What is a special district? A simple question that many people do not realize they can easily answer. Most people can quickly find their local park and fire station and they know water will flow from their faucets. People can also flip a light switch without worrying about who is providing the electricity. For many communities, those services are provided by special districts.
Throughout California, there are just over 2,000 independent special districts that deliver essential services such as parks, fire protection, water, utilities and more to millions of Californians. A form of local government similar to counties and cities, special districts are created when local residents determine they want new or better services in their community. Special districts often cross boundary lines, such as city and county borders, to respond to shared community challenges and interests.
More commonly known by their district type, such as “water” districts or “fire protection” districts, special districts provide focused service to their communities. Unlike general purpose governments, special districts are “special” because they provide “specialized” service when the community is in need. Districts are only responsible for providing a single service or small suite of services; this focused service leads to efficiency and effectiveness.
Special districts are local agencies that remain responsive to their local residents. Publicly owned and operated, special districts are only formed when it is something the community wants and they want it done well. Governed by board members who are elected by the community or appointed by other locally elected officials, special districts help communities maintain local control over their services.
Special districts are also funded by local residents and ensure local property tax revenues remain in the community. Property taxes establish a firm financial foundation for most special districts to build infrastructure necessary to maintain a strong economy and a healthy environment for residents.
When needed, special districts are also supported by special taxes and assessments that are approved by local voters. Some districts are funded by rates collected from the community for water, sewer or electricity services. Whether funded by property taxes, fees-for-service or a combination thereof, a community can quickly determine the cost-benefit of a special district. This clear picture of what we get for what we pay promotes accountability.
California is not a one-size-fits-all kind of state, and the needs, hopes and desires of our communities are wide-ranging. From Modoc to Marin, from Calaveras to Costa Mesa, and from San Francisco to San Bernardino, the climate, topography, socio-economics and political settings are simply different. Therefore, it follows that these communities would choose different tools to meet their local service and infrastructure needs.
Special districts play a vital role in ensuring the needs of millions of Californians are met each and every day. By connecting, local governance, local funds and revenue authority and specialized service delivery, special districts make the difference for California’s communities.