What are Special Districts?

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; and
  • Operate within a limited geographical area. 

The main difference is their purpose:

  • Municipalities and counties:
    • Provide local general governmental services; and
    • Have broad powers.
  • Special districts:
    • Provide local specialized governmental services; and
    • Have very limited, related and explicit prescribed powers. 

The terms "public body", "body politic", and "political subdivision" include special districts (see section 1.01(8), Florida Statutes).

Entities Excluded from the Special District Definition

The following entities are not special districts:

The Status of Special Districts: "Dependent" and "Independent"

Special districts are classified as either "dependent" or "independent".

What are Dependent Special Districts?

Dependent special districts are under some control by a single county or municipality (one or more of the following characteristics):

  • 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. 

What are Independent Special Districts?

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 only dependent special districts. A few exception exist, such as independent Community Development Districts that are smaller than 2,500 acres. For more information see Creating Special Districts.
  • 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 1,700 active special districts provide more than 80 specialized governmental functions (see the Official List of Special Districts Online). 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

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.

Laws that Apply to Special Districts

Each special district, depending on the type of special district and its explicit authority, must comply with numerous laws, including but not limited to the following Constitutional provisions, general laws and federal laws. Additionally, all special districts are subject to charter requirements, if any, and Chapter 189, Florida Statutes - Uniform Special District Accountability Act (Act). The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, Special District Accountability Program, can provide technical advisory assistance only as it relates to the provisions of the Act (see additional information about the Act and a contact link at the bottom of this page). Special districts should direct all other questions to its legal counsel and/or the appropriate agency contact, if appropriate (see Reporting Requirements By Agency and Agency Contacts).

Constitutional Provisions That Apply to Special Districts

  1. Article I, Section 24 - Access to Public Records and Meetings
  2. Article III, Section 11 - Prohibited Special Laws
  3. Article VII, Section 8 - Aid to Local Governments
  4. Article VII, Section 9 - Local Taxes
  5. Article VII, Section 10 - Pledging Credit
  6. Article VII, Section 12 - Local Bonds
  7. Article VIII, Section 4 - Transfer of Powers
  8. Article VIII, Section 6 - Schedule to Article VIII
  9. Article XII, Section 15 - Special District Taxes

General Laws That Apply to Special Districts

  1. Sections 11.40 - 11.47, Florida Statutes, Audits, Penalties
  2. Chapters 97 – 106, Florida Statutes, Electors and Elections
  3. Chapter 112, Florida Statutes, Public Officers and Employees: General Provisions
  4. Chapter 119, Florida Statutes, Public Records
  5. Chapter 120, Florida Statutes, Administrative Procedures Act
  6. Chapter 121, Florida Statutes, Florida Retirement System
  7. Chapter 125, Florida Statutes, County Government
  8. Chapter 132, Florida Statutes, General Refunding Law
  9. Chapter 159, Florida Statutes, Bond Financing
  10. Chapter 164, Florida Statutes, Governmental Disputes
  11. Chapter 166, Florida Statutes, Municipalities
  12. Chapter 171, Florida Statutes, Local Government Boundaries
  13. Chapter 175, Florida Statutes, Firefighter Pensions
  14. Chapter 197, Florida Statutes, Tax Collections, Sales, and Liens
  15. Chapter 200, Florida Statutes, Determination of Millage
  16. Chapter 215, Florida Statutes, Financial Matters: General Provisions
  17. Chapter 218, Florida Statutes, Financial Matters Pertaining to Political Subdivisions
  18. Chapter 255, Florida Statutes, Public Property and Publicly Owned Buildings
  19. Chapter 274, Florida Statutes, Tangible Personal Property Owned by Local Governments
  20. Chapter 279, Florida Statutes, Registered Public Obligations
  21. Section 286.011, Florida Statutes, Public Meetings and Records; Public Inspection; Criminal and Civil Penalties (Government in the Sunshine)
  22. Section 287.055, Florida Statutes, Acquisition of Professional Architectural, Engineering, Landscape Architectural, or Surveying and Mapping Services; Definitions; Procedures; Contingent Fees Prohibited; Penalties (Consultants Competitive Negotiations Act)
  23. Chapter 403, Florida Statutes, Environmental Control
  24. Chapter 440, Florida Statutes, Workers’ Compensation
  25. Chapter 760, Florida Statutes, Discrimination in the Treatment of Persons; Minority Representation
  26. Chapter 768, Florida Statutes, Negligence (Sovereign Immunity)

General Laws Unique to a Special District's Special Purpose

  1. Chapter 125, Part V, Florida Statutes, Children's Services
  2. Chapter 153, Part II, Florida Statutes, County Water and Sewer Districts
  3. Section 154.331, Florida Statutes, County Health and Mental Health Care Special Districts
  4. Chapter 155, Florida Statutes, Hospitals
  5. Chapter 159, Part III, Florida Statutes, Industrial Development Authorities
  6. Chapter 159, Part IV, Florida Statutes, Housing Finance Authorities
  7. Chapter 159, Part V, Florida Statutes, Research and Development Authorities
  8. Chapter 161, Part II, Florida Statutes, Beach and Shore Preservation Districts
  9. Chapter 163, Part I, Florida Statutes, Miscellaneous Programs; Florida Interlocal Cooperation Act of 1969
  10. Chapter 163, Part II, Florida Statutes - Growth Policy; County and Municipal Planning; Land Development Regulation
  11. Chapter 163, Part III, Florida Statutes, Community Redevelopment
  12. Chapter 163, Part IV, Florida Statutes, Neighborhood Improvement Districts
  13. Chapter 163, Part V, Florida Statutes, Regional Transportation Authorities
  14. Chapter 163, Part VI, Florida Statutes, Collaborative Client Information Systems
  15. Chapter 170, Florida Statutes, Supplemental and Alternative Method of Making Local Municipal Improvements
  16. Chapter 190, Florida Statutes, Community Development Districts
  17. Chapter 191, Florida Statutes, Independent Special Fire Control Districts
  18. Chapter 243, Part II, Florida Statutes, Higher Educational Facilities Financing
  19. Section 257.171, Florida Statutes, Multicounty Libraries
  20. Section 265.32, Florida Statutes, County Fine Arts Council
  21. Section 290.0056, Florida Statutes, Enterprise Zone Development Agency
  22. Chapter 298, Florida Statutes, Drainage and Water Control
  23. Chapter 315, Florida Statutes, Port Facilities Financing
  24. Chapter 331, Florida Statutes, Aviation and Aerospace Facilities and Commerce
  25. Chapter 332, Florida Statutes, Airports and Other Air Navigation Facilities
  26. Chapter 336, Florida Statutes, County Road System
  27. Chapter 343, Florida Statutes, Regional Transportation
  28. Chapter 348, Florida Statutes, Expressway and Bridge Authorities
  29. Chapter 373, Florida Statutes, Water Resources
  30. Chapter 374, Florida Statutes, Navigation Districts; Waterways Development
  31. Section 380.0663, Florida Statutes, Land Authority; Creation, Membership, Expenses
  32. Chapter 388, Florida Statutes, Mosquito Control
  33. Chapter 418, Florida Statutes, Recreation Districts
  34. Chapter 421, Part I, Florida Statutes, Housing Authorities
  35. Chapter 582, Florida Statutes, Soil and Water Conservation
  36. Section 1013.355, Florida Statutes, Educational Facilities

Federal Laws That Apply to Special Districts

  1. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
  2. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The 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). The Florida Legislature regularly 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 (see above General Laws Unique to a Special District's Special Purpose). Requirements of the Act include:

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

The remainder of this handbook covers these requirements in detail.

Contact Someone Who Can Answer Questions About Special Districts

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