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Types of Special Districts

Special districts’ activities are as diverse as the communities they serve. The most common type of special district in California is the County Service Area (897), while districts with unique functions include the bridge and highway authority (1).

With about 3,400 special districts, it may seem overwhelming to try to understand the purpose and function of the districts. So, to simplify, let’s break down the districts into pairs of categories. One way of understanding districts is to look at their various contrasting features:

  • Single function versus multi-function.
  • Enterprise versus non-enterprise.
  • Independent versus dependent.

Single Function versus Multi-Function Districts

pie chart depicting 85% single function districts and 15% multi-function districts
Source: 1996-97 State Controller’s
Special Districts Annual Report

Nearly 85% of California’s special districts perform a single function. Single function districts provide only one service such as water, sewage, or fire protection. The Happy Camp Cemetery District in Siskiyou County is an example of a single function special district. The only service that the 253 public cemetery districts can provide is cemeteries.

Multi-function districts (15%) provide two or more services. County Service Areas (CSAs) may provide any service which a county can provide. For example, CSAs provide extended police protection, enhanced library facilities, parks, and television translator services.

Some multi-function districts only offer a few of the services they are authorized to provide. For example, the Buzztail Community Service District in Butte County is authorized under the Community Service District Law to provide up to 16 services and yet it offers only water service. The powers which a district is authorized to use but does not currently employ are called latent powers. Special districts can usually enact latent powers by vote of the district board. In some cases, however, district voters must approve new powers.

Enterprise versus Non-enterprise Districts

pie chart depicting 73% enterprise districts and 27% non-enterprise districts
Source: 1996-97 State Controller’s
Special Districts Annual Report

Just over a quarter (27%) of the special districts are enterprise districts. Enterprise districts deliver services that are run like a business enterprise; they charge for their customers’ services. For example, a hospital district charges room fees paid by patients, not the district’s other residents. Water districts charge water rates to their customers. Virtually all water, waste, and hospital districts are enterprise districts.

Non-enterprise districts (73%) provide services which don't lend themselves to fees. Fire protection services and mosquito abatement programs benefit the entire community, not just individual residents. No direct cost/benefit relationship exists in the services provided by non-enterprise districts. Consequently, non-enterprise districts generally don’t charge user fees for their services. No one wants to put a meter on a park district’s swings or charge residents to put out a house fire. Non-enterprise districts rely overwhelmingly on property taxes for their operational expenses. Services commonly provided by non-enterprise districts include fire protection, cemeteries, libraries, and police protection. Though non-enterprise districts rely primarily on non-fee revenue, certain services, such as a park district's pool, can generate a small amount of fee revenue.

Independent vs. Dependent Districts

About two-thirds of the state’s special districts (35%) are independent districts. Independent districts have their own separate boards of directors elected by the districts' own voters. Independent districts also include districts where the appointed boards of directors serve for fixed terms. The cemetery districts are independent districts with this governance structure. Special districts’ governing boards can vary with the size and nature of the district. Most districts have five- member governing boards. Other governing boards vary from three to 11 members. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which has 37 board members, is unique.

Dependent districts (65%) are governed by other, existing legislative bodies (either a city council or a county board of supervisors). All County Service Areas, for example, are dependent districts because their county boards of supervisors govern them. The Yucca Valley Recreation and Park District is governed by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, making it a dependent district. The Oceanside Small Craft Harbor District is another dependent district that is run by the Oceanside City Council. A community's registered voters usually choose an independent district’s board of directors. But in some water districts, political power rests with the local landowners. Where the districts' services primarily benefit landowners' land and not people, the courts have upheld the use of these landowner-voter districts. Larger independent districts often have a professional manager, similar to a city manager or a county administrator, to assist the board members. The governing boards adopt broad policies that the general managers carry out. Different types of independent special districts include library districts, resource conservation districts, and memorial districts.

These three distinctions about special districts are certainly not mutually exclusive. It is possible to have an independent, multifunction, enterprise special district, such as the Whispering Palms Community Service District in San Diego County. The District is independent because it the local voters elect their own board of directors; it’s multifunction because the District provides sewers, street lighting, and road maintenance; and it’s enterprise because local officials charge their customers for the sewer services. Conversely, County Service Area # 19 in Marin County is a dependent, single function, non-enterprise district. The CSA is dependent because the Marin County Board of Supervisors governs it; it’s single function because it delivers only one service; and it’s non-enterprise because that sole service is fire protection.

Who has the right to Vote?

The issue of landowner-voter districts was called into question in the US Supreme Court case, Salyer Land Company v. Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District (1972).

The plaintiffs were landowners and resident registered voters within the District who claimed that it was unconstitutional for the District to restrict voting rights to landowners only. Further, they argued that it was inequitable that smaller landowners received fewer votes than larger landowners.

The plaintiffs urged the creation of a new policy so that all residents in the District would be permitted only one vote regardless of land ownership. The defendant District argued that its services benefited the land only. Thus, any effects on non-landowner residents were indirect and did not entitle them to vote. Also, the number of votes allotted to landowners was proportional to the assessed value of the land, and therefore relative to the benefits and burdens to each landowner.

The US Supreme Court agreed with the defendant and upheld landowner-voting because the District provides no service to the general public.”