Special Districts

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Special districts, also known as special-purpose districts or special district governments, are independent state governmental units that are created for a distinct purpose or function. Special districts typically maintain administrative and fiscal independence from general purpose government bodies [1]. The special district distinction as defined by the US Census Bureau excludes school districts [1]. California has over 2,100 special districts [2]. The majority of special districts in California perform a single operation, such as sewage treatment, water delivery, fire protection, or pest control [3]. However, some districts, such as community service districts, provide multiple services [3]. The Pebble Beach Community Services District (PBCSD) is an example of a community service district, as it provides fire protection, emergency medical services, supplemental law enforcement, wastewater treatment, recycled water distribution, and garbage disposal [4].


The first special district in California was the Turlock Irrigation District, created in 1887 under the authority of the Wright Act to deliver water to farmers in Stanislaus County and the San Joaquin Valley [5]. The creation of new special districts was often linked to real estate development, as population growth increased the demand for localized services. Prior to 1950, water and irrigation districts were primarily in Northern and Central California. After 1950, special water districts were created throughout Southern California to meet the growing demands of suburbs [5].


The formation of a new special district follows these steps[5]:

  1. Application – Registered voters within the proposed district create an application that includes the proposed boundary, district services, environmental effects, and financing plan. The application is submitted to the County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) .
  2. Review – The LAFCO holds a public hearing pertaining to the proposed special district and introduces a public report that contains recommendations. The LAFCO then decides to approve or deny the proposal.
  3. Protest hearing – The LAFCO holds a public hearing that allows protests from local voters and property holders. If a majority protest exists, the proposal is denied.
  4. Election – Voters inside the proposed district vote to approve or deny the district. A majority vote approves the district, unless the proposed district calls for special taxes, in which case a 2/3 majority is needed.
  5. Formation filing – The LAFCO formally creates the new district following voter approval.

Legal Authority

In California, special districts operate under the authority of a principal act or a special act[5]. Principal acts are generic statutes that apply to all special districts of a given type. These acts authorize many types of districts, including California Water Districts, such as the Marina Coast Water District (MCWD) [6]. Special acts authorize special districts that do not fit with the conditions of a principal act, often as a result of regionality, characteristics of the governing board, financing concerns, or the provision of unique services [5]. The Monterey Peninsula Water Management District (MPWMD) is an example of a special district authorized by a special act [7]. Special districts are established under sections of the relevant state law code, including the California Health and Safety Code, California Public Utilities Code, California Public Resources Code, and California Water Code [8].


Special districts receive funding through the following avenues[5]:

  • General taxes – California counties collect a uniform 1% property tax, which is distributed amongst local government bodies, including special districts. In 2007-08, special districts statewide received roughly $3.6 billion in general property tax revenue.
  • Special taxes – Most special districts are able to charge special taxes with a 2/3 voter approval. These taxes typically take the form of parcel taxes, a flat rate for each lot or acre.
  • Benefit assessments – Special districts may charge property owners for facilities or services that directly benefit property. Unlike special taxes, benefit assessments only apply to property owners. These charges require approval from property owners in weighted ballot election.
  • Service charges – Special districts that provide enterprise activities and services are typically funded through service charges. Water special districts make up the largest portion of California service charge funding, generating over $8 billion of the $25.2 billion total service charges in 2007-08.
  • Bonds – To finance capital projects, such as the creation of new facilities or the expansion of existing ones, special districts borrow money through bonds. The type of bond typically depends on which of the above revenue streams will be used to repay the bonds in the future.

School Districts

School districts are not considered special districts by the US Census Bureau [1], as they are exclusively capable of providing education services, while special districts can provide a number of services [5]. Additionally, school districts receive the majority of their funding from state governments, while special districts are funded primarily through local revenue streams [5].

Special Districts in the Monterey Bay Region

Special districts in the Monterey Bay Region often deal with watershed issues including hydrology, water quality, and land use.



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Population of Interest - Special Districts
  2. It's About Quality, Not Quantity - Special Districts Facts Sheet
  3. 3.0 3.1 Special Districts
  4. About Us - Pebble Beach Community Services District
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 What's So Special About Special Districts?
  6. Special Districts Report 2011-2012
  7. Comprehensive Overview of Types of Special Districts


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