Special Districts Defined
A special district means . . .
". . . a unit of local government created for a special purpose, as opposed to a general-purpose, which has jurisdiction to operate within a limited geographic boundary and is created by general law, special act, local ordinance, or by rule of the Governor and Cabinet." (Section 189.012(6), Florida Statutes)
Simply put, special districts are units of local special-purpose government. Special districts are very similar to municipalities and counties (local general-purpose government). In fact, all three are more alike than they are different. All three:
- Have a governing body with policy-making powers
- Provide essential governmental services and facilities
- Operate in a limited geographical area
The main difference is their purpose:
- Municipalities and counties:
- Provide local general governmental services
- Have broad powers
- Special districts:
- Provide local specialized governmental services
- Have very limited, related, and specific prescribed powers
The terms "public body", "body politic", and "political subdivision" include special districts (Section 1.01(8), Florida Statutes).
Entities Excluded from the Special District Definition
The following entities are not special districts:
- School districts
- Community colleges
- Municipal Service Taxing or Benefit Units
- Seminole and Miccosukee Tribe Special Improvement Districts
- Boards providing electrical services that are political subdivisions of a municipality or part of a municipality
- Entities with a governing body that does not have policy-making powers, such as advisory boards
"Dependent" Special Districts Defined
Dependent special districts are under some control by a single county or municipality (one or more of the following):
- May have identical governing body members (but always a separate governing body)
- May appoint all members to the special district's governing body
- May remove any member at will during unexpired terms
- May approve the special district's budget
- May veto the special district's budget
"Independent" Special Districts Defined
An independent special district does not have any dependent characteristics. A special district that includes more than one county is independent unless it lies wholly within the boundaries of a single municipality.
The Significance of "Dependent" and "Independent" Special Districts
- Generally, counties and municipalities are authorized to create dependent special districts only. A few exception exist, such as independent Community Development Districts that are smaller than 1,000 acres.
- Certain dependent special districts may have their financial reports and audits included with those of their local governing authority. This can be a cost-savings for dependent special districts instead of having to pay for a separate independent financial audit. Independent special districts must report separately from municipalities and counties.
- A special district's classification may affect local millage caps. If a dependent special district has the authority to levy ad valorem taxes, its ad valorem millage must be added to the millage of the county or municipality that created it. The combined total of their millage rates must not exceed the millage cap set for the county or municipality.
Examples of Special Districts
Throughout Florida, more than 1,630 active special districts provide more than 75 specialized governmental functions. Some of these special districts operate in multiple counties, such as the Water Management Districts. Other special districts serve a small neighborhood, helping residents develop and maintain common areas. Popular types of special districts include:
- Special districts that allow new residential, commercial, and industrial developments to occur by financing, building, and maintaining common infrastructure and facilities, such as roads, landscaping, water and sewer lines, street lighting, and drainage systems
- Special districts that help attract businesses and retail establishments to specific areas by redeveloping, improving, and maintaining commercial areas and facilities, such as sidewalks, building facades, bicycle lanes, parking facilities, signs, and roadways
- Special districts that protect life and property by providing fire control and rescue, flood control, and emergency medical services
- Special districts that provide major infrastructure and facilities serving large areas, such as airports, roads and bridges, expressways, sea ports, waterways, and utility systems
- Special districts that help make Florida a desirable place to live, work, and visit by providing civic, health, educational, conservation, parks, sports, and recreational facilities. For a detailed list of special district functions, please see the Official List of Special Districts Online - Special District Primary Functions Cross Reference List.
How Special District are Created
- The Florida Legislature may pass a special act creating dependent, independent, and multi-county special districts.
- Municipalities and counties may pass an ordinance to create special districts within their boundaries. Usually, these special districts are dependent. However, there are exceptions, such as independent community development districts with less than 1,000 acres and certain special districts created by more than one municipality or county through an Interlocal Agreement.
- The Governor and Cabinet may adopt a rule creating special districts, such as community development districts larger than 1,000 acres and regional water supply authorities.
- Certain general laws create certain types of special districts in each county or municipality. Counties and municipalities may declare a need for such a special district by passing a resolution. In addition, a general law authorizes counties and municipalities to enter into interlocal agreements with each other to provide services and facilities. When these Interlocal Agreements create a governing body to govern a public function, a special district may be created.
For detailed information, see Florida Special District Handbook Online: Creating Special Districts.
How Special Districts are Dissolved
Special districts are usually dissolved through the same method by which they were created. For example, a special district created by a local ordinance would need to be dissolved by a local ordinance. For detailed information, see Florida Special District Handbook Online: Dissolving Special Districts.