Financial structure on the county level generally is organized around each local official and the revenues and expenses of each of these offices, which operate separately within the framework of the county financial structure as a whole. The trustee acts as the county banker and handles receipts and disbursements, the latter of which must be authorized by the county legislative body according to statutes enacted by the General Assembly and decisions rendered by the state courts. No county funds may be expended unless authorized ("appropriated") by the county legislative body. T.C.A. § 5-9-401. This appropriation procedure is a phase of the annual budgeting process that begins in January and usually ends in July with the approval of the budget.

County financial functions involve current operations as well as capital project financing and debt retirement. Day- to-day expenses relating to personnel, supplies, materials, utilities, contracted services, upkeep of facilities, and similar costs of providing county services are referred to as current operating expenses.  To pay for these expenses the county collects fees authorized by statute, levies and collects taxes, and receives revenues from the state and federal governments.  Like a business, the county has income (referred to as revenues) and expenses.  Also like a business, the county's financial management involves budgeting, accounting, purchasing, payroll, cash flow, and related areas.  Unlike a business, a county has very limited implied powers.  It must operate strictly by the express provisions of the law in carrying out these functions.  There are three types of state laws applicable to the county financial function: general laws, general laws with local option application, and private acts for a specific county. Also, the general law provides for county charters and metropolitan government charters to structure financial management in the counties that have adopted these charters.

The management of county finances under the general law allows practically every department to make purchases, make disbursements, receive funds without the trustee‘s involvement and maintain separate accounting records.  With this type of system, it is difficult to manage the cash flow for investing temporarily idle cash funds and to properly communicate the county’s financial condition on a monthly and uniform basis.  In an attempt to address these and other problems, the General Assembly has passed three sets of local option acts governing one or more aspects of county financial management: 

  1. Local Option Budgeting Law of 1993,
  2. 1981 Financial Management System, and
  3. 1957 Fiscal Acts,

which may be adopted by referendum or two-thirds county commission approval (the 1993 law may be adopted only by the county commission).  These acts provide a means for counties to consolidate functions, establish uniform financial procedures and incorporate efficient business practices into the management of county finances.

For a chart showing which budget law each county has adopted, click here:  County Budget Laws.