What are the most common types of special districts?

This infographic from the 2012 Census on Local Government shows the breakdown of districts across the United States by type:

The Environment and Housing category is pretty broad, including things like Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Levee Districts, Water Districts, Irrigation Districts, Housing Districts, and more. No individual kind of special district makes up a very large percentage of the total. These entities handle a large array of specific activities — there are 3,248 drainage and flood control districts, for example, and 3,438 housing and community development districts.

The largest group of single districts is Fire.

A powerful defense of special districts at Little Hoover Commission hearing

And we’re not done yet!

Kyle Packham, Advocacy and Public Affairs Director at CSDA, testified on special districts at the Little Hoover Commission (LHC) last week. The Commission is following up on their 2000 report findings titled, Special Districts: Relics of the Past or Resources for the Future? 

According to their website:

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.

I was impressed with the many speakers who clearly explained why special districts are so important … but Kyle absolutely rocked it. Along with his legislative staff, they prepared well and delivered testimony that would have made any special district proud. It was hard for anyone to deliver negative testimony against special districts after he was done. 

You can watch the entire video online, especially if you have 3 hours to spend. :-)

  • If you don’t have that much time, please watch Kyle’s testimony – he is the first to speak, right around 5 minutes in. I promise it’s worth it.
  • I attended too, and shared some information about special districts from the perspective of someone from a very small town with very great districts. (And I harped on the state a bit, because I couldn’t help it.) That’s toward the very end, somewhere around 3 hours, 9 minutes 30 seconds. (Yawn!)

I’d like to give a huge shout out to CSDA – they have the backs of special districts in California, as evidenced by their written and verbal testimony and all the efforts they put into helping special districts to do the important work they do. Even if your district isn’t a CSDA member, they are working very hard for you.

Here’s why I’m writing about this:

It’s important that the LHC knows what districts are up to and hears it directly from the people doing the work. Based on the testimony received, the Commission intends to hold a second hearing on October 27 that will narrow its focus to specific issues it considers meritorious for further review. The focuses of the last hearing were consolidation, property taxes (especially for enterprise districts) and “excessive” reserves.

There are a few ways you can keep informed and take part:

  • Become a member of CSDA, if you aren’t already. They are doing amazing work for special districts, and will keep you informed of important events like this. (Plus they offer lots of great benefits, including discounts on our Web platform!)
  • Learn more about the Little Hoover Commission’s review of special districts (links below). Read the original report, August agenda, and written testimony, to determine if there’s a perspective you have to offer that might not have been presented yet.
  • Send a request to littlehoover@lhc.ca.gov if you would like to be notified electronically of meetings, events, or when the review is complete. 

We are so proud of special districts, and of the way CSDA goes to bat for them! Thanks for reading (and engaging!)

– Sloane

Helpful links:

Being a special district isn't always so special

If you're one of the few people who haven't seen the John Oliver video poking fun at special districts, watch it (click on the video below this paragraph), and then finish reading this. But be warned: if you're involved in special district work, it can be hard to watch.

I come from a small town and I know it can be hard to run a special district well. Between the state mandates, small budgets, small (or non-existent) staff, providing the services you need to provide with the constraints you're under can be hard. And when you're a big district, the stakes are even higher.

Complying with state mandates like SB 272 and the Brown Act, and following Robert's Rules of Order–basically, doing everything right–can be a real pain. So when John Oliver makes fun of the two-man mosquito district video (guys doing it right!), it makes me mad.

Yet watching the video has to make you laugh a bit, too. It's a painful, I-hope-no-one-is-looking kind of laugh. It's close enough to the truth in some aspects that you just can't help it. 

And yet.

From our perspective, it's been interesting trying to learn about special districts across the country. In California it's been much easier, due to our fantastic relationship with the California Special District Association. But we've reached out to many states that don't even know they have special districts (they do), or states that know they have special districts but don't know who they are. And states who are complaining about the lack of transparency but don't know what to do about it.

It's understandable that people are clamoring for transparency for local government. We get that, maybe more than most. We're betting our entire business model on being able to reach these organizations, and help them to communicate with their citizens inexpensively and predictably. 

We want to change the conversation, to get the barriers out of the way so that these groups that are providing essential services are not only able to be transparent, but are also able to be celebrated for all they do. Transparency works to expose things that are hidden–not just the financial things that people are clamoring for, but the mission-driven, service-oriented things that citizens need to know about, too. 

Transparency serves everyone. We just need to figure out how to make it achievable. The good news is that we're moving that direction, along with a brave group of dedicated clients helping us lead the way.



The 5 things your website should do for you (a manifesto)

A lifetime of involvement in special districts and a love for small local government has given me an understanding of just how challenging it can be for agencies to communicate online. However, instead of focusing on how hard it is, I’d like to look at five non-negotiable things your site should do for you. Just because it's been hard in the past doesn't mean it has to be hard now. We're here to make sure of that. 

Technology isn’t your enemy, and it can definitely be your friend. So let’s explore this utopian online world. (Note: if you'd like to download our self-assessment matrix to check your site against this utopian world, you can find it here.)

1.  Your website should make your life easier.

At the very least, updating your site should be easy. You should be able to upload an agenda to the appropriate spot in less than two minutes, and your visitors should be able to find that agenda in a location that makes sense. Websites are not rocket science, so why do web development companies continue to treat them as such?

If you then want to email that agenda (or any other piece of site content), to your people—board members, the press or the public—you should be able to do that from your site in just a few clicks. Why go to another online system and recreate your content in order to send an email? If that content already exists on your website, the site should help you send it. Period.

Most importantly, your staff should not need mad technical skills to keep your site up to date. Everyone from your secretary to your general manager to one of your board members should be able to update the site. (Not that you necessarily want to let all these people do so!)

2.  Your website should make your life safer.

Your website should protect you from the potential pitfalls of being online as an organization. It should be Section 508 compliant for users with disabilities. It should be responsive and mobile friendly on all devices. It should tell you when you’re about to miss something important. That deadline for uploading your agenda before the next meeting? Your website should tell you it’s coming up, and give you an easy way to get your agenda posted quickly.

3.  Your website should have your back when it comes to "transparency."

A local government website should make transparency as painless as possible. It should provide starter content, best practices guidance, and a way to track your transparency status. It should let you know when your content needs to be updated. (Hello, nudge nudge...That old policy: when was it last updated?)

In a perfect world the state wouldn’t pass down mandates to local government; it would let you go about your business since you know what you’re doing. But since the state does do this, your site should be able to assist with changing compliance needs. (Learn more about the latest mandate, SB 272, and our free tool here.)

We realize "transparency" and "open data" get thrown around a lot these days. We're doing everything we can to make it easier.

4.  Your website should save you from software obsolescence.

Who has the time or money to invest in a new website every few years? If your site gets continually updated with improvements, you can focus on what you do best: serving your citizens.

And while we’re at it, your site should be flexible enough for you to change the look and feel without rebuilding it, hiring someone new, or spending more money. You already speak Local Government; you shouldn't also have to know HTML or CSS.

5.  Your website should be predictable.

It should be easy to understand what your site costs over time, and you shouldn’t have to plan for fluctuating, unpredictable hosting and support fees. You should never have to go back to your board asking for more money because you hit your upload limit, or need additional support.

You don’t want to wait on someone else to update your site, and wonder what the bill will look like when it arrives. And because you’ll have questions, support should be unlimited and included at no additional cost.

You should have the ability to download your content and do with it as you will, including moving to another provider. Your website vendor should build such great software that you never, ever want to leave. But you should be able to do so if you choose.

This is what we're creating, and we invite you to join our community. 

If you'd like to check your website based upon these guidelines, we invite you to download our self assessment matrix.