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Census reports 3600 new special districts created since 1987.

Special districts are the fastest-growing form of government in the nation, according to figures released recently by the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly 3,600 new special-purpose districts and authorities were created during the past five years.

The 12 percent growth in special districts "continues the upward trend of the past few decades to create new government units to meet the additional demands for local government services," according to Alan Stevens of the the Bureau's Governments Division. The number of special districts created between 1987 and 1992 was the largest of any five year period for the past thirty years.

Since-1972, the number of special districts has increased by 39 percent. In contrast, during the same time period, the number of municipalities grew by only 4 percent; the number of townships dipped by 2 percent; the number of counties remained unchanged; and the number of school districts decreased by nearly 8 percent.

The new report, 'Government Units in 19927 contains preliminary information that will be covered in more detail in the Census Bureau's forthcoming "Government Organization" report (Volume I, Number 1) of the 1992 Census of Governments. Copies of the preliminary 8-page report (#GCP92-1P) are available free of charge from NLC's Publications Sales office, 1301 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20004-1763.

Special District Frofile

Special districts are independent, limited-purpose government units. Their mission is to provide specific services that are not being supplied by an existing government, or that might be provided more effectively, cheaply, efficiently, or equitably through a special mechanism. Special districts in the U.S. spend about $60 billion annually.

Special districts are appealing because they can operate regionally, independently, and meet a limited and defined service need without many of the financial restrictions that hinder traditional local governments

But these same characteristics concern many observers. The problems cited: lack of accountability, no public or political controls on spending, and the provision of benefits to a narrow group of people.

Each new special district also adds yet another layer of complexity to the already-confusing patchwork that is the U.S. intergovernmental system. There are now 86,692 local governments in the nation, one local government unit for every 42 square miles of U.S. territory.

A few special districts, like the New York City Transportation Authority, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, and the Arizona Salt River Project, are behemoth multi-billion dollar enterprises with thousands of employees.

But most special districts are small organizations. The typical special district has few employees, virtually no debt, and is located outside a metropolitan area. In 1987, only 40 percent of special districts directly provided a program or service with their own employees. Most special districts do not have property taxing powers. Those that have such powers do not use them extensively. Special districts rely heavily on user and utility fees to finance their operations. They also receive revenue transfers from other governmental units, principally the federal government and sister localities.

More than 91 percent of special districts perform one single function. Approximately one-fifth of the districts engage in some type of natural resource activity, such as drainage, flood control, irrigation, or soil and water conservation.

Special district governments performing selected functions showed significant increases during the 1987-1992 period. Districts created to handle solid waste management grew the most, increasing by 173 percent, followed by industrial development and mortgage credit, up by 75 percent, and natural resources and water supply, up by 36 percent.

Texas created the greatest number of new special districts, 500, during the past five years. Other states creating large numbers of new special districts were Pennsylvania (439), Missouri (226), Colorado (232), and Illinois (212). Nebraska was the only state to eliminate a substantial number of special districts, 44, during the last five years. Nebraska also eliminated 110 school districts during the same period.

Other Local Government Trends

Almost half of the nation's total local governments are found in just nine states: California, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Each of these states has more than 3,000 local government units.

Illinois, with 6,809, has the greatest number of local governments. The average number of local government units per state is 1,734. Hawaii, with 20, has the fewest local governments. The Aloha State has 16 special districts, three counties, and one municipality, Honolulu.

Illinois also has the greatest total number of municipalities, 1,282. Other states with large numbers of municipalities are Texas (1,171), Pennsylvania (1,022), Iowa (953), Ohio (942), Missouri (933), and Minnesota (854.)

Over the past five years, North Carolina led the nation in new municipal incorporations, with 23, followed by California (18) and Texas (15). The largest number of municipal disincorporations, 5, occurred in Vermont.

There are 25 fewer township governments today than five years ago. Township governments exist in 20 states, and vary widely in their governmental powers and functions.

More than half of the recent township disincorporations occurred in South Dakota. Minnesota was the only state to create new township governments during the past five years.

The number of school districts, the other major type of U.S. special district, decreased slightly to 14,556 between 1987 and 1992. There were more than 108,000 school districts in the U.S. in 1942.
 of Special
State Districts
California 2,897
Texas 2,392
Pennsylvania 2,244
Kansas 1,506
Missouri 1,443
Colorad 1,317
Washington 1,192
Nebraska 1,075
Indiana 1,000
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
 1992 1982 1972
County 3,043 3,041 3,044
Municipal 19,296 19,076 18,517
Township 16,666 16,734 16,991
Special District 33,131 28,078 23,885
School District 14,556 14,851 15,781
TOTAL 86,692 81,780 78,218
 Source: U.S. Census Bursau
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Author:Fletcher, Jeff
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Feb 22, 1993
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