Current Issues & Emerging Trends
As you are now aware, special districts are a highly diverse form of local government. Although it is difficult to generalize about trends affecting special districts, here are some general themes and issues.
FormationThere is a lingering public perception that the number of special districts is growing, particularly independent special districts, contributing to increased bureaucracy and inefficiency. The truth is that the overall number of special districts has edged down from 3,454 districts in 1977-78, to 3,359 in 1997-98. And the number of independent districts has dropped by more than 150 in the past twenty years, going from 2,340 districts to 2,176 in 1997-98.
Since the 1980s, newly formed special districts have been primarily revenue-generating districts. Proposition 13's limits on property taxes forced special districts to find other ways to raise money to pay for services. Enterprise districts, as well as community service districts and county service areas, have become increasingly popular due to their flexibility, broad range of service, and ability to generate user fees.
Special districts are overcoming their sense of isolation and are forming associations to discuss common problems and ways to improve service. Some groups represent special districts in a single county. Districts in Butte, San Diego, and Ventura County all have active groups. Statewide organizations such as the California Special District Association, the Association of California Water Agencies, and the Mosquito and Vector Control Association of California serve special districts across the state. Special district associations also exist on the national level.
Land Use Planning
Some experts feel that public works, not public policy, determine the location, timing, and intensity of development. Because special districts are a major provider of public works such as water and sewers, they can have a significant effect on local development. Cities and counties control land use within their borders by adopting general plans. Special districts, however, can ignore or override local land use controls. Though some districts are governed by the same board or council that adopts the general plan, the majority have independent governing bodies which may have different development ideas. Though most independent districts work well with their city and county governments, the potential for inconsistency exists.