Special districts (also known as special service districts, special district governments, limited purpose entities, or special-purpose districts[not in citation given] in the United States) are independent, special-purpose governmental units that exist separately from local governments such as county, municipal, and township governments, with substantial administrative and fiscal independence. They are formed to perform a single function or a set of related functions. The term special district governments as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau excludes school districts. In 2007, the U.S. had more than 39,000 special district governments.
The United States Census counts government units across all States. This includes "special districts." To count the special districts the Census must define the special districts so as to address all such governmental entities across the broad spectrum of 50 states' definitions and interpretations. The Census's full definition is:
Special district governments are independent, special purpose governmental units, other than school district governments, that exist as separate entities with substantial administrative and fiscal independence from general purpose local governments. As defined for Census Bureau statistics on governments, the term ‘‘special district governments’’ excludes school district governments as they are defined as a separate governmental type.
Special district governments provide specific services that are not being supplied by existing general purpose governments. Most perform a single function, but in some instances, their enabling legislation allows them to provide several, usually related, types of services. The services provided by these districts range from such basic social needs as hospitals and fire protection, to the less conspicuous tasks of mosquito abatement and upkeep of cemeteries.
The Census Bureau classification of special district governments covers a wide variety of entities, most of which are officially called districts or authorities. Not all public agencies so termed, however, represent separate governments. Many entities that carry the designation ‘‘district’’ or ‘‘authority’’ are, by law, so closely related to county, municipal, town or township, or state governments that they are classified as subordinate agencies of those governments in Census Bureau statistics on governments, and are not counted as separate special district governments.
In order to be classified as a special district government, rather than as a subordinate agency, an entity must possess three attributes—existence as an organized entity, governmental character, and substantial autonomy. Each state description also lists various statutory authorities, commissions, corporations, and other forms of organizations that have certain governmental characteristics, but are subject by law to administrative or fiscal control by the state or by independent local governments; therefore, they are classified as subordinate agencies of those governments.
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This section may not provide balanced geographical coverage on special districts in states other than New York. (July 2016)
Special districts provide specialized services to persons living within the designated geographic area and may contract to provide services outside the area. Special districts often cross the lines of towns, villages, and hamlets but less frequently cross city or county lines. Increasingly, however, regional special districts are being created that may serve a large portion of a state or portions of more than one state.
Each district is governed by a board of directors, commissioners, board of supervisors, or the like. These boards may be appointed by public officials, appointed by private entities, popularly elected, or elected by benefited citizens (typically, property owners). Sometimes, one or more public officials will serve as an ex officio member on the board.
The board of a special district serves primarily as a managing board and often appoints a chief executive for day-to-day operations and decision making and policy implementation. In the New England states, special districts are often run in the same town meeting fashion as other local governments. Most districts have employees, but some districts exist solely to raise funds by issuing bonds and/or by providing tax increment financing.
Special districts perform many functions including airports, ports, highways, mass transit, parking facilities, fire protection, libraries, parks, cemeteries, hospitals, irrigation, conservation, sewerage, wastewater treatment, solid waste, stadiums, water supply, electric power, and natural gas utility.
Special districts in the United States follow the English custom. The earliest known general law in England authorizing special purpose authorities was the Statute of Sewers of 1532. Single purpose authorities created by individual charters also existed at the time. However, the early authorities were temporary and unconnected to local government structure. The first laws authorizing permanent authorities connected to local governments were the Incorporated Guardians of the Poor, which were created by special acts in the 17th century. Turnpike trusts were an early and popular special purpose authority in England. Internal drainage boards are current examples in parts of England and Wales.
Special districts in the United States are founded by some level of government in accordance with state law  (either constitutional amendment, general law, or special acts) and exist in all states. Special districts are legally separate entities with at least some corporate powers. Districts are created by legislative action, court action, or public referendum. The procedures for creating a special district may include procedures such as petitions, hearings, voter or landowner approval, or government approval. Tribal governments may create special districts pursuant to state law and may serve on the boards of special districts.
Special districts, like all public entities, have public foundation. The landmark case of the U.S. Supreme Court addressing public versus private charters was Dartmouth College v. Woodward in 1819. Dartmouth established the fundamental differences between public and private organizations. Critically, a government must be founded by all of the people of a governmental area or by their governmental representatives.
Special districts possess some form of civil office, that is, the board has received a delegation of sovereign power from the state. Some boards may be appointed by only landowners. Private entities may appoint some or all of the members of a special district; however, there must be evidence of civil office. In addition to special districts with privately appointed boards, a special district may have a privately founded board; however, such a board could not be given the power to set a tax.
There is a citizen-government fiscal accountability relationship. To maintain accountability for special districts, states must maintain ultimate control (the power to repeal the authorizing law at any time). Due to public foundation and, thus, ultimate control, the state can freely delegate sovereign power (such as the power to tax) to special districts and can allow them to act autonomously with little supervision.
There is little information available on the earliest special districts in the United States. It is known that park districts existed in the 18th century. Toll road and canal corporations existed in the 19th century. The first general statute authorizing irrigation districts was adopted by California in 1887. The U.S. Census Bureau began identifying and collecting data on special districts in 1942.
The state of Illinois leads the nation in the number of special districts with California close behind. State counts of their special districts may differ from the federal count because the states may have different definitions of a special district than the U.S. Census Bureau.
All of the following examples have been found by the U.S. Census Bureau to be special districts. See the Census of Governments Government Organization publications at a depository library or visit https://www.census.gov and select Governments Division.
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