Counties, Cities, Towns, Villages, Hamlets, Special
Districts, and Postal Zones in New York State --
A Confusing Picture but We Love It!
New York State is organized governmentally very much on the New England model in which the most important governing units are Towns (and Cities). Historically, counties have had the weaker governmental role.
- New York State
- Special Districts
The land area of New York State is divided into counties. There is no portion of the State that is not within a county.
A county is a municipal corporation, a subdivision of the state. It's principal responsibilities in the 19th century and earlier included a civil and criminal court system (although Towns also had courts for "petty" crimes), the sheriff's office (primarily concerned with maintaining the county's jail, but with some law enforcement responsibilities -- most towns, cities and villages had their own police departments), prosecutors (district attorney), registry of wills and deeds (county clerk), welfare (poor houses and orphanages), and some roads (most roads were the responsibility of the towns, villages and cities).
All counties are divided into cities, towns and Indian reservations. There is no portion of a county that is not in one of these three entities.
From the middle of the 20th century and earlier, all counties were administered by the towns (and cities) within their bounds. The county's Board of Supervisors consisted of the supervisor (chief executive officer) of each town (or city) within its bounds. There was no chief county executive, and the county departments mostly reported directly to the Board of Supervisors or were semi-autonomous. As a result, the real political power within a county was with the towns. Since representation on a county's Board of Supervisors was base on geography, not population, small towns (such as tiny Shelter Island in eastern Suffolk County) had the same representation as large towns (such as Brookhaven). By the late 20th century, the one-man one-vote principal was applied to all of New York State's counties, and I believe all New York State counties are now governed by a legislature with legislators directly elected from equal population districts.
Over time, counties in the more urban areas of the State have come to be more like "regional" governments, taking on functions such as police protection and planning -- traditional responsibilities of Towns. These responsibilities are not uniform throughout the State, however. For example, in Suffolk County, the county police department jurisdiction is only for the five western Towns; each eastern Town has it's own police force. Most upstate counties have no county-wide police department except through the county Sheriff's office, and I believe some still do not have a County Executive.
A city is a unique governmental entity with its own special charter. Cities are not sub-divided, except into neighborhoods, which are informal geographic areas. A city is not within a town, and has all the responsibilities of a town. In addition, a city may have additional responsibilities depending on it's charter; for example, cities are usually responsible for the schools within its bounds, and for public safety functions such as police and fire protection.
Unlike many parts of the country, there are relatively few cities in New York State, and typically they are the larger population areas. Despite the density of population on Long Island, outside of New York City there are only two incorporated cities on Long Island -- Glen Cove and Long Beach, both in Nassau County.
New York City is a special case, which I won't go into much detail. The City actually encompasses five counties -- New York (Manhattan), Kings (Brooklyn), Queens, Bronx, and Richmond (Staten Island). These counties also define the city's boroughs. Some few county functions continue -- such as each county/borough has it's own elected district attorney -- but for the most part the City has subsumed the traditional role of a county. The area now covered by New York City originally had Towns, but these were eliminated as the City expanded. Many of the old Town names survive as neighborhood names. New York State laws often have a wonderful phrase in legislation that applies to cities -- "except in cities of more than one-million in population" the following applies .... Of course, the only city fitting this definition is New York City. Why they don't just say "except in New York City" is only understandable to lawyers.
A town is a municipal corporation. All territory within the state (and within a county), except that within cities or Indian reservations, is within a town. Towns can contain villages and hamlets. Towns can cover a large geographic area, sometimes as large as a typical county, or very small, such as tiny Shelter Island at the eastern end of Long Island. Towns are headed by a Town Supervisor, who is also the presiding officer of the Town's legislative body, the Town Board (or Trustees). A Town Supervisor is not exactly the parallel of a mayor or a CEO, and often shares executive authority with the Town board or other elected officials, such as a Town Highway Commissioner.
Historically, Towns were the principal municipal governmental units within the State, as they were in New England. And even today, they perform most of the "municipal" functions of government. On Long Island, many of the towns original authority is pre-Revolution. For example, the authority of the Town of Brookhaven dates to 1686 when the New York provincial Governor Thomas Dongan issued a Patent which granted extensive powers to towns, and established a representative form of government. This Dongan patent is still looked to as the foundation for much of the Town's present day authority.
It is not quite proper to refer to the Towns of New York State (and of New England) as townships -- although even in town records of the colonial period "township" was sometimes used to refer to the the entire governmental unit, as opposed to communities (hamlets) within the Town, which sometimes were referenced as a town (or a village). As the country expanded to the west, townships were at first principally surveying conveniences, and identified a 6 mile x 6 mile block between range lines and township lines. (A scheme devised by Thomas Jefferson called the "public land survey system," PLSS. In New England and New York (and throughout most of the original thirteen colonies), a very different surveying system is in use, called "metes and bounds," which can result in great fun and frustration as one attempts to decipher early property deeds.) The "PLSS townships" were sometimes named, but also may have just been assigned a number. In some states, the term townships did develop a different, parallel usage, in that counties were divided into districts called townships. As a rule, these are often just election districts. They most generally have no other governmental authority. Each "township" elected a "judge" who was usually just a county legislator who sat on a "county court" which was really the county legislature -- talk about confusing use of terms for us Easterners. As a county may have increase in population, additional townships were often added to more or less maintain a one-person one-vote principal. Some of the new Midwest states appear to have adopted variations of the New England/New York models of Town and County governmental units, among them (I believe) is Michigan, where townships, originally developed using PLSS, seem to have many of the parallel functions as do New England and New York Towns.
A village is a general purpose municipal corporation formed voluntarily by the residents of an area in one or more towns to provide themselves with municipal services. Villages are organizationally similar to cities. However, a Village is still within a Town (a City is not), and some authority remains with the Town depending on the village charter -- but not much if you believe most villagers. As I understand it, a village's authority derives from a Town (or Towns), while a city's derives from the State legislature. To add to the confusion, some villages use "city" in their name.
The Town of Brookhaven has eight villages: Belle Terre, Bellport, Lake Grove, Old Field, Patchogue, Poquott, Port Jefferson, and Shoreham.
A hamlet is an unincorporated area in one or more towns that is governed at-large by the town it is in. It has no official boundaries, and it's name derives mostly from tradition and history. Most locality names in Suffolk County are actually hamlets. While hamlets are sometimes referred to as "villages," this usage is improper. In Nassau County, there are many more incorporated villages than is Suffolk County.
The Town of Brookhaven includes all or part of fifty-two hamlets: Blue Point, Brookhaven, Calverton (in part with the Town of Riverhead), Canaan Lake, Center Moriches, Centereach, Cherry Grove, Coram, Crystal Brook, Cupsogue Beach, Davis Park, East Moriches, East Patchogue, East Setauket, East Shoreham, Eastport (in part with the Town of Southampton), Farmingville, Fire Island Pines, Gordon Heights, Hagerman, Holbrook (in part with the Town of Islip), Holtsville (in part with the Town of Islip), Lake Ronkonkoma (in part with the Towns of Islip and Smithtown), Manorville, Mastic, Mastic Beach, Medford, Middle Island, Miller Place, Port Jefferson Station, Ridge, Rocky Point, Ronkonkoma (in part with the Town of Islip), Selden, Setauket, Shirley, Sound Beach, South Haven, Stony Brook, Strongs Neck, Terryville, Upton (in fact, Brookhaven National Laboratory, a Federal government reservation), Wading River (in part with the Town of Riverhead), Water Island, West Manor, and Yaphank.
New York State has eight Indian Reservations, within the context of governmental units -- Allegany (30,469 acres), Cattaraugus (21,680 acres), Oil Springs (640 acres), Oneida (1) (350 acres), Oneida (2) (6,100 acres), St. Regis (14,640 acres + about 24,250 acres in Canada), Tonawanda (7,549 acres), and Tuscarora (6,249 acres). These all were originally established through treaties and/or arrangements with the State of New York and are now Federally recognized. None of these official governmental units are on Long Island. There are, however, tribal lands recognized by deeds dating to colonial times, which are usually referred to as reservations. These tribal lands include the Poospatuck Reservation, Unkechauga Nation on east side of Mastic Neck in the Town of Brookhaven (about 72 land acres and 35 water acres), and the Shinnecock Tribe in the Town of Southampton (about 640 acres). In December, 2009, the Shinnecocks were recognized as by the Federal government as the Shinnecock Nation (or more properly, nearly so, there being a few formal steps still required in the process).
Most of New York State is divided into a hodgepodge of special purpose municipal districts and authorities -- school districts, police and fire districts, ambulance districts, garbage districts, street lighting districts, water districts, sewage districts, etc., etc., etc. Some of these districts are more-or-less self governing with their own elected boards (e.g., school districts, many fire districts), some are governed directly by the Town or County, some are semi-independent authorities created by the State or County (e.g., the Long Island Power Authority, the Suffolk County Water Authority). Their evolution has been historical, not necessarily logical. Their boundaries are rarely contiguous.
Postal Zone "City" and "Town"
A postal zone "City" and "Town" is an administrative district established by the U.S. Postal Service to deliver the mail. Postal zone "City" and "Town" may not (but are encouraged to) conform to municipal or community borders. Thus, a postal zone boundary (zip code) does not always determine city, village or hamlet boundaries.
In many areas of Long Island and New York State, the problem of non-conforming postal zones leads to a situation where many places have a different community name in their mailing address than the community where the residents believe they actually live. For example, the Patchogue, NY postal zone includes a large area outside the Village of Patchogue, including Canaan Lake, North Patchogue, East Patchogue, and Hagerman. The Bellport, NY postal zone also includes areas outside the Village of Bellport, including an area on the east (to Bellhaven Road) that some might consider to be in the Hamlet of Brookhaven. (Others indicate that Bellhaven Road was the long-time traditional boundary between the two communities -- hence the name.)