What is a Special District?
Special districts are a form of local government created by a local community to meet a specific need. Inadequate tax bases and competing demands for existing taxes make it hard for cities and counties to provide all the services their citizens desire. When residents or landowners want new services or higher levels of existing services, they can form a district to pay for and administer them.
What do they do?
Nearly 85% of California’s special districts perform a single function such as sewage, water, fire protection, pest abatement or cemetery management. Multi-function districts, like community services districts, provide two or more services.
Types of special districts include:
- Airport Districts
- Cemetery Districts
- Community Services Districts
- Drainage Districts
- Flood Control, Water Conservation Districts
- Fire Protection Districts
- Healthcare/Hospital Districts
- Harbor/Ports Districts
- Improvement Districts
- Irrigation Districts
- Library Districts
- Mosquito Abatement/Vector Control Districts
- Park and Recreation Districts
- Police Protection Districts
- Reclamation Districts
- Recreation & Park/Open Space Districts
- Resource Conservation Districts
- Sanitation/Sewer Districts
- Transit Districts
- Utility Districts
- Water Districts
How do they operate?
There are approximately 2,109 independent special districts in California, meaning they are governed by an independent board of directors elected by the districts’ voters or appointed to a fixed term of office by either the city council or board of supervisors. Dependent districts are governed by other existing legislative bodies like a city council or board of supervisors. Larger independent districts have a professional manager, similar to a city manager or county administrator, to assist the governing officials. The governing boards adopt policies that the general managers carry out.
How are they funded?
Just over a quarter of California’s independent special districts are enterprise districts. Enterprise districts operate more like a business enterprise, charging customers for their services. For example, a hospital district charges room fees just to their patients, not the district’s other residents. Water districts charge water rates to their customers. Virtually all water, waste and hospital districts are enterprise districts. Non-enterprise districts provide services that don’t lend themselves to fees because they benefit the entire community, not just certain residents. These districts provide services like parks, police and fire protection, pest abatement, libraries, and cemeteries and rely overwhelmingly on property taxes to fund their operating budgets. Although some non-enterprise districts like parks and libraries may charge fees for some services, these fees generate very little revenue. Additionally, both enterprise and non-enterprise districts can issue either general obligation or revenue bonds to help pay for capital improvements.
Special districts are primarily accountable to the voters who elect their boards of directors and the customers who use their services. However, although they are not functions of the state, the state also provides critical oversight to special district operations. Special districts must submit annual financial reports to the State Controller and must also follow state laws pertaining to public meetings, bonded debt, record keeping and elections.
Download customized fact sheets with key talking points on fundamental issues related to special districts
- Local Values Are District Values
- Accountable, Open and Public
- Local Investment of Local Property Taxes
- Prudent Reserves For a Sustainable Budget
What’s So Special About Special Districts
(California Senate Local Government Committee Publication)
Local Government Annual Financial Reports
(CA State Controller Publication)
State & Local Government Debt Data Resources
(California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission Publication)
Distribution & Reporting of Local Property Tax Revenue
(California State Controller Publication)
Special Districts Map
Explore the most comprehensive and interactive online map of special districts in the state through the Special Districts Mapping Project. Read More
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