Special District Accountability Program: Responsibilities of the Special District Accountability Program
Every parcel of land in Florida is covered by at least one special district. These special districts serve a necessary and useful function by providing services to residents, businesses, and property. Special districts generate billions in revenues for Florida's economy, create private-sector jobs, and have a substantial impact on the lives of every Floridian and on the state's economy. For these reasons, special districts must be held highly accountable.
Chapter 189, Florida Statutes, Uniform Special District Accountability Act (the "Act") holds all special districts accountable and accessible to state agencies, the municipalities and counties in which they operate, and the citizens they serve. The Department, through its Special District Accountability Program (the "Program"), administers this act. The Act charges the Program with a number of responsibilities as they relate to the purposes of the Act, including helping to ensure special district accountability by providing technical assistance and, when necessary, enforcement as it relates to state and local reporting and filing requirements.
The Program serves many customers: the Florida Legislature, state agencies, municipalities and counties, tax collectors, property appraisers, supervisors of elections, special districts, the public, professional associations, and the private sector.
The Program is the state's only central location for the continuous collection, dissemination, classification, formalizing, and maintenance of constantly changing information about Florida's special districts. The Program is a vital component of Florida's Local Government Financial Reporting System since hundreds of state and local agencies must have up-to-date information about to special districts to:
- Monitor them
- Collect financial and other information from them
- Coordinate activities with them
- Provide information to citizens
- Compile financial audits, budgets, and reports, which includes information about special districts
The Program is completely self-funded through a $175 annual fee paid by special districts reporting more than $3,000 in annual revenues. For more information, see the program's rule - Chapter 73C-24, Florida Administrative Code.
The following is a summary of the Program's responsibilities:
Promoting Open Government By Continuously Compiling and Maintaining the Official List of Special Districts Online and Making it Accessible
The Program compiles, maintains, and continuously updates a master list of all independent and dependent special districts known as the Official List of Special Districts Online. This list is available on the Department's web site to anyone with internet access (see Official List of Special Districts Online - Directory). The list is actually an online database in which users can create and sort their own customized reports by selecting from a number of variables.
Since special districts can be created, dissolved, and merged at any time, along with the fact that other information, such as registered agent and registered office information is constantly changing, the Program must continuously update the data as new information is filed, disseminated, and classified. To ensure that it remains accurate and up-to-date, each year all special districts must review, and if necessary update, the information in the database.
More than 685 state and local governmental agencies must use this list so they can monitor special districts, gather specific information for financial auditing and reporting purposes and to communicate and coordinate activities with them. Since users can create customized reports to find the specific information they need, the Official List of Special Districts eliminates the need for all these state and local agencies to collect, disseminate, classify, maintain and update special district information on their own.
The following are examples of how state and local agencies and others use the list:
- The Florida Auditor General uses the list to compile various lists of special districts that may be subject to an annual financial audit so Auditor General staff can communicate with the special districts and monitor them for compliance. As an example, independent special districts must file independent financial audit reports; dependent special districts may be included in the financial audit report of their local governing authority.
- The Florida Department of Financial Services uses the list to make sure all special districts are submitting an Annual Financial Report for purposes of collecting revenue, expenditure, and long-term debt data.
- The Florida Department of Management Services uses the list to verify whether a special district is eligible to join the Florida Retirement System.
- Special districts use the list to find out about other nearby or similar special districts for purposes of purchasing commodities and certain contractual services from the purchasing agreements of those special districts (thereby saving money).
- The State Board of Administration, Division of Bond Finance uses the list to find out which special districts have bond authority.
- County supervisor of elections offices use the list find out which special districts in their county have elected governing boards.
- County property appraiser offices use the list to find out which special districts in their county have ad valorem assessments.
- County tax collector offices use the list to find out which special districts are collecting assessments and their registered agent's contact information.
- Municipal and county finance staff use the list to find out which dependent special districts in their jurisdictions should be reporting financial information to them for inclusion in their budgets and financial reports.
- Local planning departments use the list to find out about the various public facilities owned by independent special districts with territory in their jurisdictions.
- State and local emergency managers use the list to find out about the independent special districts in their area for mutual aid agreement purposes.
- Elected officials use the list to research how other communities may have used special districts to provide and deliver services or to find out about the types of governmental services being provided in certain areas.
- Citizens use the list to find out contact information for the special districts in which they live.
- The private sector - specifically financial institutions, insurance firms, real estate agents, and accounting firms - use the list to find contact information and to verify other information, such as whether the special district actually exists, and if so, whether it is inactive or active, dependent or independent.
- Professional associations use the list to reach out to specific types of special districts.
Classifying Special Districts
Newly created special districts must register with the Program within 30 days of being created so the Program can determine if the entity meets the definition of special district and if so, whether it is independent or dependent. The information is entered into the Program's database and becomes immediately available through the Official List of Special Districts Online.
Under certain circumstances, the Program must declare special districts inactive for dissolution. Sometimes, when special districts have served their purpose and are no longer needed, the governing boards stop meeting and required financial and other reporting no longer occurs. Other times, the special district's registered agent or the county or municipality in which the special district is located, contacts the Program to report that the district is eligible to be declared inactive. To declare a special district inactive, the Program must publish a newspaper notice proposing to declare the special district inactive so it can be dissolved and allow anyone to file an objection. If no objections are filed, the Program changes the special district's status from active to inactive. This alerts all state and local agencies using the list that financial reporting will no longer occur. Because inactive special districts must be dissolved, the Program notifies the entity that created the special district and requests dissolution.
When special districts are dissolved for any reason, the Program must review the dissolution document to verify that the special district is dissolved, and if so, change the special district's status to dissolved. Users of the Official List of Special Districts Online can create a report by date range to produce a list of dissolved special districts. This helps them determine when special districts may stop filing reports.
Providing Technical Advisory Assistance
One of the Program's primary responsibilities is to promote special district accountability and to help special districts comply with their requirements. The following is a summary of the Program's technical assistance responsibilities:
- The Program maintains and updates the Florida Special District Handbook Online to help special districts understand and comply with state requirements. This handbook covers a number of special district related topics, offers direct links to online reporting, provides contact information for all subject areas, and summarizes when reports and information filings are due. The Program works with approximately 15 state agencies to ensure this handbook covers appropriate topics and remains up-to-date. The Handbook is a "must read" for all special district employees and board members.
- The Program provides technical advisory assistance to special districts regarding the requirements specified in the Act.
- Program staff presents material at various workshops, conferences, meetings and webinars to help special districts, municipalities, and counties, and others comply with special district requirements.
- The Program helps municipalities, counties, legislative staff and the private sector understand special districts and general requirements, including how to create and dissolve special districts.
- The Program monitors special district noncompliance report filings from state agencies, municipalities, and counties to help them collect reports and information from special districts (see Special District Noncompliance Status Reports).
- The Program helps special districts provide delinquent reports and information to state agencies, municipalities, and counties by mailing a certified letter to each noncompliant special district that:
- Notifies the special district that it is noncompliance with a requirement
- Explains the requirement in detail to help the special district understand what it must do to become compliant
- Provides a due date by which the special district must comply; explains how the Program can help coordinate one additional 30-day time extension with the appropriate agency, if necessary
- Explains how the special district can avoid the noncompliance in the future
- Explains the consequences if the special district does not comply by the due date
- Provides contact information for additional technical assistance
Enforcing Financial Reporting Compliance
When a county or a municipality does not comply with required financial reporting, the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee directs the Department of Revenue and the Department of Financial Services to withhold any funds not pledged for bond debt service satisfaction until the county or municipality complies with its financial reporting requirements.
Since special districts often collect their own revenues - as opposed to receiving funds from the Department of Revenue and the Department of Financial Services - this method of enforcement will not work. Instead, if after the Program provides the technical assistance described above and the special district continues to remain in noncompliance, the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee will direct the Department to initiate enforcement by filing a petition for enforcement with the circuit court. Additionally, the Program may declare the special district inactive and seek dissolution.