Saturday, June 1, 2013

Why scholars like special districts

A couple weeks ago, in response to Bill Fischel’s comment on this blog about school districts and special districts, I invited comment as to why scholars are so interested in special districts.  Prof. Christopher Goodman, a professor at Rutgers-Camden, provided a nice commentary on why he is interested in such special districts:

I think most scholars, myself included, are obsessed with special districts (and single purpose governments at large) because their competitive model is so completely different from general purpose governments. Rather than a Tiebout-like model, single purpose districts compete vertically against other single purpose governments stacked on top of them. Imperfect Union by Chris Berry ( is a great starting point for this.

Also, spurred partly by your original posting on the subject and my own research, I've started an entire series on local government fragmentation on my research blog ( I think it helps to visualize these data.

I think Chris’ comments have a lot of merit.  Here are several reasons why I find special districts of interest.

Bill Fischel mentioned the unusual nature of water districts in the west.  As I have spent most of my adult life in the west, I thought that was an interesting idea.  I also wondered, though, if maybe it wasn’t just about water districts, but also about the west’s proclivity for strong taxpayer revolts, such as in places like California.  Many western states have imposed strict limitations on local governments raising money through property taxes, and I have seen the use of special districts in these states as an alternative means of funding locally valued projects.  I think that is one reason that they are of particular interest to me.  Perhaps that interest trends more western, where more states have imposed tax revolt property tax limitations.

I am also interested in special districts because I believe they are valuable tools for helping sub-local governmental entities as well as cross-jurisdictional governmental entities obtain funding they could not otherwise obtain at the local government level.  On the other hand, I suggest that most legal scholars look at these special districts and view them negatively for at least three reasons.  First, these special districts operate “below the radar” of most of the electorate.  The special districts, even when elected and holding public meetings, still often manage to operate in “stealth mode,” and this worries many scholars as to transparency.  Second, that lack of transparency leads many scholars to also worry about a lack of accountability.  Third, many scholars worry about representation within such sub-local groups.  All of these are legitimate issues.  As a matter of personal experience, though, I have seen special districts operating effectively and providing services that would not otherwise be provided, and this has led me to write for the expansion of special districts and sub-local funding structures.

This has been a fun colloquy on special districts, and I welcome more feedback from the blog readership.

Stephen R. Miller

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Special districts are, to a great extent, a product of distrust of the general police power of municipalities, and in particular, the power to regulate land use and the enact general purpose property taxes. Developers hate land use regulation that can impact them over the course of large, multistage development projects. But, they need to create communities with basic services to make them attractive to buyers. A variety of special districts provides the services that are desired without the residual and general land use regulation and overall regulatory powers of municipal governments which county governments as the local government of last resort have been historically less prone to exercise. Typically, the final straw the pushes special district and HOA governed areas over the line to self-incorporate is the threat of annexation from some neighboring municipality. But, by the time that this happens, the developers who drove the initial design are long gone.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jun 3, 2013 4:31:24 PM