What is a Special District?
This is the first page in a series of pages on Washington special purpose districts. The page discusses the meaning of the term "special purpose district" and sets out criteria to distinguish special districts with autonomous governing bodies from other types of districts. Additional discussion can be found in the page How Many Special Purpose Districts in Washington? There is no single uniform legal definition in Washington statutes for special purpose districts.
Special purpose districts are generally created through the county legislative authority to meet a specific need of the local community. Some are created by city legislative bodies. The need may be a new service, a higher level of an existing service, or a method of financing available through the creation of a special purpose district, such as a transportation benefit district. They are political subdivisions of the 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. Although the general provisions for some special district statutes have been consolidated, such as for diking and drainage districts, there is no set of uniform provisions covering all special districts in Washington as there is with cities and counties.
Special District vs. Special Purpose District
The phrases "special district" and "special purpose district" are often used interchangeably, and commonly refer to:
- limited purpose special districts
- benefit assessment districts
- certain taxing districts
- junior taxing districts
- some authorities
- some special benefit districts
- any local government in Washington which is not a city, town, or county
Washington's Definitions of Special Districts
There is no single uniform definition of a special district or a special purpose district in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW). Special districts and special purpose districts are defined within the context of a particular title or chapter of the RCW. The definition generally applies only to the provisions addressed by a particular statute. The legislation enabling a "district" may call it something other than special purpose district, leaving it to be determined whether it has a separate governing body and fiscal autonomy.
Statutes creating special districts may state that the district is municipality, municipal corporation, quasi municipal corporation, a public corporation, a public body corporate and politic, or some other designation. Many of these terms are not defined by statute. The "classifications" are not consistent and may have little difference in meaning. See MRSC's Special Purpose Districts Overview () page to view a table listing the districts and their statutory classification. Some of the definitions are noted in Matrix of Terms Categorizing Local Government Entities in Washington State cited below under "Definitions of Special Districts". The "classifications" include:
- body corporate
- municipal corporations
- public body corporate and politic
- quasi-municipal corporations
- units of local government
Definitions of Special Districts in the Revised Code of Washington
Four definitions for the term "special district" have been noted and three for the term "special purpose district." For a list of terms, including those noted in the section above on classification, see Matrix of Terms Categorizing Local Government Entities in Washington State (), prepared by Alicia Feichtmeir of Foster Pepper PLLC, Appendix to A Local Government By Any Other Name (), by Hugh Spitzer, Proceedings of the Washington State Municipal Attorneys, Fall 2009.
- RCW 35.58.020 - Metropolitan Municipal Corporations - Definitions
- RCW 36.115.020 - Counties - Service Agreements - Definitions
- RCW 39.80.020 - Public Contracts and Indebtedness - Contracts for Architectural and Engineering Services - Definitions
- RCW 85.38.010 - Diking and Drainage - Special District Creation and Operation - Definitions
Special Purpose Districts
- RCW 36.96.010 - Counties, Dissolution of Inactive Special Purpose Districts - Definitions
- RCW 36.93.020 - Counties, Local Governmental Organization – Boundaries – Review Boards - Definitions
- RCW 43.133.020 - Washington Sunrise Act - Definitions
Census Bureau Definition of Special District Governments
The Census Bureau defines special district governments as: "All organized local entities (other than counties, municipalities, townships, or school districts) authorized by state law to provide only one or a limited number of designated functions, and with sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate governments; known by a variety of titles, including districts, authorities, boards, and commissions." (Census Bureau Federal State and Local Governments Definitions) For a discussion of what special districts the Census of Governments includes for Washington and information on the issue regarding classification of "Subordinate Agencies and Areas", see Data Sources on MRSC's page How Many Special Districts in Washington?
Special Districts with Separate Governments
To determine how many special districts have sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate governments, each statute creating a special purpose district needs to be examined. In Washington, some districts have autonomous governing boards, but their funding may depend on approval by the legislative body that created the district. For others, members of the legislative body convene as the ex officio governing board of the special district. The statutes often contain a clause that the county commissioners or city or town council acts in an ex officio capacity. Legislation is passed in the name of the district; and resolutions and ordinances are retained separate from the legislative body of the county, city or town.
Most of the Washington statutes creating the special district state that the district is a municipal corporation or a quasi municipal corporation. The enabling statute generally contains clauses that establish that the district is an independent taxing "authority" within the meaning of Article VII, section 1 of the state Constitution, and a "taxing district" within the meaning of Article VII, section 2 of the state Constitution; and that the district is a body corporate and possesses all the usual powers of a corporation for public purposes, as well as all other powers that may now, or hereafter, be specifically conferred by statute, including, but not limited to, the authority to hire employees, staff, and services, to enter into contracts, and to sue and be sued.
- Special Purpose Districts Overview () - Chart provides name of district, classification, date of legislation and citation, the purpose of the district, method of formation, governance, funding, and estimated number of existing districts.