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Understanding Local Governments

Updated: Aug 11, 2021

Board meeting

We’ve all heard it, “Shop Local.” Shopping locally has an immense impact on a community’s wallet and environment. The same “local” mentality applies to voting and government engagement. Being involved on a local level has a tremendous impact on a community.

Most people debate about decisions happening in Washington DC, on the federal level. But many local governmental decisions have just as much of a day-to-day impact on the lives of the residents of a community. State and local governments play an integral role in setting policies that directly affect the economy and the community.

State and local governments make key investment decisions for their communities. They decide on infrastructure, education, taxes, environmental regulation, and zoning laws, to name just a few areas. It is important to understand the decisions that local governments make. But, the first step to understanding the decisions is to understand the complicated legal terminology. Here are a few common legal terms explained:

Municipalities are a subdivision of a state that has a local government. These subdivisions can include, town, city, town, or borough.

Municipal Corporations are the legal structure assigned to a municipality that allows it to buy and sell property. This also enables a municipal corporation to sue or be sued.

Municipal Ordinances are laws passed by the local or municipal government. The power of municipal governments to enact ordinances is derived from the state constitution or statutes or through the legislative grant of a municipal charter.

Bylaws are a set of rules by which the municipality conducts its business. This set of rules tend to govern activities such as meetings, voting, budgeting, and record taking.

Zoning is one of the most significant areas of municipal law. Zoning refers to the “land use” within the municipality. Zoning can include residential, commercial, or industrial zoning districts. The underlying goal of zoning is to conserve property value and to encourage appropriate use of the land in zoning districts.

Overlay Districts are special zoning districts. They are special because the overlay district can share common boundaries with the base zone or cut across base zone boundaries. Overlay districts occur near “environmentally sensitive areas,” that is an area with natural resources, such as groundwater recharge areas, special habitats, or floodplains. Overlay districts are also used in historically significant areas to discourage specific types of development. Below is a diagram to depict this concept further. It is important to note that if there is a conflicting standard between the overlay district and the underlying zoning category, then the overlaying district standards are typically applied.

Setbacks are part of zoning regulations. It is the minimum distance from a fixed point that a building is allowed to be built. Setbacks establish an exact distance from a fixed point where building is prohibited. The purpose of setbacks is to prevent houses from being built too close to another and to keep similar purposes together.

Federal Grants are federal funds given to the state and/or local governments for projects pertaining to emergency relief, infrastructure development, community development, and more.

Block Grants are a form of aid that allocated federal funds to state and local governments. This type of grant allows a local authority to allocate to a wide range of services. For example, a block grant may be given out for a broad topic such as “community development” or “education,” meaning that the allocated funds must go toward the specified category. These grants have less oversight from the federal government and allow for flexibility to state and local governments in implementing the programs.

Categorical Grants are“conditional grants.” These grants are issued by the United States Congress to be spent for a narrowly defined purpose. These grants are accompanied by rules and guidelines that constrain the recipient in the use of the funds. Some examples of the narrowly defined categories include the Head Start program, the Forestry Assistance programs, and the Asbestos Abatement program.


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