Skip to main content

Special Districts Introduction

What are special districts?  How many are there?
Special districts are units of local government established by the residents of an area to provide some service not provided by the county or city. Within California there are 58 counties, 468 cities, and over 3,400 special districts, exclusive of school districts. 
What is the relationship between cities and special districts?
Some special districts are located within cities. Many are located just outside city limits, in the unincorporated areas where one-quarter of the state's population lives. Suburban residents have often chosen to form special districts to provide needed services rather than form a city or annex their area to an existing city.

How is the size of the special district determined?
The size of the area served by a special district can vary tremendously. A lighting district, for instance, can be as small as one square block, while some water districts encompass several counties. Residents of many unincorporated areas are served by numerous special districts, each with its own set of boundaries.

What kind of powers do special districts have?
In contrast to the broad constitutional and legal authority under which counties and cities operate, the authority of special districts is restricted to specifically enumerated powers and purposes. Special districts are limited in activity, in their ability to raise revenue, and in their power to regulate planning and land use.

What is the history of the formation of special districts? What activities do special districts perform?
The first two special districts established in the state were irrigation districts, stemming from a need for affordable irrigation water in the San Joaquin Valley. By 1900, almost 50 irrigation districts had been formed to serve agricultural areas. Today, close to 900 special districts supply water to rural, suburban, and urban areas throughout the state. In 1989-90, special districts engaged in 32 categories of activity. 
Can districts perform more than one function?
Some special districts are authorized by law to perform a single function, others, to perform many activities. The vast majority are single-purpose districts: only ten percent, or about 500, are multi-purpose districts. 

At one end of the spectrum are those districts which are exclusively single-purpose, such as street lighting districts. At the other end of the spectrum are districts whose permitted functions cover a full range of services, from safety and recreation services to water, sewage, and street lighting services. County service areas and community service districts which can provide a wide variety of services. 

In between are many types of districts limited to a small set of closely related services with a concentration on just one of them. A familiar example is the fire protection district, formed primarily to prevent and suppress fires, but also authorized to provide ambulance service.

Where do districts get their funds to operate?  Are they supported by tax revenue? 
Government activities are classified as either enterprise or non-enterprise, depending on the source of their funding. 

Enterprise activities are financed entirely or predominantly by user fees set at a level to cover costs. Airports, harbors, hospitals, and water and sewer utilities, among others, are operated as special district enterprise activities. Special districts' enterprises generated over $6 billion in revenues in 1989-90. 

Non-enterprise activities are supported primarily by generalized revenue sources. This form of district activity usually relies heavily on the property tax as a major source of revenue. Fire and police protection services are examples of non-enterprise activities. 

Governing Bodies

Who directs the activities of a special district and how are the board members selected?
A special district is classified as either independent or dependent, according to the type of governing body under which it operates.  

  • An independent district operates under a locally elected, independent board of directors. About 66 percent of California's special districts are self-governed, independent districts. 
  • dependent district operates under the control of a county board of supervisors or a city council. On a statewide basis, 34 percent of the special districts are dependent in their governing structure. Most of these are governed by boards of supervisors. City councils and county supervisors often appoint local advisory boards to assist and advise them in governing dependent districts. 

1. Excerpt from California State Government Guide to Government from League of Women Voters of California.  For the complete text, click here: