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, and township governments. 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.
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.
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 of 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.
"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 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)
- 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); Reedy Creek Improvement District, which includes the Walt Disney Resort and the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista (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, special improvement districts, transportation improvement districts (general law)
- Oklahoma: public library systems (general law)
- Oregon: geothermal heating districts, port authorities -1909 (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)
- Joint Powers Authority
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- under construction
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- State and Local Government Review - current and past issues
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