By: Veronica Harper
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. This is exactly what you need to do when looking into special districts. After my last article, I wanted to shift gears and learn more about special districts, so I began to do some research. I also asked another researcher if they had any information to share so I could learn more. I wasn’t quite prepared for the massive data dump.
As I started to read the information, I quickly realized that I felt unqualified to write this article. Then I thought to myself, that is how a lot of people think about issues such as this. They see the massive amount of data and they retreat, almost immediately, back into their own world. If they don’t have to think about it, then it doesn’t exist. However, this is the worst mistake we could make. So, here I am, writing an article about special districts.
I wanted to start by asking myself a series of questions. It was a way for me to embrace the information without getting overwhelmed. I also wanted to help those who read this article to learn more about special districts as well. I am hopeful that each of you will take an active part in reaching out to your city and county councils, and legislators and start asking questions. Reach out to your neighbors as well and educate them on what special districts are and how they operate.
As I continued to read, I realized I would have to break these questions down and separate them out to get a better understanding of the subject. Instead of giving broad answers to each question, I decided to answer one or two questions in this article, then each week answer a couple more questions so the reader would be able to digest the information, form their own questions.
What are Special Districts?
This is from Title 17B. Limited Purpose Local Government Entities – Special Districts, 17B-1-103.
A special district is:
- a body corporate and politic with perpetual succession;
- (ii) a quasi-municipal corporation; and
- (iii) a political subdivision of the state; and
(b) may sue and be sued.
Yes, but what is a special district? According to the Utah Association of Special Districts,
“they’re units of government focused on day-to-day services such as water conservation, animal control and cemetery maintenance. They’re also instrumental in monitoring legislation that affects our services, something made possible through the Utah Association of Special Districts.” A paragraph later the article mentions they are,
“independent government entities” that do not act as “shadow governments”, instead they “employ professionals who are experts in their field and who share their knowledge to meet specific needs.”
So, are they units of government or independent government entities? Seems like a little word trickery to me. Why did they include the statement about shadow governments? Could it be they are trying to gaslight the public to limit questions or concerns they may have about special districts, while essentially stating what they are (shadow governments)? I do want to make it clear, not all special districts are “questionable” or “shadow”, but some are, and it should be openly discussed. As you read, I would encourage you to have a pen and notepad ready and write down questions you may have.
How many special districts are in Utah?
In 2016 there were approximately 400 special districts in Utah. In a presentation in 2017 given by Michael Curtis and Megan Bolin of the Office of Legislative Research General Counsel, it showed the legislative history of special districts. Prior to 1990, the financing mechanism relating to special districts was scattered throughout the Utah code. The seemingly innocent recodification of special districts started an intricate web of revisions, amendments, and modifications which allowed for special districts to become something other than what they were intended to be by our state constitution.
Four hundred special districts seemed like a significant amount, however, according to the utahgovreport.org website, it states:
“Currently (may change) there are 835 different special districts in Utah.”
The number of special districts has more than doubled in just seven years. Ask yourself why the number of special districts has risen to 835. As I continued to read the report, it mentioned that special districts are in our state constitution. Indeed, they are. Article VI, section 28 [Special privileges forbidden.] states:
“The Legislature shall not delegate to any special commission, private corporation or association, any power to make, supervise or interfere with any municipal improvement, money, property or effects, whether held in trust or otherwise, to levy taxes, to select a capitol site, or to perform any municipal functions.”
Article XI, section 5 [Cities and towns not to be created by special laws – Legislature to provide for the incorporation, organization, dissolution and classification of cities and towns – Charter cities.] states:
“The Legislature may not create cities or towns by special laws.”
Article XI, section 7 [Special service districts.] states:
“The Legislature may by statute authorize: a county, city, or town to establish a special service district within all or any part of the county, city, or town, to be governed by the governing authority of the county, city, or town, and to provide services as provided by statute;”
It struck me as odd that our legislature would do the opposite and enact or modify bills that create special districts that are contrary to our state constitution. Why is our state constitution being disregarded and totally bypassed? These bills are unlawful, and we must get them nullified. Defending Utah has an article that addresses special districts and the nullification process. I will provide a link at the bottom.
We see this with the infrastructures that have already been put in place; The Utah Inland Port Authority, the proposed Inland port extension in Brigham City, Point of the Mountain State Land Authority (The Point, the 15-minute city being built on the old prison grounds), Military Installation Development Authority, and the Utah Lake Authority, to mention a few. Take for example, The Utah Inland Port, they have been met with resistance from the public. They are a government entity that can create PIDs and bonding. While The Point, who also has been met with resistance, is even more “powerful.” They are a quasi-government system that now has a chamber of commerce and a commission. Where is the accountability to the people? The Port at least can be used to benefit Utah in a variety of ways the public cares about. The Port is obviously an export/import hub, this can help move goods around Utah.
The Point however is a “15-minute city,” their own words not ours, that will shift from the standard car focused city to a limited car focus city. The Point is also creating “innovation districts and hubs.” What I want to point out here is that without tight reigns on these special districts, PIDs, government entities and more, there is no REAL accountability and transparency to the people.
HB22 and HB77 made changes to include changing the wording from “local district” to “special district”. In fact, the general description says:
“is one of two bills that, together changed the name of “local district” to “special district.”
Why would they want this specific change in wording? It seems reasonable to believe they changed it because they want these special districts to be more independent, and to be able to accept more federal funding, some without oversite. This means no accountability or transparency of where the funds are going or how they are being used. It also means they are not held accountable by the people.
Our legislators are making changes that are contrary to the Utah Constitution, meaning, they are creating laws that are unconstitutional. It is extremely important to read, know, and understand our state constitution. If you do not know, you cannot act. If you cannot act, you are a slave to the whims of your government. Please take the time to learn and share that knowledge with others. Together we can make positive changes in our beautiful state.
Special districts are extremely complicated and convoluted. I do not claim to know everything about special districts, and I am open to hearing from you regarding this topic. Like you, I am trying to learn as much as possible and share what I learn with you. As I stated in the beginning of my article, I felt overwhelmed with the amount of data shared with me. I kept asking myself, how could the average citizen even begin to know where to look? I broke it down into bite size portions and I began by asking general questions. It gave me a starting point. I encourage you to do the same thing.
Next week I will touch on how and why special districts are created. Until then, read, learn, share your knowledge, attend your city and county council meetings, and continue to communicate with your elected officials. It is imperative that we keep the lines of communication open and reach out to our elected officials. We have the responsibility, as citizens, to help our local officials to keep local control local. Together we can.