Florida Special District Handbook Online:
Introduction to Special Districts

What are Special Districts?

Special districts are very similar to counties or municipalities. In fact, they are more alike than different. Generally, Florida's laws treat them the same. The difference is their purpose. Counties and municipalities exist to provide a wide range of general-purpose governmental services. On the other hand, special districts are created to provide specialized governmental services. Special districts have limited, explicit authority - not implied authority - that is specified in its charter and / or the laws under which it operates.

Specifically, a special district . . .

  • is a unit of local government (i.e., a collegial body with authority to govern public services and facilities) created for a special-purpose;
  • has jurisdiction to operate within limited geographical boundary;
  • is created by general law, special act, local ordinance, or by rule of the Governor and Cabinet.
    • The Florida Legislature creates independent and dependent special districts by passing a special act.
    • The Governor and Cabinet (when meeting as the Florida Land and Water Adjudicatory Commission) create independent community development districts with a size of 2,500 acres or more and regional water supply authorities by rule (Florida Administrative Code) pursuant to Chapter 120, Florida Statutes.
    • Municipalities and counties create special districts by passing a local ordinance.
    • General law authority creates certain types of special districts and allows counties and municipalities to declare a need to use them by passing a resolution. In addition, other general law authority authorizes counties and municipalities to establish special districts.

For more information see Creating Special Districts.

By definition, these entities are not special districts: 

For financial reporting and other purposes, special districts are classified as either "dependent" or "independent"

What are Dependent Special Districts?

Dependent special districts have at least one of the following characteristics:

  • Its governing body members are identical to the governing body members of a single county or a single municipality.
  • Its governing body members are appointed by the governing body of a single county or a single municipality.
  • During unexpired terms, its governing body members are subject to removal at will by the governing body of a single county or a single municipality.
  • Its budget requires approval through an affirmative vote by the governing body of a single county or a single municipality.
  • Its budget can be vetoed by the governing body of a single county or a single municipality.

What are Independent Special Districts?

Independent special districts do not have any dependent characteristics. A special district that includes more than one county is independent unless the special district lies wholly within the boundaries of a single municipality.

A Brief History of Special Districts

Benjamin Franklin established the first special district on December 7, 1736, when he created the Union Fire Company of Philadelphia, a volunteer fire department. Residents in a certain neighborhood paid a fee to receive fire protection services. Any resident not paying the fee had no fire protection services. Soon, many volunteer fire departments formed throughout Philadelphia. This prompted Franklin to boast that his city had the best fire service in the world.

In Florida, the first special districts were created almost 190 years ago. Then, Florida was a territory of log settlements scattered between the only two cities, Pensacola and St. Augustine. The entire territory consisted of two large counties, Escambia and St. Johns, whose contiguous border was defined by the Suwannee River. Because no roads existed, the Territorial legislators had to make the long, difficult sea voyage between the co-capitals, Pensacola and St. Augustine. In 1822, the legislators voted to establish a capital in a more convenient location. A year later, two men met on a pine-covered hill, halfway between Pensacola and St. Augustine, and chose the site of the new capital. Within a year, Florida's first Capitol, a small log cabin just big enough for all six legislators, was built in what is today Tallahassee.

Early, Floridians realized that the transportation needs of a growing territory could be effectively managed by a group of local citizens organized into a district with vested powers. During the same session that the decision was made to move the capital, the Territorial Legislature also authorized the creation of the first special districts in Florida by enacting the Road, Highway, and Ferry Act of 1822. Created to establish and maintain public roads, the first road districts had no taxation authority and solved their labor needs by conscription. Men failing to report to work were fined one dollar per day.

In 1845, soon after Florida became a state, the Legislature went a step further and established the first special district by special act. Five commissioners were empowered to drain the "Alachua Savannah". To finance the project, the first special assessments were made on landowners based on the number of acres owned and the benefit derived.

The popularity of special districts to fund public works continued throughout the end of the 19th century as more settlers came to Florida. By the 1920's, the population had increased substantially in response to Florida's land boom. Many special districts were created to finance large engineering projects. Some of these special districts are still in existence today, such as the South Florida Conservancy District and the Florida Inland Navigation District. By the 1930's, the surge of new residents created the need for the first mosquito eradication district and other very specialized districts. After World War II, the baby boom and Florida's growing popularity created the need for a variety of new special districts, such as aviation authorities and hyacinth control districts. Soon, beach erosion, hospital, and fire control special districts grew rapidly along with the traditional road, bridge, and drainage special districts.

Uniform Special District Accountability Act

In 1989, the Florida Legislature passed the Uniform Special District Accountability Act (Chapter 189, Florida Statutes - Uniform Special District Accountability Act). Almost every year, the Florida Legislature revises and updates this Act.

The Act provides the general requirements for all types of special districts, although it excludes certain types of special districts from certain sections, often because another general law provides specific requirements for that type of special district. Requirements of the Act include:

  • Creation, merger, and dissolution processes
  • Charter content
  • Financial reporting
  • Taxation and assessments
  • Election procedures
  • Operational requirements, such as mandatory compliance with Government-in-the-Sunshine, ethics, and comprehensive planning laws.

Special District Advantages - Reasons Special Districts Are Created

  • Special districts empower citizens to govern their own neighborhood / community.
  • Special districts provide opportunities for citizens to get involved in the governance of their community since it's possible for them to serve on the district's governing body and it's more convenient for citizens to attend meetings, which are usually held near their homes.
  • Special districts can be a financing mechanism to help the private and public sectors govern, finance, construct, operate, and maintain essential public services and facilities.
  • Special districts provide services in which only those who receive a benefit pay for them.
  • Special districts can provide enhanced / specialized public services in response to citizen demand that a county or municipality is unable or unwilling to offer.
  • Special districts can have an appointed governing body so that people with the appropriate expertise and skills can govern and oversee the specialized function(s).
  • Special districts allow municipalities and counties to focus more on general government issues.
  • Special districts provide for a local special-purpose governmental agency with funding, employment, and missions separate from local general-purpose government.
  • Special districts provide governmental services when the need transcends the boundaries, responsibilities, and authority of individual counties and municipalities. This is one reason we have regional and multi-county special districts.
  • Special districts can help protect property values by continuously providing and maintaining services and facilities.
  • Special districts can help save money for citizens by selling tax-exempt bonds, purchasing goods and services tax-free, and participating in state programs and initiatives, such as state-term contracting and purchasing commodities and certain contractual services from the purchasing agreements of other special districts, municipalities, or counties.
  • Special districts maintain the financial integrity of the special district by limiting its liability to civil lawsuits and providing state assistance in the event of a financial emergency.
  • Special districts recruit qualified employees by offering governmental employment benefits and incentives, such as possible participation in the Florida Retirement System. Any independent special district created under a special act or general law for the purpose of providing urban infrastructure or services may provide housing and housing assistance for its employed personnel whose total annual household income does not exceed 140 percent of the area median income, adjusted for family size.
  • Special districts ensures accountability of public resources, since special districts are held to the same high standards as municipalities and counties.

Contact Someone Who Can Answer Questions About Special Districts

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