views updated May 17 2018


A civil and political subdivision of a state, which varies in size and significance according to location but is ordinarily a division of a county.

A town, which is a type of municipal corporation, can be formed by a state legislature when a large number of dwellings have concentrated in a particular location. A town is a creation of the state, designed and authorized to perform certain governmental functions on the local level. Its main purpose is to exercise the power of the state to promote greater prosperity, safety, convenience, health, and the common good of the general community.

The terms township and town are frequently used interchangeably in certain geographic locations, although in some parts of the United States the term township denotes a group of several towns.

Since towns can be formed only from contiguous territory, tracts of land that are entirely separate cannot be included in a town. Subject to constitutional restrictions, ordinarily, the state legislature has full power to create, enlarge, diminish, consolidate, and otherwise alter the boundaries of towns without the consent of those affected.


In general, towns have only the powers conferred upon them by the state legislature. However, the capacity of a town to acquire and hold real property has long been recognized under English common law. Towns are, therefore, generally given the power to construct their own public buildings and usually have the power to lease their property.

Towns are ordinarily granted the power to enact ordinances concerning local matters, provided the ordinances are reasonable and protect the general welfare of the public to an appreciable degree. For example, a town might enact zoning ordinances to restrict the use of land in certain designated areas to safeguard the public health and safety.

Ordinances enacted by a town are subject to judicial review, especially concerning their reasonableness.


Town meetings or boards are the primary vehicles by which a town governs itself since in many states a town exercises its powers by vote of a town meeting or a town council. Town meetings serve both legislative and executive functions; qualified residents meet to discuss and vote, if necessary, on matters dealing with their self-government. In most states, a person who pays town taxes is eligible to vote at the town meeting. State statutes regulate all kinds of town meetings as well as the business to be transacted and the conduct that is acceptable.

Boards or Councils

Town boards or councils are created by the legislative power of the state for the supervision of town affairs. All of their duties are either legislative or administrative in character. Their powers include selecting police officers and town attorneys, effecting public improvements, and providing for the audit and payment of claims against the town.

The selectmen of a town are officers elected by the towns to the boards to execute general business and to exercise various executive powers. Generally a board can function only when a majority of selectmen are present at a meeting. A selectman is ineligible to vote on propositions in which he or she has a financial interest in cases where his or her vote may be decisive. Town boards speak by their records, which are maintained by the town clerk in a record book. In general, other duties of the town clerk include the issuance of calls for town meetings and the performance of the general secretarial duties.


A town is permitted to raise revenue through taxation only if the state legislature has granted it the power to do so. Township boards or the electors at a town meeting can decide the amount of taxes needed for township purposes, or the normal operating expenses of the town, such as for maintenance of the highways. A small part of the tax may be set aside for miscellaneous or emergency expenses. In addition, a town may properly impose taxes for special purposes, such as the erection of a town hall. All property not legally exempt within the limits of a town or a township is subject to assessment and taxation by it.

Upon the levy of a town tax, inhabitants must pay the tax to the appropriate officer, ordinarily the town tax collector. Failure to do so, or failure to pay taxes on property correctly assessed, will entitle the town to a lien on the property, which means that the property cannot be sold until the taxes have been paid. After a number of years prescribed by statute, the town can have the taxpayer's property sold at a tax sale to pay the overdue taxes plus any accrued interests and costs. Any excess funds will be given to the taxpayer.

Taxpayer's Suit

Since every taxpayer of a town has a vital interest in, and a right to, the preservation of an orderly and lawful government, a number of statutes give the individual taxpayer the right to bring an action against officers, boards, or commissions of a town to recover money that has been wrongfully spent. This type of legal action is commonly known as a taxpayer's suit.


To protect their funds, towns or townships generally establish a regular and orderly procedure for the allowance and payment of claims against them, which must be followed before any claim will be satisfied. The courts may review the decision of boards permitting or disallowing claims against towns or townships.

Claims against the town may be settled or submitted to arbitration at the direction of town supervisors or following a vote at a town meeting.


views updated Jun 08 2018

town / toun/ • n. an urban area that has a name, defined boundaries, and local government, and that is larger than a village and generally smaller than a city. ∎  the particular town under consideration, esp. one's own town: Carson was in town. ∎  the central part of a neighborhood, with its business or shopping area: Rachel left to drive back into town. ∎ Brit., dated the chief city or town of a region: he has moved to town. ∎  a densely populated area, esp. as contrasted with the country or suburbs: the cultural differences between town and country. ∎  [in sing.] a town's community: the whole town is talking about it. ∎  the permanent residents of a college town as distinct from the members of the college: a rift between the city's town and gown that resulted in a petition to the college. Often contrasted with gown. ∎ another term for township (sense 3).PHRASES: go to town inf. do something thoroughly, enthusiastically, or extravagantly: I thought I'd go to town on the redecoration.on the town inf. enjoying the entertainments, esp. the nightlife, of a city or town: a lot of guys out for a night on the town.DERIVATIVES: town·ish·let / -lit/·ward / -wərd/ adj. &·wards / -wərdz/ adv.ORIGIN: Old English tūn ‘enclosed piece of land, homestead, village,’ of Germanic origin; related to Dutch tuin ‘garden’ and German Zaun ‘fence.’


views updated May 11 2018

town †enclosure, garden, yard; (now Sc.) building(s) on a piece of enclosed land, farm-stead; (dial.) cluster of buildings or houses OE.; inhabited place having an independent; administration XII; inhabitants of a town XIV; (U.S.) division for local or state government XIX. OE. tūn = OS. tūn (Du. tuin garden), OHG. zūn (G. zaun) fence, hedge, ON. tún :- Gmc. *tūnaz, *tūnam, rel. to Celt. *dūn- in place names (e.g. Augustodunum Autun), Olr. dūn, W. din fort, castle, camp, fortified place.
Comps. and derivs. town-clerk XIV. townee, U.S. towny one of the townspeople XIX. township OE. tūnsċipe. townsman †villager, villein OE.; man of a town XV. OE. tūnesman.


views updated May 18 2018

town go to town do something thoroughly, enthusiastically, or extravagantly.
town and gown the permanent residents of a university town and the members of the university, especially as seen in opposition to one another.

See also the only game in town, God made the country, and man made the town, town mouse, paint the town red.


views updated May 18 2018


the inhabitants of a town; a nest of penguins, 1839; a group of burrows of the prairie dog, 1808.