Alaska News

Curious Alaska: Why do we have boroughs instead of counties?

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Question: Why does Alaska have boroughs rather than counties?

Several options for what to call what are now boroughs were batted around during Alaska’s Constitutional Convention in the mid-1950s.

Members of the Local Government Committee considered roughly 40 options, including “borough.” If other options had been selected, today’s maps might include the “Bristol Bay Tundraburg” or the “Denali Ganglion.”

“Constellation,” “shire,” “locus,” “ruripality” and more were also under consideration, according to minutes from a Dec. 15, 1955, committee meeting.

But “borough” won out. (Sorry to all those who might have preferred “couperie,” “tundarea,” “canton” or “denali.”)

As for why the state avoided “county,” “the reason has to do with the sparse settlement of much of Alaska,” according to Stephen Haycox, emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Alaska did not have a large enough population to merit a county government like those in the Lower 48, which have significant tax bases and budgets, Haycox said over email.

In “Alaska’s Constitution, A Citizen’s Guide,” Gordon Harrison writes that “borough” sidestepped “legal and political connotations of the traditional county,” and boroughs “were intended to be more versatile and powerful than counties.”

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The delegates also didn’t want to use “county” to avoid having certain court decisions that related to counties in other states apply to local government in Alaska, said Jedediah Smith, a local government specialist with the state’s Local Boundary Commission.

“They chose ‘borough’ as this intention to provide a new and a better form of local government,” Smith said.

Today, there are 19 boroughs in Alaska, plus what’s known as an unorganized borough — a behemoth swath of land stretching from far Southwest to far Southeast Alaska that contains only a small fraction of the state’s population.

Boroughs in Alaska

Counties and boroughs have different responsibilities, said Nils Andreassen with the Alaska Municipal League.

Many counties have transportation responsibilities, while not all Alaska boroughs do. And instead of a bunch of county courthouses, the state has a unified court system. The state also does not have county sheriffs.

Boroughs, compared to counties, are huge in terms of land mass — as large as some states, Andreassen said.

“If you think of (boroughs) as county equivalents, we have the five largest county equivalents in the nation,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jedediah Smith’s first name.

Morgan Krakow

Morgan Krakow is a general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Oregon and spent the summer of 2019 as a reporting intern on the general assignment desk of The Washington Post. Contact her at mkrakow@adn.com.

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