County Government

Prepared with information from: Maine County Commissioners Association


County Government is Maine’s oldest form of government, pre-dating statehood and even the Declaration of Independence.  Maine has 16 counties. The County is the only form of regional government whose officials are directly elected by the voters.  There has always been a role for county government, providing democratic institutions that operate at the regional level between municipalities and the state.   This briefly describes the many functions of county government today.  If you would like to know more about county government, call your county office or the Maine County Commissioners Association (MCCA) for more information.


The voters in each of Maine’s 16 counties elect either three or five commissioners to four-year terms to oversee the operation of county government.  Each commissioner serves a separate district within the county.

Commissioners, as the counties’ chief elected officials, are ultimately responsible for the fiscal operations and policy decisions affecting county government.  Additional duties include municipal tax abatement appeals and hearings on maintenance of town roads.  They also serve, in effect, as the municipal officials in Maine’s many unorganized territories.


Maine’s 16 county sheriff’s offices are responsible for the majority of criminal investigations in rural Maine, and handle a large share of rural highway patrol.  County sheriff’s offices are also responsible for serving all civil lawsuit complaints and related documents throughout the state.


Maine’s 12 county jails, three county 72-hour holding facilities and two county re-entry centers are responsible for persons arrested by municipal, county and state law enforcement and probation officials. All inmates sentenced for Class D or E crimes serve sentences up to 364 days in these county facilities. In addition, most adults sentenced for Class A, B, or C crimes to nine months or less serve their time in these county correctional facilities. The average daily inmate population in these county facilities in 2009 was 1,688 compared with 2,177 in the state’s correctional facilities.  Of the 1688, 58% 2,343 were awaiting trial or sentencing.


The registry of deeds provides two main services to the people of the county.  The Registry records all documents and survey plans that effect property lying anywhere within the boundaries of the county.  Documents are security microfilmed for safekeeping and a copy is made available for public inspection.  The Registry maintains an index of buyers and sellers names so that the documents and maps may be easily found.


Each county has an elected or an appointed Treasurer who maintains the county’s financial records.  The Treasurer is also responsible for investment of tax revenues.


The Probate Court system is under the jurisdiction of the Maine Supreme Court and funded by Maine’s counties.  The Probate Court handles all estates, as well as guardianship, conservatorship, changes of name, adoptions and other legal matters.  Both the Probate Judge and the Register of Probate are elected positions in each county.


Each county operates an Emergency Management Agency which is responsible for the coordination of municipal and county‑wide efforts in times of natural and man‑made disasters and public health emergencies.  Each county EMA must develop and maintain plans for coping with disasters, such as toxic chemical spills.  Approximately half the cost of the EMA office is reimbursed by the federal government and county government   funds the other half.


Counties, in conjunction with municipal governments and various private sector entities including hospitals, are playing an increasing role in organizing, overseeing and delivering public health services in the state. The purpose of county involvement is to augment services, as well as to add the critical component of local and regional government into newly developing public health infrastructure of eight Public Health Districts.

For example, Cumberland County and the City of Portland have embarked on a broad ranging collaborative effort in public health in partnership with existing public health and medical care providers to actually participate in providing public health services. The City of Bangor entered into a similar undertaking with the counties of Penobscot and Piscataquis.  Sagadahoc County has initiated the Sagadahoc Health Improvement Project (S.H.I.P.). Other counties are examining their potential role in public health in an effort to better serve their citizens.


Counties continue to provide valuable public safety answering and dispatching services to fire, police and rescue departments in the surrounding municipalities.  This coordinated approach gives smaller communities full‑time, professional dispatch services they could not afford individually.  Many large and small communities are now joining county-operated public safety answering points (PSAPs).  To date, 10 Maine counties serve as  the sole PSAP for their respective communities.


County government provides extensive support for each of Maine’s elected District Attorneys.  This support includes office facilities, staff, equipment, and witness fees.


County government provides much of the state’s District and Superior courtroom space.  Superior Court space is provided at no charge to the state.  This space has a rental value of in excess of $1 million dollars.


Much of Maine’s land area is located outside of any organized municipality.  The residents of these unorganized territories require the same services as residents of incorporated municipalities.  County government provides these residents with services, including road and bridge maintenance, solid waste disposal and public safety, while the state provides for education and land use planning.