Special Districts: Improving Oversight & Transparency



The Commission reviewed California’s vast network of local governing agencies known as special districts. State government has oversight responsibilities for the formation of new districts and the operations of more than 4,500 existing local and regional districts which operate airports, harbors, cemeteries, hospitals, libraries and parks, while also providing fire-fighting and paramedic services, flood control and water delivery throughout California.

The Commission previously studied special districts in 1999 and issued a 2000 report titled, Special Districts: Relics of the Past or Resources for the Future? The Commission’s recommendations included empowering Local Agency Formation Commissions to help consolidate districts, finding ways to make special districts more transparent and accountable to the public, requiring more prudent management of their considerable financial reserves and making it tougher for special districts to simultaneously collect fees and property taxes.

The State Controller in 2014 counted 2,993 independent special districts in California run typically by elected or appointed boards with assistance of professional staffs. In 2014, these districts employed 143,180 people and paid approximately $9.5 billion in salaries and benefits. The Controller also tallied 1,500 county-run dependent special districts, which included more than 800 county service areas, to provide fire protection, flood control, highway lighting, road maintenance and other services. The Controller reported that another 254 city-run dependent special districts provided similar specialized functions. Collectively, these districts have issued $5.7 billion in debt since June 2015, according to the State Treasurer’s office.

This proliferation of more than 4,500 limited-purpose special districts, created to provide specific services in rural and urban areas as the state grew in population and developed infrastructure during recent decades, makes special districts the most common form of government in California. In contrast, 58 counties and 482 cities provide general-purpose government throughout the state.

While the strengths of special districts include their ability to provide specific, customized services and be responsive to local customers, their challenges include low civic visibility and limited oversight.

Previous Studies