What Makes Special Districts, Special?

special districtsOn various forums we participate in, we notice a lot of discussion about or involving special districts. We also notice that confusion exists about what qualifies as a special district, and the pros and cons of a special district set up.

What is a special district?

A special district is defined as any district that incorporates a separate form of government in order to provide public services to a specific area. A special district can be established to deliver any of a wide range of services including airports, highways, mass transit, parks, cemeteries, hospitals, irrigation, conservation, gas utility and more.While characteristics of special districts vary according to location and other specifics, there are four main characteristics that typically remain the same.

A special district typically has these characteristics:

  • Some form of government
  • It must be governed by a board.
  • It provides a service.
  • It must have definitive boundaries in place.

There are some things that special districts are not, including:

  • State, city or county government
  • School districts
  • Redevelopment agencies
  • Benefit assessment districts

Single-function and multi-function districts

Special districts that only provide a single type of service are known as single-function special districts. If they provide more than one service, they are known as multi-function districts. Some examples of multi-function special districts include enhanced library facilities, extended police protection and parks.

Pros and cons of special districts


Special districts can customize services to meet the specific needs of citizens. Special districts can directly service the special needs of citizens in a specific area, providing customized solutions to residents that might not otherwise have a way to have their special needs met.

Costs can be linked to benefits. Special districts only collect payment from residents that use the service, unlike typical governments, which collect taxes and revenue from all residents, whether they use services or not.

More responsive to residents of the area. A special district typically controls a relatively small geographical area and deals with a relatively small group of people. This allows the special district to respond more efficiently and effectively to residents’ requests and needs.


Conflict and potential confusion. With multiple agencies sometimes providing the same service to residents – e.g., water, fire protection, or library services provided by a special district, city and county – there is the possibility of confusion and conflicts between multiple agencies.

Issues with land planning and zoning. Conflicts may arise when attempting to organize multiple service providers to the same region.

Decrease in accountability. With multiple providers in the same area, citizens may become confused about what provider is providing the service to their specific area.

Special district ARE special! They often escape wide public attention because their functions are narrow and technical, but that’s all the more reason that it is important to understand what makes them special – for their positive aspects, as well as their negative aspects.

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