrator. Charter counties typically have an elected executive who is independent of the legislature.

See also: List of New York counties


In New York State, a city is a highly autonomous incorporated area within a county. It provides almost all services to its residents and has the highest degree of home rule and taxing jurisdiction over its residents. The main difference between a city and a village is that cities are organized and governed according to their charters, which can differ widely among cities, while villages are subject to a uniform statewide Village Law. Also, villages are part of a town (or towns), with residents who pay taxes to and receive services from the town. Cities (except for the City of Sherrill) are independent of towns. Some cities are completely surrounded by a town, typically of the same name. This arrangement should not lead to the misunderstanding that the city is somehow subordinate to or a part of the town.

There are sixty-two cities in the state. There are no minimum population or area requirements in order to become a city. In 1686, the English colonial governor granted New York City and Albany city charters, which were recognized by the first State Constitution in 1777. All other cities have been established by act of the state legislature and have been granted a charter. Cities have been granted the power to revise their charters or adopt new ones.

The forms of government cities can have are council-manager, strong mayor-council, weak mayor-council or commission. Forty-five cities, the majority, use the mayor-council form, in which the mayor is the executive and city council members form the legislature. In some of these cities, the mayor serves only a ceremonial role. Larger cities have city courts.

New York City is a special case. The city consists of the entire area of five counties. These counties retain a small amount of governance as boroughs. Under the state legislation that allowed the city (as the City of Greater New York) to annex huge areas beyond its original borders (including smaller cities, towns and villages) in 1898, the State of New York retains certain powers over the city.

Cities in New York State are classified by the Census Bureau as incorporated places and as county subdivision equivalents (except for New York City).

See also: List of cities in New York


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Map of the towns and cities of New York State, showing population density (click for larger version)

In New York State, a town is the major subdivision of each county. Towns provide or arrange for most municipal services for residents of hamlets and selected services for residents of villages. All residents of New York who do not live in a city or on an Indian reservation live in a town. As of the 2000 census, there are 932 towns in New York. Unlike villages, towns cannot cross county borders, since they are part of each county.

Towns lack an executive branch of government. The town board exercises both executive and legislative functions. The town supervisor presides over the board, but does not possess veto or tie-breaking power. The judicial branch is often a town justice of the peace.

A town can contain zero, one or multiple villages. Five towns are coterminous with their single village: Green Island in Albany County; East Rochester in Monroe County; and Scarsdale, Harrison and Mount Kisco in Westchester County.

Towns vary in size and population. The largest town (by area), the Town of Webb, covers 451.2 square miles (1,167 km²), and the smallest, the Town of Green Island, covers only 0.7 of a square mile (1.8 km²). The Town of Hempstead has about 756,000 people (2000 census), making it more populous than any city in the state except New York City. The Town of Montague, the least populous town, has fewer than 100 people (2000 census).

A town in New York State is often called a township in other states. Towns in New York State are classified by the Census Bureau as county subdivisions.

See also: List of towns in New York


In New York State, a village is an incorporated area which is usually, but not always, within a single town. A village is a clearly defined municipality that provides the services closest to the residents, such as garbage collection, street and highway maintenance, street lighting and building codes. Some villages provide their own police and other optional services. Villages have less autonomy than cities. Those municipal services not provided by the village are provided by the town(s) that contain(s) the village. As of the 2000 census, there are 553 villages in New York.

The legislature of a village is the board of trustees, composed of a mayor and (usually) four trustees. The mayor may vote in business before the board and may break a tie. The mayor generally does not posses veto power, unless provided by local law. The mayor is also the executive of the village. A village may also have a full-time village manager, who performs administrative duties which would normally fall upon the mayor. A village must have a municipal building or village hall. Villages may also have a village justice.

To be incorporated as a village, a territory (i.e., given area) must have at least 500 inhabitants and be no more than 5 square miles (13 km²) in area (though there are exceptions to the area rule, such as if an entire town wishes to incorporate as a village). The process of incorporation begins with a petition by either 20% of residents or owners of 50% of assessed real property. It is then voted upon by those living in the territory. Currently, some villages have less than a 500 person population due to loss of inhabitants.

Villages often cross other political boundaries. More than 70 villages are located in two or more towns. Seven villages are divided between two counties. The village of Saranac Lake is in three towns and two counties.

A village in New York State is often called a town in other states. Villages in New York State are classified by the Census Bureau as incorporated places.

See also: List of villages in New York


In New York State, a hamlet is a populated area within a town that is not part of a village. The term "hamlet" is not defined under New York law (unlike cities, towns and villages), but is often used in the state's statutes to refer to well-known populated sections of towns that are not incorporated as villages.

A hamlet has no legal status (except in the Adirondack Park Agency's land-use classifications) and depends upon the town that contains it for municipal services and government. A hamlet could be described as the rural or suburban equivalent of a neighborhood in a city or village. The area of a hamlet may not be exactly defined and may simply be contained within the zip code of its post office, or may be defined by its school or fire district. Residents of a hamlet often identify themselves more closely with the hamlet than with the town. Some hamlets proximate to urban areas are sometimes continuous with their cities and appear to be neighborhoods, but they still are under the control of the town.

Hamlets are sometimes called unincorporated communities. In fact, some hamlets are former villages that have dissolved their incorporation. Their land area, though, is within the jurisdiction of a town, which is considered a municipal corporation under state law. For census purposes, the area around a hamlet may be formally defined as a census designated place, though most are not. A census location may have the same name as a hamlet, but the area defined by the U.S. Census Bureau may differ somewhat from the local understanding of the hamlet. This is because hamlets do not have fixed boundaries and area defined by the census is generally based on population density and may include a larger or smaller area than the local understanding of the hamlet.

Other named places

New York contains many named localities which do not merit even the vaguely defined term "hamlet." These locations are often historic, being former post offices, depopulated communities, or cross roads important in an earlier period. Others may represent newly developed housing tracts that eventually might be considered hamlet, or may eventually incorporate as villages.

Subdivisions particular to New York City


A borough is a political subdivision of New York City only and not New York State or of any other city in the state. Each of the five boroughs of New York City is coextensive with one of its five counties.

The boroughs were originally intended to retain some local governance in the consolidated city that was formed in 1898. Each borough individually elects a borough president. The borough presidents once wielded considerable power as members of the City's Board of Estimate, but their positions now are largely ceremonial and advisory. Likewise, the boroughs and their residents have little distinct power within the city. According to the State of New York Local Government Handbook, "The five boroughs of the City of New York function as counties for certain purposes, although they are not organized as such nor do they operate as county governments."

Community board

Community boards are what the New York City government Web site (http://www.nyc.gov/html/cau/html/cb/cb_main.shtml) refers to as "local representative bodies". The community boards, however, are unelected. Each board consists of fifty unpaid members appointed by the borough president. Half of the members are nominated by the City Council members who represent the area. The power of the community boards is very limited. They serve in an advisory capacity regarding land use and zoning, budget and various concerns of the community. The boards can recommend action on the part of the city government, but it cannot enforce it. There are fifty-nine community boards, identified by borough name and a number (e.g. Brooklyn Community Board 10).

Special purpose units of government

In New York State, special purpose units of government provide specialized services only to those who live in the district, and are empowered to tax residents of the district for the services provided in common. Special districts often cross the lines of towns, villages and hamlets, but rarely cities or counties.

School districts

School districts are the most common kind of special district. They provide, arrange or contract for all public education services, including special ed and school transportation, the latter also for non-public schools.

School districts are often not precisely coextensive with the villages or hamlets that bear the same name, meaning that a person living in one hamlet or village might send their children to a school associated with a different hamlet or village. Residents pay school taxes to the same school district in which they live and their children attend school.

All but five school districts are separate from municipal governments. The exceptions are the five cities whose populations exceed 125,000 (Buffalo, New York City, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers), in which education is part of the municipal budget.

There are five types of school districts in the state: common school districts, union free school districts, central school districts, city school districts and central high school districts.

Fire districts

Fire districts are public corporations which generally provide fire protection and other emergency response in towns outside villages. Villages generally provide their own fire protection, but joint town-village fire districts are permitted. A fire district can levy taxes and incur debt. Although they operate under certain fiscal restrictions, these districts enjoy a great deal of autonomy in budgeting. The town which the district serves receives the budget and collects the taxes but has no power to amend the budget. The district is governed by a board of elected commissioners.

Fire protection districts

A fire protection district is established by a town board in order to contract fire protection services with any city, village, fire district or incorporated fire company.

Public benefit corporations/authorities

reasearch needed

Library districts

Library districts are usually coextensive with the same school district but raise taxes separately and serve all the residents of the library district (save Newburgh, where the library is run directly by the school district out of its budget). They often form cooperative associations with other library districts for shared services, purchasing and cross-library lending.

Other types of special purpose units

Other special districts may include emergency rescue squads, sanitation, police, water, and sewer.

Home rule

Incorporated municipal governments (aka "general purpose units of local government"; i.e., counties, cities, towns and villages) in New York State have been granted broad home rule powers enabling them to provide services to their residents and to regulate the quality of life within their jurisdictions. They do so while adhering to the United States Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York. Articles IX (titled "Local Government", but commonly referred to as the "Home Rule" article) and VIII (titled "Local Finances") of the State Constitution establish the rights and responsibilities of the municipal governments.

The New York State Constitution provides for democratically elected legislative bodies for counties, cities, towns and villages. These legislative bodies are granted the power to enact local laws as needed in order to provide services to their citizens and fulfill their various obligations.

Census-designated place

A census-designated place (CDP) is an area defined by the United States Census Bureau for statistical purposes only, without any legal consequences. In New York State, a CDP is a part of a town outside any villages. The CDP may contain the entirety of the town outside any villages (only for those towns that actually do contain villages), and it may cross town and county borders. A CDP cannot be any part of a city or a village, nor can it be the entirety of a town. CDPs usually resemble cities or villages in population density and structure. CDPs were formerly called unincorporated places.

See also: List of census-designated places in New York

See also

External links

New York State government links

General local government information

New York State Constitution

The articles of the New York State Constitution [1] (http://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/?co=0) which most closely affect local government are:

New York State Consolidated Laws

The New York State Consolidated Laws [2] (http://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/?cl=0) which most closely affect local government are

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