Special Districts as Institutional Choices for Service Delivery: Views of Public Officials on the Performance of Community Development Districts in Florida

By Scutelnicu, Gina | Public Administration Quarterly, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Special Districts as Institutional Choices for Service Delivery: Views of Public Officials on the Performance of Community Development Districts in Florida


Scutelnicu, Gina, Public Administration Quarterly


INTRODUCTION

Special districts represent an important component of the American governing structure. They are independent, special- purpose units of local government (other than counties, municipalities, townships or school districts) that have administrative and financial independence from general-purpose governments such as counties and cities (U.S. Census, 2007). These entities of government are established by a legislative body to provide specialized services within limited boundaries (Mitchell, 2001).

Special districts are the most common form of local government. According to the U.S. Census (2012) there are 89,004 local governments1 in the United States. Special districts represent 41.8% of the total number of local governments, followed by municipalities with 21.6%, townships with 18.4% and counties with 3.4%. Besides being the most common form of local government, special districts have also increased dramatically in the last six decades. Districts more than tripled their number in the last 60 years in comparison with a 8.6% increase for municipalities and a slight decrease of 0.7% for counties and 4.9% for townships. This increase in the number of special districts is explained by numerous reasons: service delivery for certain areas is better handled by special districts (Bollens, 1957), districts were created as a consequence of legal, institutional and political factors (Foster, 1997) and districts are financial mechanisms (Leigland, 1994; Porter, Lin, Jakubiak & Peiser, 1992) whose proliferation overcomes the fiscal restrictions placed on local general-purpose governments (Bowler & Donovan, 2004; McCabe, 2000).

The extant literature distinguishes special purpose governments by different names. Eger III (2006) classifies special purpose entities into three main typologies: ''public authorities,'' ''special districts,'' and ''government corporations.'' He asserts that the degree of financial and governance autonomy explains the diversity of special-purpose governments. Therefore, special purpose entities range from "controlled authority" which is the least autonomous combination of financial and governance criteria to the most autonomous entities called "directly accountable commissions (Eger III, 2006)." Porter et al. (1992) acknowledge that special districts are known by different names such as districts, authorities, boards and commissions. Foster (1997) divides special-purpose governments in two categories: "taxing districts" which are local governmental entities with the power to tax and levy special assessments and "public authorities" which are government corporations without property taxing powers. Even though the aforementioned typologies of special-purpose entities - ''public authorities,'' ''special districts," ''government corporations,'' "boards" and "commissions" are used interchangeably in the extant literature, this study will focus on the category of independent special districts or those special- purpose entities that have both high governing and financial autonomy in Eger's III (2006) words.

Community Development Districts (CDDs) are localized governmental entities which provide fundamental infrastructure improvements that are geared toward new development within the state of Florida. They are a specific subtype of special purpose entities which differentiate themselves from local governments of general-purpose through specific features. These are: narrow specialization (districts are authorized to provide specific types of infrastructure services), administrative and financial independence (districts are governed by independent boards of supervisors and levy ad-valorem taxes on property, impose special assessments, charges and fees and issue bonds), geographic flexibility (districts partially or totally overlap other jurisdictions) and low political visibility (districts are often being characterized as "shadow governments" (Axelrod, 1992) because the general public is unaware of the functions they perform). …

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