Special purpose districts (a.k.a. “special districts”) are one of the largest “hidden” legal job and career opportunity markets. The U.S. has more than 51,000 such entities, defined as independent government units separate from general purpose local governments (excluding school districts). In the aggregate, they directly employ tens of thousands of attorneys in both mainstream and JD Advantage jobs and also engage thousands of outside counsel ranging from sole practitioners to large law firms. Like local governments, special purpose districts have a major impact on communities.
Their Justification and Creation
Special purpose districts are customarily created by local legislation to meet a specific local, often multi-jurisdictional need, such as a new service, a higher level of an existing service, or a method of financing, such as a transportation benefit district (airport authorities, light rail, and subway systems are prime examples). They are political subdivisions of the state (or more than one state) and come into existence, acquire legal rights and duties, and are dissolved in accordance with statutory procedures. Enabling legislation sets forth the purpose of the district, procedures for formation, powers, functions and duties, composition of the governing body, methods of finance, and other provisions. The districts are usually quasi-municipal corporations, though some are statutorily defined as municipal corporations.
Special purpose districts cover a wide variety of entities, most of which are officially called “districts” or “authorities.” Not all public agencies so termed, however, are special purpose districts.
The latest edition (2012) of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Census of Governments lists the following activities performed by special purpose districts:
- conventions and visitors bureaus
- electric power
- fire protection
- gas supply
- housing and community development
- industrial development
- mass transit
- mortgage credit
- mosquito abatement
- natural resources
- parking facilities
- parks and recreation
- sea and inland port facilities
- solid waste management
- water supply
Most special purpose districts provide only a single service. However, in some instances, their enabling legislation allows them to provide several, usually related, types of services.
Special purpose districts are becoming more popular. The trend nationally is toward the establishment of new special purpose districts to assume responsibilities that were formerly the province of municipalities. A second trend is the creation of larger, regional special purpose districts that transcend numerous municipal boundaries.
Theoretically, special purpose districts provide municipal services more efficiently and less expensively than municipalities. Special purpose districts may have taxing authority, charge fees directly to businesses and individuals for their services, and/or issue bonds.
Approximately 50 percent of special purpose districts are served by their own, independent law offices. The remainder usually rely on outside counsel.
Special purpose district lawyers perform many of the same functions as corporate in-house counsel in large companies, with an overlay of municipal law responsibilities that mirror some of the responsibilities of city or county attorney offices.