Special districts are an important and fast-growing form of local government. According to the latest (2012) Census of Governments, there are 38,266 special districts in the U.S. The previous Census of Governments (conducted every 5 years) in 2007 counted 37,381 special districts. So from 2007 to 2012, the number of special districts grew by about 2.4 percent.

Special district governments are independent, special-purpose governmental units (other than school district governments), that exist as separate entities with substantial administrative and fiscal independence from general-purpose local governments.

Special districts manage airports, health facilities, housing and sewer systems; their staffers fight fires; they administer parks and other natural resources; and they perform other functions. Less-well-known tasks handled by special districts include mosquito abatement and upkeep of cemeteries.

States with the largest number of special districts include Illinois (3,227), California (2,861), Texas (2,600) and Colorado (2,392).

A total of 33,031 districts are single-function districts, while 5,235 are multi-function districts. Here are the top 5 categories for single-function districts from the 2012 Census of Governments:
Fire protection, 5,865
Water supply, 3,522
Housing & community development, 3,438
Drainage & flood control, 3,248
Soil & water conservation, 2,565

There has been a general slowing in the growth rate of number of special districts during the most recent five-year period, says Stephen Owens, Chief, Government Organization and Special Programs Branch, Governments Division at the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington. He told GPN that he suspects that the growth slowdown is linked directly to the trends in the economy over that time period.

Census officials have observed that two types of districts in particular are driving much of the growth. “Community development districts that are put in place to finance the infrastructure for new development are growing in several states. These are known by a variety of names, but the underlying principle is the same. The other area of growth involves regional districts that serve several governments. This has been a trend for several years, and it appears to be continuing,” says the Census Bureau’s Owens.

For marketers, here are some tips for selling products and services to special districts from Mark Amtower (in picture at right), who is a government marketing consultant, LinkedIn Black Belt, speaker, author and radio host (Federal News Radio).

1.    Special district governments (SDG) have many of the same needs as other state and local governments, and often use similar or identical procurement methods. Understanding the procurement method used is always step one. Do some homework on the SDG before you go in.
 
2.    Meeting the key people involved in buying what you sell is another major key to success. Understand what they buy and what the pain points are. Meet as many of the people as possible: facilities and grounds managers, procurement officers, and any managers or other executives.
 
3.    All governments have budget issues at present, so determine what your lowest cost could be where the contract can still make your company a profit.
 
4.    Like other governments, many special districts may use a procurement charge card, so make certain you can process orders via the charge card. Often this will not only expedite payment, but will allow you to fulfill near-term needs on the part of the client. At the federal level, anything under $3,000 does not have to be competed. There may be similar rules for special districts, but perhaps with a lower dollar threshold.

In this video, users of the Census of Governments data describe why these statistics resources are critical to their work.