Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Hide in Plain Sight: The Uneven Proliferation of Special Districts across the United Sates by Size and Function

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Hide in Plain Sight: The Uneven Proliferation of Special Districts across the United Sates by Size and Function

Article excerpt


The diversity of special districts across the United States has become so extreme that it threatens to overwhelm research. Indeed, a tabulation of state laws from the 2007 Census of Governments indicates there were at least 843 general laws overseeing the incorporation of special districts, as well as hundreds of individual districts formed via special laws (US Bureau of the Census, 2012). (i) Every domestic service imaginable is provided through special districts, including such esoteric tasks as fire ant abatement, the maintenance of television translator stations, geothermal heating, and cloud seeding. District expenditures range from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey with $4,134,531,000 in 2007, an amount rivaling some state governments, to the Penrose Cemetery Maintenance District of Utah, which raised and spent $10,000 that same year (US Bureau of the Census, 2013). While fascinating, such variability greatly complicates the study of special districts.

Special districts, defined as "independent, special-purpose governmental units (other than school district governments) that exist as separate entities with substantial administrative and fiscal independent from general-purpose governments" (US Bureau of the Census, 2002, p. vii), are the most common form of local government in the United States. Their general proliferation, which started in the 1940s, has continued into the twenty-first century with total district numbers growing from 28,078 in 1982 to 38,266 by 2012, or 36.3 percent (US Bureau of the Census, 1982; 2012). In contrast, the number of municipalities remained stagnate, expanding from 19,076 to 19,519, or only 0.02 percent. However, proliferation rates vary considerably when districts are categorized by service delivery. For example, the number of library districts grew from 638 to 1,705 during this period, or 167.2 percent. In contrast, fire protection districts increased from 4,560 to 5,865, or 28.6 percent, while cemetery districts went from 1,577 to 1,692, or only 7.3 percent.

This study examines the uneven proliferation of special district governments by county between 1997 and 2007. Unlike much of the previous research, it considers proliferation in terms of size (quantified as total district expenditures) as well as district function. The study uses a model composed of measures of local service demands, state restrictions upon local governments, public entrepreneurship, and other factors relevant to boundary change theory. Thus, it provides an update on the general causes of proliferation as well as a consideration of the smaller, more obscure districts types.


The extent and reach of local government is under constant revision. Thousands of municipalities adjust and readjust their borders each decade through the process of annexation, reorganization, and other legal mechanisms (Steinbauer, Hudson, Hayes, & Facer II, 2002; Waldner, Rice, & Smith, 2013). Hundreds of new cities and special districts arise (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2012) while hundreds more are abandoned or dissolved altogether (Leigland, 1990; Bauroth, 2010; Wilde & Anderson, 2012). Complicating jurisdictions even further is the recent tendency by local governments to establish cooperative agreements with business organizations, nonprofit corporations, and other local governments (Hawkins, 2010). A local government's boundaries determines its service obligations and sets the parameters for relationships with other governments. Consequently, any upheaval involving governmental boundaries has important implications for American federalism (Feiock & Carr, 2001). Constant alterations to local jurisdictions can not only upset the established equilibrium within a particular region but lead to political transformation (Perrenod, 1984; Burns, 1994).

Boundary change theory argues that the seemingly endless modifications to local jurisdictions are not as random as first appears. …

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