McCormick: Special Districts Stress Focused Services, Prudent Planning

Special districts often don’t receive as much attention as other types of government. Unfortunately, when they do, it is sometimes inaccurate or even misleading. In fact, some news reports have published without even contacting us to ask questions. The truth is that we welcome the opportunity to share facts about how special districts operate and manage their fiscal health as they provide essential local services and infrastructure to millions of Californians.

In Orange County, special districts provide utilities to some of the area’s best planned communities. They provide sanitation and water services throughout the region, park and recreation services, mosquito and vector control, and even maintain cemeteries. The award-winning Placentia Library District exists because voters created this special district that has become a community treasure.

Recently, a few critics have opined that special districts save unnecessarily large amounts of reserves, citing a seriously flawed Little Hoover Commission report from nearly 20 years ago. It’s unusual to hear people complain that government is being too prudent and not spending enough money, but there’s always room for improvement. Fortunately, the more recent Commission study of 2017 drew more balanced conclusions and used more relevant, accurate information and methodology. It stated that special districts are the “workhorses” of public service delivery, but that they could do a better job of telling their story. We agree.

Yet still, those who hope to find fault will find it. One recent Orange County media report on special districts prominently cited a quote from Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association President Jon Coupal, who said that it was his opinion that “government entities” were “hoarding” money. The problem is that Coupal’s predictable stance was in reference to government generally, not just special districts as portrayed by the article. In his full testimony, Coupal went on to stress that he does not see special districts as inherently “good or bad.”

The same article that misinterpreted Coupal’s quote, sought to demonstrate the alleged “hoarding” of money by adding up the total assets and savings of every special district, joint powers authority, and even some corporations and calling it all special district reserves. This was also problematic, considering the largest entity they included was not a special district. It was the Inland Empire Health Plan, which is a not-for-profit Medi-Cal and Medicare health plan with nearly $2 billion in assets. The article also failed to recognize the difference between investments in infrastructure and cash on hand—big difference.

When analyzing local governance, it’s important to gather the right data. It’s also necessary to correctly interpret the data. Asking the local agencies themselves is a good start to an accurate assessment.

For example, most special districts provide services using highly specialized infrastructure that make it difficult to compare their financial needs with general purpose governments, such as cities and counties. While general purpose governments typically spend a large portion of their general fund on personnel and day-to-day programs, most special districts are different. For instance, a small water district may employ relatively few people but must budget for developing and maintaining a complex and highly-engineered delivery system and facilities. Planning and saving for the eventual replacement of that infrastructure is responsible management.

But again, we do agree with critics on that one key point: special districts can do more to tell their story. Because special district services aren’t typically controversial, like most of the issues dominating today’s media, they get less coverage. Very few struggling newspapers are going to send a reporter to cover dry, technical meetings, despite our pleas that they do so and our efforts to offer interesting public happenings. But lack of controversy does not mean special district services are insignificant. That is why the California Special Districts Association and our members work so hard to get media coverage of our issues and we are grateful for the few opportunities we get to speak out, such as the Voice of OC has provided us.

Special districts focus on providing a single, specialized service or small suite of services as requested and approved by the voters. They are formed to meet a local need with local control. And, they are able to be efficient and effective because they are experts specializing in local service. Virtually all special districts want their communities to better understand their services and issues, and we will continue to shout out their stories at every opportunity.

Interested readers can learn more about special districts at Districts Make The Difference. Now through September 30, high school and college students may visit this site to compete for a scholarship by submitting a short video about special districts serving their community.

Neil McCormick is the chief executive officer of the California Special Districts Association, which promotes good governance and improved local services through professional development, advocacy, and other services for all types of independent special districts.

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org