Special districts, also known as special district governments or special-purpose districts[not in citation given] in the United States are independent, special-purpose governmental units that exist separately from, and with substantial administrative and fiscal independence from, general purpose local governments such as county, municipal, and township governments and that are formed to perform a single function or a set of related functions. As defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, the term special district governments excludes school districts. In 2007, the U.S. had more than 39,000 special district governments.
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.
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 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 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 fiscalaccountability 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 California leads the nation in the number of special districts with Illinois 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 http://www.census.gov and select Governments Division.
Alabama: Alabama Municipal Electric Authority (special act)
Arkansas: fire ant abatement districts (general law)
California: Lower San Joaquin Levee District (special act)
Colorado: ambulance districts (general law)
Connecticut: Pomperaug Valley Water Authority (special act)
Delaware: tax ditches (general law)
Florida: Daytona Beach Racing and Recreational Facilities District (special act); Reedy Creek Improvement District, which includes the Walt Disney Resort and the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista (special act); The Tohopekaliga Water Authority (TWA, or Toho for short), which provides the majority of the public water, wastewater, and reclaimed water services for Osceola County and some small parts of Polk and Orange Counties (special act)
Georgia: airport authorities (special acts)
Hawaii: Office of Hawaiian Affairs (constitutional amendment)
Idaho: auditorium districts (general law)
Illinois: Chicago Transit Authority (special act)
Indiana: Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority (special act)
Iowa: library districts (joint or regional) (general law)
Kansas: industrial districts (general law)
Kentucky: Louisville-Jefferson County Air Pollution Control District (general law with special application)
Louisiana: Abbeville Film and Visitors Commission District (special act)
Maine: cemetery districts (special acts)
Maryland: water and sewer authorities (general law)
Massachusetts: Goose Pond Maintenance District (special act)
Michigan: recreation authorities (general law)
Minnesota: Metropolitan Mosquito Control District (special act)
Mississippi: lighting districts (special acts)
Missouri: Jackson County Sports Complex Authority (special act)
Montana: county rail authorities (general law)
Nebraska: Omaha Metropolitan Utilities District (general law with special application)