April 22, 2021

· local-govt · special-districts

I recently had the pleasure of writing a short blog post for the UIC Government Finance Research Center’s blog. The piece is a bit of a short explainer on special districts in the United States and a few fiscal issues that arise. It’s by no means comprehensive but part of a broader focus I have on writing more popular or policy focused work on these relatively hidden local governments. Below is the intro (I don’t have full re-print rights) and a link to the original.

Special Districts: America’s Shadow Governments

When I teach about the property tax at Northern Illinois University, I play a game with my public administration graduate students. I ask the homeowners in the class to dig out their property tax bill and share it with the class. We go line by line looking at the millage rates of each levy and examine who is doing the levying. Some, like the county, the city/village or the school district(s) are easy to identify. But other line items are somewhat more obscure, like mosquito abatement districts, conservation districts, civic center authorities, joint water authorities and on and on.

This naturally leads to conversations about why these specific services are provided by a special district rather than a general government and whether this arrangement leads to higher taxes. We discuss whether, if there was a different vehicle for funding these services, property taxes might go down. In my state of Illinois, home to the largest number of independent local governments in the country, this is a particularly important question. But like many questions like this, there are no easy answers.

You can find the rest on GFRC’s blog.

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