Beat versus unit system of government: How effective is either

Recently, I had discussed the Unit versus Beat System setup of government for the counties in Mississippi with a reader of the newspaper.

Both have their merits and demerits. Efficiency in government is hard to build no matter the system. I had a staff member collect together an overview of the two and here it is.


In the state of Mississippi, residents are given a choice of having a beat system or unit system with many of them having split opinions on which system is best for their county. In 1988, Mississippi residents went to the polls to vote and choose between the two county governance systems. Once the votes were tallied, 47 counties returned a majority vote for the unit system and the other 35 counties selected the beat system.

Of the 47 counties that chose the unit system in 1988, 22 petitioned for revote on governance in 1992. Since that decision, there has been a change with three of those 47 unit system counties having switched to beat system counties, making the total 44 unit system counties and 38 beat system counties.

To help better understand the differences, the meaning of each must be defined. In the “beat system”, individual supervisors exercise nearly unabridged administrative powers over their geographically defined sub-county districts or “beats”. In a beat system, an individual supervisor decides how and when road work is done within their district, which would allow them to better serve their constituents.

In the beat system, the individual supervisors may hire, discipline, and fire their own employees, and there is no requirement of written personal policies.

In a unit system, there are no road districts, separate road districts, or special road districts in any county, with Supervisors’ districts not serving as road districts. Construction and maintenance of the roads and bridges are managed based on the needs of the county as a whole. After a county switches from the beat system to the unit system, any real and personal property of any road district becomes the property of the countywide system of road administration.

In addition, the Board shall establish and maintain one central road repair and maintenance facility for the county, with the possibility of additional road facilities being established if the Board determines that such facilities are essential. In the unit system, each member of the Board must inspect every road and bridge, under the jurisdiction of the county, at least once a year.

The Attorney General has ruled that individual supervisors in a unit county have no authority over the everyday working of the roads, and have no authority to maintain an office in any maintenance facility. All supervisor offices would be located in the courthouse or another appropriate facility located at the county seat.

Also in a unit system, the Board of Supervisors appoints a County Administrator who cannot be a member of the Board. The administrator must have knowledgeable experience in any of the following fields: work projection, budget planning, accounting, purchasing, cost control, or personnel management. They shall administer all county affairs falling under the control of the Board, and shall carry out all the general policies of the Board. They also may be assigned duties and responsibilities not contrary to state law or the Constitution and not assigned by law to other offices.

Unit systems also require a road manager, who is appointed by the Board to administer the countywide road department, supervise the working, construction and maintenance of the public roads and the building of bridges and carries out general policies of the Board. The road manager employs all assistants and employees as necessary, as well as assigning equipment and having jurisdiction over personnel and assignments of personnel. They are also responsible for purchasing all equipment, supplies, and materials for the road department.

Once a county is under the unit system, their Board must adopt and maintain a countywide system of personnel administration for all county employees. The personnel system is administered by the County Administrator. All employees of the county are employees of the county as a whole, and not any particular supervisor district.

When using the unit system, elected officials of the county, other than members of the Board, must adopt and maintain a system of personnel administration for their respective employees or adopt the system of personnel administration adopted by the Board.

Each county in Mississippi (both unit and beat systems) is required to establish and operate a central purchasing system in compliance with the same laws. However, supervisors in a unit county cannot make purchases under any circumstances.

Winston, Webster, and Choctaw are three of the 38 counties that use the beat system.

Whether a county operates on the unit or beat system is an important distinction for personnel administration practices. In both cases, supervisors should be familiar with the county’s personnel policies, but the implementation of these policies is the responsibility of the county administrator in those counties using a unit system. In a beat system, the personnel policies may be decided by the Board of Supervisors.


In either sytem, it is the people in charge that make it ineffective or effective.


Editor’s Note: Joseph McCain is the publisher of the Webster Progress Times and a Webster County native. He may be contacted at 662-773-6241 or 662-803-5236.