State law defines a special district as "any agency of the state for the local performance of Governmental or proprietary functions within limited boundaries" (Government Code §16271 (d]). In plain language, a special district is a separate local government that delivers public services to a particular area.
Special districts can be distinguished by their four common characteristics:
- A form of government.
- Governed by a board.
- Provides services and facilities.
- Has defined boundaries.
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 them. Fire districts, irrigation districts, and pest abatement districts exist today because taxpayers were willing to pay for public services they wanted. Special districts localize the costs and benefits of public services. Special districts allow local citizens to obtain the services they want at a price they are willing to pay.
So, what’s so special about special districts? Focused services. Special districts are a type of local government that delivers specific public services within defined boundaries. Special districts deliver highly diverse services including water, closed captioned television, mosquito abatement, and fire protection. Most special districts serve just a single purpose, such as sewage treatment. Others address a multiplicity of needs, as in the case of community service districts, which can offer up to 16 different services. Districts' service areas can range from a single city block to vast areas which cross city and county lines. For example, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California serves nearly 17 million people in over 5,200 square miles of six counties, while County Service Area #2 in Los Angeles County serves only 25 acres. Special districts enjoy many of the same governing powers as other cities and counties. They can enter into contracts, employ workers, and acquire real property through purchase or eminent domain. They can also issue debt, impose taxes, levy assessments, and many charge fees for their services. Special districts, like other governments, can sue and be sued. They can also adopt a seal and alter it at will!
Special districts have the corporate power and tax power but rarely the police power. The corporate power is the ability to "do things," like constructing public works projects such as dams and sewers. It's the power to deliver recreation programs and collect garbage. The tax power is the authority to raise money to pay for these projects and services. The police power is different; it's the authority to regulate private behavior to accomplish a public goal. Governments that make rules and enforce them use the police powers: zoning property, requiring business licenses, or setting speed limits. Special districts rarely have police powers. Instead, they usually build public facilities and provide services. When special districts do have police powers, they are usually related to some corporate power. Banning alcohol from a park district's picnic area is one example.