What’s So Special About Special Districts?

Whether they’re heralded as shining examples of democracy or disparaged as autonomous “ghost governments,” special districts are generally misunderstood by the public.  If you’re unclear about what they are, what they do, and why they’re “special,” you’re in good company.

Why They’re Special

Special districts are, essentially, local-level government agencies, separate from cities or counties. They are charged with delivering focused services within a specific geographical boundary. They have many of the same governing powers as states, counties, and cities. For example, 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 charge fees for their services.

The vast majority of special districts serve a single function. For example, school building authorities, libraries, hospitals, health, highways, air transportation, fire protection, drainage or flood control, irrigation, sewerage, solid waste management, water supply, cemeteries, street lighting, and mosquito abatement. Multifunction special districts can govern parks and recreation, housing and community development, industrial development and mortgage credit, natural resources and water supply, as well as sewerage and water supply. Enterprise special districts include gas, water, and electrical utilities.

At last count there were 38,266 special districts in the U.S., accounting for approximately 40% of all local governments. (Illinois tops the list with 3,227 special districts. California is a close second with 2,861.)

Biggest challenge

According to the 2018 Special District Survey, the top challenge special districts face is an insufficient budget.

Practical, cost-cutting solutions

Most special districts throughout the country are having to deal with older, energy-efficiency facilities that waste resources, require on-going maintenance and drain budgets.  Forward-thinking special districts realize they can ease their budget challenges and improve the economic prosperity of the residents and businesses they serve by reducing energy consumption and cost.

Unfortunately, while upgrading energy systems will reduce energy consumption and utility bills, many special districts lack the startup capital and/or personnel to tackle much-needed energy upgrades. The good news is that there’s a risk-free way to increase energy efficiency without impacting their bottom line.

Energy Savings Performance Contracting (ESPC) is a budget-neutral financing approach that allows government entities to make building improvements that reduce energy and water use and increase operational efficiency.  Special districts can use an ESPC to pay for today’s facility upgrades with tomorrow’s energy savings— without tapping into capital budgets. Benefits of an ESPC include:

  • No upfront capital investment
  • Increased cash-flow
  • Reduced operating costs
  • Reduced maintenance costs
  • Improved operational efficiencies
  • Improved working conditions
  • Reduced carbon emissions
Opportunities to Reduce Energy Consumption
  1. One of the first – and most important steps special districts can take is to conduct an energy audit to benchmark their current energy use, ensure their account is on the optimum utility rate schedule and identify opportunities for energy savings. This audit can be conducted by a qualified Energy Services Company (ESCO). Include an audit of the district’s water, wastewater pumps and motors to identify most and least efficient equipment.
  2. Identify improvements in existing equipment and systems, so they are integrated and operate more efficiently. Savings from retrofitting inefficient equipment average 15% or more. Possible retrofits would include:
  • Installing motion sensors, photocells, and multi-level switches to control room lighting systems.
  • Replacing incandescent lights with more energy efficient LEDs.
  • Upgrading pumps, motors, and other energy-intensive machinery.
  • Replacing and/or tinting windows in district-owned buildings to reduce heating by sunlight.
  • Upgrading or installing a new, high-efficiency HVAC system
  • Replacing incandescent and mercury vapor street, parking lot, park lights with energy-saving LEDs.

By taking advantage of opportunities to improve energy efficiency, renewable energy, water supply, and wastewater management, special districts can reduce their budget challenges, and improve the economic prosperity of the residents and businesses they serve.

Now that’s special!

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