Special-purpose district
Special-purpose districts or special district governments in the United States are independent governmental units that exist separately from, and with substantial administrative and fiscal independence from, general purpose local governments such as county, municipal
A municipality is essentially an urban administrative division having corporate status and usually powers of self-government. It can also be used to mean the governing body of a municipality. A municipality is a general-purpose administrative subdivision, as opposed to a special-purpose district...

, and township
Township (United States)
A township in the United States is a small geographic area. Townships range in size from 6 to 54 square miles , with being the norm.The term is used in three ways....

 governments. As defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, the term special district governments excludes school district
School district
School districts are a form of special-purpose district which serves to operate the local public primary and secondary schools.-United States:...

s. In 2007, the U.S. had more than 37,000 special district governments.


Special districts serve limited areas and have governing boards that accomplish legislatively assigned functions using public funds.

Areas served

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.

Governing body

Each district is governed by a board of directors
Board of directors
A board of directors is a body of elected or appointed members who jointly oversee the activities of a company or organization. Other names include board of governors, board of managers, board of regents, board of trustees, and board of visitors...

, 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
Property is any physical or intangible entity that is owned by a person or jointly by a group of people or a legal entity like a corporation...

 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
New England
New England is a region in the northeastern corner of the United States consisting of the six states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut...

 states, special districts are often run in the same town meeting
Town meeting
A town meeting is a form of direct democratic rule, used primarily in portions of the United States since the 17th century, in which most or all the members of a community come together to legislate policy and budgets for local government....

 fashion as other local governments. Most districts have employees, but some districts exist solely to raise funds by issuing bond
Bond (finance)
In finance, a bond is a debt security, in which the authorized issuer owes the holders a debt and, depending on the terms of the bond, is obliged to pay interest to use and/or to repay the principal at a later date, termed maturity...

s and/or by providing tax increment financing
Tax increment financing
Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, is a public financing method which has been used as a subsidy for redevelopment and community improvement projects in many countries including the United States for more than 50 years...



The authorizing legislation
Legislation is law which has been promulgated by a legislature or other governing body, or the process of making it...

 may give a special district the power to tax
To tax is to impose a financial charge or other levy upon a taxpayer by a state or the functional equivalent of a state such that failure to pay is punishable by law. Taxes are also imposed by many subnational entities...

 (usually by a property tax
Property tax
A property tax is an ad valorem levy on the value of property that the owner is required to pay. The tax is levied by the governing authority of the jurisdiction in which the property is located; it may be paid to a national government, a federated state or a municipality...

 but sometimes an excise or sales
Sales tax
A sales tax is a tax, usually paid by the consumer at the point of purchase, itemized separately from the base price, for certain goods and services. The tax amount is usually calculated by applying a percentage rate to the taxable price of a sale....

To tax is to impose a financial charge or other levy upon a taxpayer by a state or the functional equivalent of a state such that failure to pay is punishable by law. Taxes are also imposed by many subnational entities...

), issue municipal bonds, or set fees. Special districts also obtain funds from federal, state, and local appropriations; special assessments; sale of property; interest earnings; and utility revenue. Special districts may be enterprise (charges fees for services) or nonenterprise districts (typically dependent on property taxes).


Special districts perform many functions including airports, water ports, highways, mass transit, parking facilities, fire protection, libraries, parks, cemeteries, hospitals, irrigation, conservation, sewerage, solid waste, stadiums, water supply, electric power, and gas utility. Most of these functions are also provided by private companies. Most special districts provide only a single service.

Legal basis

Originated from English custom, special districts are authorized by state law and must have public foundation, civil office, and public accountability.

English custom

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.

State law

Special districts in the United States are founded by some level of government
Government refers to the legislators, administrators, and arbitrators in the administrative bureaucracy who control a state at a given time, and to the system of government by which they are organized...

 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
A referendum is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal. This may result in the adoption of a new constitution, a constitutional amendment, a law, the recall of an elected official or simply a specific government policy. It is a form of...

. 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.

Public foundation

Special districts, like all public
In public relations and communication science, publics are groups of individuals, and the public is the totality of such groupings. This is a different concept to the sociological concept of the √Ėffentlichkeit or public sphere. The concept of a public has also been defined in political science,...

 entities, have public foundation. The landmark case of the U.S. Supreme Court addressing public versus private charters was Dartmouth College v. Woodward
Dartmouth College v. Woodward
Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. 518 , was a landmark United States Supreme Court case dealing with the application of the Contract Clause of the United States Constitution to private corporations...

 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 governental representatives.

Civil office

Special districts possess some form of civil office, that is, the board has received a delegation of sovereign
A sovereign is the supreme lawmaking authority within its jurisdiction.Sovereign may also refer to:*Monarch, the sovereign of a monarchy*Sovereign Bank, banking institution in the United States*Sovereign...

 power from the state. The 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
Accountability is a concept in ethics and governance with several meanings. It is often used synonymously with such concepts as responsibility, answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and other terms associated with the expectation of account-giving...

 relationship. To maintain accountability for special districts, states must maintain ultimate control (the power to repeal the authorizing law at any time). Because of public foundation and, thus, ultimate control, the state can freely hand out 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.


"Services once supplied by cities are increasingly supplied by special districts." Legislatures increasingly authorize special districts that perform a variety of functions. Regional special districts are increasingly created.

The state of California
California is a state located on the West Coast of the United States. It is by far the most populous U.S. state, and the third-largest by land area...

 leads the nation in the number of special districts with Illinois
Illinois is the fifth-most populous state of the United States of America, and is often noted for being a microcosm of the entire country. With Chicago in the northeast, small industrial cities and great agricultural productivity in central and northern Illinois, and natural resources like coal,...

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)
  • Alaska: regional electrical authorities (general law)
  • Arizona: drainage districts (general law)
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • New Hampshire: housing authorities (general law)
  • New Jersey: port authorities - 1948 law (joint or regional) (general law)
  • New Mexico: cotton boll weevil control districts (general law)
  • New York: Hyde Park Fire and Water District (special act)
  • North Carolina: Research Triangle Regional Public Transit Authority (special act)
  • North Dakota: vector control districts (general law)
  • Ohio: new community authorities (general law)
  • Oklahoma: public library systems (general law)
  • Oregon: geothermal heating districts (general law)
  • Pennsylvania: Philadelphia Regional Port Authority (special act)
  • Rhode Island: East Providence Special Development District Commission (special act)
  • South Carolina: Myrtle Beach Air Base Redevelopment Authority (executive order)
  • South Dakota: television translator districts (general law)
  • Tennessee: utility districts (general law)
  • Texas: Palacios Seawall Commission (special act)
  • Utah: irrigation districts (general law)
  • Vermont: Vermont Public Power Supply Authority (special act)
  • Virginia: Buchanan County Tourist Train Development Authority (special act)
  • Washington: hydroelectric resources authorities (general law)
  • West Virginia: Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority (special act)
  • Wisconsin: Local professional baseball park districts (general law)
  • Wyoming: resort districts (general law)

Further reading

  • Friedman, L. M. A history of American law. (3rd). Simon & Schuster: New York. 2005.
  • Krane, D., Rigos, P. N., and Hill, M. B. Home rule in America: A fifty-state handbook. CQ Press. 2001.
  • Mergent's Municipal and Government Manual
  • Zimmmerman, J. F. The New England town meeting. Greenwood Publishing Group. 1999.

External links

The source of this article is wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The text of this article is licensed under the GFDL.