Special Districts – what are they?


In the last few posts I have mentioned “Special Districts”. This post will provide some history and explain what Special Districts are.

The Central Valley of California is one of the world’s greatest, both in production and in size. It’s 50-mile width is tucked between two notable mountain ranges, lengthwise the valley stretches 600 miles north and south, dotting the countryside with farms, towns and cities. As big as England and almost as long as Massachusetts, Vermont and New Jersey combined the Central Valley produces one third of all the table foods grown and ninety percent of all the fresh vegetables consumed in the U.S., thus becoming the bread basket of America. Altogether 269 different crops are grown throughout this fertile land. The value of a single year of agriculture production today is greater then all the gold mined in California.

What is truly startling about this bountiful harvest is the fact that much of the southern half of the valley receives less yearly rainfall than North Africa. Once designated a desert on early California maps, the vast acreage has been transformed into an oasis.

The miracle that caused this transformation of desert into abundant farmland was, and is, simply water. However, prior to 1887 water was not available to most of the farmers in Southern California.

When California was granted statehood in 1850, it adopted the law of “riparian rights”. The rule dictates that the owner of a stream bordering his land had full rights to the use of the water and those owners not contiguous to the stream had no rights at all. Landowners with such water rights could monopolize its use. One such landowner was Henry Miller. He owned over 1,000,000 acres of land and controlled the riparian rights to nearly 100 miles of the San Joaquin River as well as thousands of acres along the Fresno, Kern and King Rivers. In a legal battle, in 1861, with another land baron who hoped to validate an alternate system of defining water rights, “appropriative rights,” or the right to divert upstream flows, the California Supreme Court ruled in Lux v. Haggin that Miller had the right to the use of the Kern River undiminished in quality and quantity since he owned all the lands abutting that river.

The Central Valley farmers were outraged because they were denied access to needed water; water which they now had to buy from landholders like Henry Miller. They organized a legal challenge to this ruling in the California legislature. In a special session in 1887, lawmakers debated issues of appropriation, riparianism and passed the Wright Act legislation. This law provided for the creation of “special districts” for irrigation under local public control. A steady, dependable supply of water meant land could be devoted to orchard, vine, and row crops that flourished during the long, hot summer months. In ten years, the Central Valley was transformed into over 7,000 independent farms.

Since their inception in 1887, the number of special districts has grown to about 3,400, with 43 in Contra Costa County. They run the alphabet in the services provided, from Airport districts to Zoo districts, with operating costs running approximately $26 billion per year.

Special districts are a type of local government that delivers specific public services within defined boundaries. Under California Law a Special District can be formed to provide services to the public when there is a need that is not being provided by a City or County. When residents or landowners want new services or higher levels of existing services, they can form a district to pay for them. Fire districts, water districts, and pest abatement districts exist today because taxpayers were willing to pay for public services they wanted.

Special districts in California provide over 50 types of diverse services including, water, mosquito abatement, irrigation, fire, libraries, cemeteries, sanitation, lighting, parks and recreation, street maintenance, airports, harbors, police protection, trash collection, and many others. Some Special districts serve a single purpose, such as sewage treatment. Others address multiple areas of service, such as community service districts, which can offer up to 15 types of services.

Special districts enjoy many of the same governing powers as cities and counties. They can enter into contracts, employ workers, and acquire real property through purchase or eminent domain. They can also issue debt, impose taxes, levy assessments, and many charge fees for their services and like other forms of government can sue and be sued.

There are various types of special districts: Dependent district– The district is governed by a city council or county board of supervisors, directly or indirectly; Independent district-The district is governed by an elected board; Enterprise districts– These districts are able to charge fees for some or all of their services, i.e. garbage, sewer and water; Non-enterprise districts– Generally do not charge for their services, i.e. fire protection, libraries; Combination districts-The preponderance of the fees charged does not make a significant portion of the district’s revenues; Single purpose district-The district provides a single service or function, i.e. street lighting; and Multipurpose district-The district provides at least two services, i.e. fire districts provide fire suppression, EMS, hazardous materials mitigation, technical rescue, fire prevention services, and arson investigation.

The city of Oakley has three main special districts. The Diablo Water District is an independent/enterprise special district formed by a vote of Oakley area residents, in May of 1953. The district is controlled by an elected five-member Board of Directors. Diablo Water District’s purpose is to serve a safe, adequate and reliable supply of water to the residents and businesses of Oakley. All monies collected by the District are used to maintain the water pipes and improve the quality and reliability of the water system. You are billed monthly for your water use. Their service area includes Oakley and portions of Bethel Island and Knightsen.

Initially known as the Oakley Sanitary District, the Ironhouse Sanitary District dates back to 1945 when Oakley residents voted unanimously for its establishment. Controlled by an elected five-member Board of Directors it is an independent/enterprise district. The Sanitary District takes care of the sewer and wastewater services and manages the contract with Oakley Disposal for garbage pickup. Oakley Disposal bills quarterly and the Ironhouse payment appears yearly as a line item on your property tax bill. Their service area includes Oakley and Bethel Island.

East Contra Costa County Fire Protection District was formed, in 2002, by combining East Diablo Fire District, Oakley-Knightsen Fire District and Bethel Island Fire District. Prior to 2002 the Oakley Fire Protection District consisted of sixty paid on-call personnel plus an administrative staff of one full-time fire chief, one part-time assistant chief and a secretary. The district had two fire stations, Station 93 serving the City of Oakley and Station 94 serving the township of Knightsen.

East County Fire District serves the cities of Oakley and Brentwood, as well as the unincorporated areas of Bethel Island, Byron, Discovery Bay, Knightsen, and Marsh Creek-Morgan Territory. There is one station in Oakley, Station 93, with a second one planned in the Summer Lakes development on Cypress Road. The Fire District is technically an Independent District, but has operated as a Dependent District under the governance and management of the County Board of Supervisors. The payment for this service is allocated from your property tax.

The City works closely with these Special Districts and we enjoy a good relationship with each. The City does not, however, have any measure of control over the operations of these districts. They each have a governing board and any concerns or suggestions regarding the operations of these districts should be directed to the staff or members of the governing boards of these districts. Visit the websites of these districts to learn more about their operations: Ironhouse ; Diablo; and ECCFPD  

Special districts are primarily accountable to the voters who elect their boards of directors and the customers who use their services. However, most Californians would be hard pressed to identify the providers of some of their most basic services or to assess whether the fees are appropriate and the quality is what it should be.

Research conducted by the Little Hoover Commission found that in Sacramento and Contra Costa counties the electoral process for special districts is less vigorous than for city council elections. It found that fewer races were competitive, more seats were filled with appointments and fewer voters participated in special district elections than other local elections.

About Kevin

Mayor - City of Oakley, Manager of Mainframe Operations and Optimization – USS-POSCO INDUSTRIES, Co-Founder and Board Member - Friends of Oakley A Community Foundation, Commissioner - Contra Costa Transportation Authority, Board Member - Tri Delta Transit, Transplan, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority and RD 2137, Advisory Board – Opportunity Junction
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