Due to fiscal constraints and demands for increased accountability, scholars and public officials are reviewing the structure and reporting practices of local governments. These efforts are often incomplete, however, because they bypass special districts, which now comprise over 40 percent of all local governments. The proliferation of special districts has the potential to increase government costs, redirect the allocation of scarce resources, remove debt and expenditure practices from the public eye, and reduce democratic controls over elected officials. This paper highlights some of the public interest concerns related to these entities to inform future, localized research.
For decades, scholars have approached special districts from two opposing theoretical perspectives: institutional reform and public choice. Literature from these opposing perspectives is used to analyze special districts along three dimensions: efficiency and economy of operations, policy alignment and allocation of resources, and democratic accountability. This paper uses the U.S. Census Bureau definition of special districts, though alternative definitions are discussed. Efforts by four states (Florida, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and New York) to improve local government, and their varying approaches to special districts, are reviewed, leading to the conclusion that the complex issues related to special districts must be resolved within state contexts.