How Does a City Incorporate?

By Joseph Nicholson

First Steps

The procedure for incorporating a city is determined by the laws of each state, but it follows a general course. A city is a corporate entity with stated boundaries and powers. Invariably, the residents of the area seeking to incorporate will have to negotiate or submit for review their proposed boundaries to the county in which it is located pursuant to the procedures set forth in state laws. The first step, however, is to develop the consensus among the residents of the proposed city in favor of incorporation. The primary benefits of formally incorporating include greater autonomy through local government and zoning boards, the ability to raise revenue by taxation and the providing of local services like trash pickup and police. But, for these same reasons, some residents might oppose incorporation---not everyone will want to be subject to a new layer of government and taxes. Those in favor of incorporation will submit a Notice of Proposed Incorporation to the county, which will set a date for a public meeting. At this meeting, residents of the proposed city and surrounding areas can voice their opinions on the incorporation proposal, and those making the proposal can better explain their goals. Assuming the proposal is not shot down at the meeting, a feasibility study, funded by the county, will likely be ordered, and a petition circulated in support of incorporation.

Intermediate Steps

Within a certain period of the initial proposal meeting, a certain amount, somewhere around 10 percent, of the residents in the proposed boundary must sign the petition in favor of incorporation. Additional meetings will take place once the feasibility study has been completed, and alterations to the proposed boundaries might be made. Many factors must be considered in a feasibility study, including which roads will be the responsibility of the new city to maintain, where water, electricity, garbage disposal and sewer services will be obtained and administered, and the new city's position in the legal structure of the state and county court system. An area with existing residents will likely already have these services to some extent, but the impact on county and regional resources as the city grows must be understood and planned. The feasibility study will also assess whether the proposed revenue sources will be adequate to fund the city's obligations. For example, a city with high commercial activity might depend almost entirely on a local sales tax, whereas one with little retail shopping probably cannot. Most cities thrive on a combination of revenue sources including property taxes, utilities taxes and sales tax.

Final Steps

Once the incorporation plan has county approval, a special election must be had on the plan, now called the city's charter. A charter is like the constitution for the city and contains the framework for its government. Usually a simple majority of the proposed city's residents must vote in favor of the charter. If the charter is approved in the election, officials including a mayor, city council and city manager must then be elected by a local election according to the charter. These officials will formally file for incorporation of the city with the state, drafting its bylaws and working to enact the city charter.

About the Author

Joseph Nicholson is an independent analyst whose publishing achievements include a cover feature for "Futures Magazine" and a recurring column in the monthly newsletter of a private mint. He received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Florida and is currently attending law school in San Francisco.