7 Mar 2009

Special Districts

While I was talking to Lee Emrick last week, we discussed local water districts.

My understanding is that California has 48 different types of special districts (floor control, irrigation, etc.) and that there are about 1,000 3,500 of them in total, but they are pretty confusing in their variety.

Let's learn a little bit here...

According to ACWA, there are there are "approximately 935 independent water special districts and about 351 dependent water special districts in California." Independent districts have an [elected or appointed] board of directors. Dependent districts are governed by folks elected for other reasons.

In wikipedia, special [purpose] districts are:
There are two types of special-purpose districts in the United States: school districts and special districts. This is a type of district differing from general-purpose districts like municipalities, counties, etc., in that they only serve one or a few special purposes and do not provide a broad array of services...

Special-purpose districts provide specialized services only to those persons who live within them. Special districts possess fiscal and administrative autonomy. They often are empowered to tax residents of the district, usually by a property tax but sometimes an excise or sales tax, for the services that they provide. They often cross the lines of towns, villages, and hamlets but less frequently cross city or county lines. Increasingly, however, regional special districts are being created that may serve a large portion of a state or portions of more than one state.

Districts are created by legislative action, court action, or public referendum and are governed by a board of directors, commissioners, supervisors, or the like. The board serves as a district board of directors and may be appointed by public officials, appointed by private entities, popularly elected, or elected by benefited citizens (typically property owners). Sometimes, one or more public officials will serve ex officio on the board. Also, the board of a private entity may serve as the board of a special district (however, such a board could not be given the power to set a tax). The board serves primarily as a legislative board and appoints a chief executive for day to day operations and decision making and policy implementation. Most districts have employees, but some districts exist solely to raise funds by issuing bonds and/or by providing tax increment financing.

Districts typically have some corporate powers. They must be able to set their own budget without line item modification by another government. The authorizing legislation may give them the power to tax, issue bonds, or set fees; and/or the authorizing legislation may establish revenues via taxes or fees on behalf of the district; and/or the authorizing legislation may require contributions by participating local governments.

Special districts are sometimes created to provide fire protection, sewer service, transit service or to manage water resources, among many other possible functions.

In many states in the USA, school districts operate the public schools (as opposed to dependent school systems, which are dependent on the state or a local government for administrative and/or fiscal direction). All special-purpose districts are founded by some level of government in accordance with state law and exist in all states.
According to the Census [PDF], the US had about 35,000 special districts in 2002, about triple the 1952 count. Of these, about 16% are dedicated to water supply OR sewerage. (20 percent do "natural resources" and 9 percent are "multi-purpose.")

To learn more, check outBottom Line: A government of, by and for the people must stay close to the people's needs. Special districts fit such a definition, but citizens need to pay attention. Read more about the incentives and institutions of special districts here.