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Advantage & Disadvantages

Many people disagree over the usefulness and desirability of special districts. Before you make up your own mind, consider these arguments.


Special districts can tailor services to citizen demand.

Cities and counties must protect their residents' health, safety, and welfare and, thus, must provide many services, regardless of citizen demand. Special districts, however, only provide the services that the community desires.

Special districts can link costs to benefits.

General purpose local governments --- cities and counties --- levy general taxes to pay for public services. The services that taxpayers receive are not directly related to the amount of taxes they pay. In a special district, only those who benefit from district services pay for them. Those who do not benefit do not pay.

Special districts are responsive to their constituents.

Because most special districts are geographically smaller and have fewer residents than counties and cities, they can be more responsive to their constituents. Small groups of citizens can be quite effective in influencing special districts' decisions.


Special districts can lead to inefficiency.

Many special districts provide the same services that cities and counties provide. Overlapping jurisdictions can create competition and conflict between special districts, and also between districts and general purpose governments. In addition, when communities incorporate, some Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCOs) fail to dissolve the special districts that exist within the new city boundaries, resulting in duplicated services.

Special districts can hinder regional planning.

Having numerous special districts can hamper planning efforts. For example, it can be difficult to organize the various water, sewer, and fire services in one region to provide equitable services for all residents. Because about 2/3 of the districts have independent governing boards, there is no single agency which can guarantee a coordination of efforts.

Special districts can decrease accountability.

The multiplicity of limited purpose special districts can make it harder for citizens to gather information. Separate special districts may provide water, sewer, parks, library, and fire protection services to the same unincorporated community. Residents have a hard time finding out who’s in charge. Furthermore, the narrow and technical nature of a district’s activities often results in special districts with low visibility until a crisis arises. Special district elections typically have very low voter turnout. Although some view low voter turnout as a sign of voter satisfaction, representative democracy requires broad participation.