Special Districts

According to the Census of Governments, a tally of local governments by the U.S. Census Bureau every five years, 885 special districts have been created since 2007. The country's 38,266 special districts make up more than 40 percent of all local governments, and operate with significant autonomy performing services ranging from cemetery maintenance and mosquito abatement to fire protection. Nationwide, the number of special districts has grown at a steady clip for more than 70 years. The first Census of Governments, in 1942, put the number of special districts at 8,299, about a fifth of the current number. A special district has to have a significant level of autonomy in order to be counted as an independent government under Census standards, so the actual number of districts may be greater.

The first special districts were created during the New Deal, as a way to quickly pump money into the economy without having to go through multiple layers of state and local government, said Larita Killian, a research fellow at the Center for Business and Economic Research and an expert in special districts. "They said, 'We've got money to send you for housing and conservation, but we want you to set up special districts,'" she said. "Historically, the federal government has encouraged and in some cases required special districts." Later, as families flocked to the suburbs, special districts flourished as a way to make services like water and trash pickup available outside of city boundaries.