Frequently Asked Questions
Now that you have a basic understanding of special districts, you may have some specific questions you'd like answered. Here are nine of the most frequently asked questions.
For more detailed information about the number and types of special districts around the state, you may contact the Office of the State Controller at (916) 445-3028. Every year the Controller's Office publishes a Special Districts Annual Report. You can find copies of these reports in many major public libraries.
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What are Special Districts?
How do I find out if I live in a special district?
The easiest way to find out if you live in a special district is to call your Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). This office exists in every county and is responsible for forming and dissolving special districts within that county. You can find a directory of LAFCOs at: www.calafco.org.
How can I form a special district?
District formation follows five steps:
- Application: Registered voters in the proposed district apply to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). The application must detail the proposed district's boundaries and services, any environmental effects, and financing options.
- Review and approval: The LAFCO’s staff studies the application, and schedules a public hearing. The LAFCO can approve or deny the proposal. If the LAFCO approves, it’s time to measure protests.
- Protest hearing: The LAFCO holds a second public hearing, this time to measure formal protests from voters and property owners. A majority protest stops the proposal, otherwise there’s an election.
- Election: Only the voters inside the proposed district’s boundaries vote at this election, which usually requires majority-voter approval. If the proposal involves new special taxes, the measure needs 2/3-voter approval.
- Formal filing: If the voters approve the proposed district, the LAFCO and other officials file the formal documents to start the new district.
Who picks my district's governing board?
About 2/3 of our special districts are independent, that is, they have independently elected or appointed boards of directors. The other districts are dependent districts because they depend on another local government to govern them; usually a city council or a county board of supervisors. In most independent districts, registered voters elect the governing boards. In a few types of special districts, the landowners vote. Most governing boards have five members who serve staggered, four-year terms.
How can I find out who runs a special district?
The easiest way is to call the district directly and ask who serves on the district's governing board. You can find the telephone number in the white pages of your telephone book. Also, your county clerk keeps a formal Roster of Public Agencies which lists all special districts and the names and addresses of the members of the districts’ governing boards. Ask your county clerk for a copy of your county's Roster. This information may also be available on your county’s web site.
Can special districts tax me without my consent?
No. Proposition 13 (1978) limited property taxes to 1% of property value. Many special districts get a share of these revenues. If a special district wants additional taxes, Proposition 13 and state law require 2/3-voter approval for "special taxes." A general obligation bond that raises property taxes also requires 2/3-voter approval.
But what about special assessments? Aren't they like special taxes?
Not really. Special districts can charge benefit assessments to pay for public works like sewers, parks, and water systems. Property owners pay benefit assessments only for the projects or services that directly benefit their property. The amount of the assessment must be directly related to the benefit received. Proposition 218 (1996) required local governments, including special districts, to get weighted ballot approval from property owners before they can levy benefit assessments.
Suppose I don't like what a special district is doing. What can I do?
Talk to your district representative, the district's general manager, or the district board at its next meeting. If you still aren't pleased with your district's activities, the remedy is direct democracy in the form of initiative, referendum, and recall.
- The initiative power lets citizens propose ordinances directly instead of waiting for the district board to act. Initiative drives follow this pattern: notice, petition, and election.
- Referenda also give citizens a direct vote in district matters. The referendum power lets citizens put recent board actions on the ballot and reject them before they go into effect. Referendum procedures are similar to the initiative process.
- The recall power allows voters to remove board members from office before the next election. Elected board members may be relieved of their duties by a process similar to those for initiatives and referendums.
Why are special districts so invisible to the public?
Special districts often escape wide public attention because their functions are narrow and technical. Special districts, however, must conform to democratic safeguards such as the Brown Act, the Public Records Act, and the Political Reform Act. For more information on access to government meetings and documents, the Senate Local Government Committee has produced citizen guides to the Brown Act, the Public Records Act, and conflict-of-interest laws. These reference books can be obtained from the Senate Publications Office at (916) 327-2155.
Where can I get more information about special districts in my area?
The following organizations can give you more information on special districts:
Resources in your city or county:
- Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO).
- County Board of Supervisors.
- City Council. Resources in Sacramento:
- California Special Districts Association.
- Association of California Water Agencies.
- California Association of Sanitation Agencies.
- Mosquito and Vector Control Association of California.
References for Questions
Frequently Asked Questions tried to anticipate many of your questions about special districts. Here is a list of references we used to answer the questions.
Statutes are listed by code followed by section. For example, "Government Code §34601" means that you can find the statute under Section 34601 of the Government Code. When reading the code, start by looking at the back of the book in the "pocket part." The pocket section has the latest versions of the statutes, including recent amendments and deletions.
References: Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Local Government Reorganization Act Government Code §56000
References: Uniform District Election Law Elections Code §10500
References: California Constitution Article XIIIA (Proposition 13) Revenue and Taxation Code §95 (property tax allocation) Government Code §50075 (special taxes) Revenue and Taxation Code §96.3 and §96.31 (bonded debt)
References: California Constitution Article XIII D (Proposition 218) Government Code §53753 (weighted ballots)
References: Elections Code §9300 and §9340 (initiative and referendum procedures) Elections Code §11000 (recall procedures)