What is the difference between a town being incorporated or unincorporated?

When it comes to municipalities, not everyone understands the difference between a town or area being incorporated or unincorporated. So, what’s the difference?

The three types of general law municipalities

Towns (larger than villages and smaller than cities) are formed to provide safety and security to people. Towns centralize services (police, fire and school) and necessities, such as food and materials. When an area or town wants to have some form of its own governance, it may seek to incorporate.

What does it mean to be unincorporated?

If a town is unincorporated it means it is does not have a local government. Unincorporated communities exist “by tradition.” These communities typically do not have elected officials at the town level.

Since unincorporated communities are not officially considered to be municipal areas of their own accord they often act as a part of a larger municipality, such as a county or city. The town will typically be bound to the laws of the county in which it lies.

Why incorporate?

A town or township may wish to incorporate to have greater local control and autonomy. Police, trash collection, local government and zoning boards are four examples of ways incorporated towns have autonomy. When a town is incorporated it also has greater control over finances. This gives the town  control over its tax revenue which can then be used for services.

A town or city that is incorporated has received a charter from the state. Thus, it is legally allowed to have its own elected officials, and, with some exceptions, make it owns rules. The rules a municipality follows are either home-rule or general-law rule. (See more about this in section II of the 2018 Texas Public Information Act Handbook).

Home-rule and general-law cities

Which type of government a Texas city or town can have is nearly always population based.

Any Texas community with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants must be a general-law city according to article 11, section 5 of the state constitution. Without getting too detailed, a general-law community is one that only has only the powers that the state gives it. General-law municipalities are classified by population (typically A, B or C). These municipalities have various options for their government type.

Unless expressly prohibited by state constitution or state law, home-rule cities may assume any power, but in Texas the city must have over 5,000 residents to qualify to be a home-rule city. Residents must then vote and approve the city charter.

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