One kind of special district that has grown at a fast pace is the regional district, says Steve Owens, who is Chief, Government Organization and Special Programs Branch, Governments Division at the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington, D.C. Owens bases his conclusion on the latest Census of Governments. The Census Bureau, however, has not developed a formal definition for this kind of special district. Go here for more Census info on governments in the U.S., including special districts.

A few pointers on regional districts

Owens says regional districts often develop in situations where existing governments pool their resources. For example, says Owens, “Seven or eight municipalities decide that it is more economical to provide their fire protection through a joint agency, so they will form a joint fire department.” Regional districts, says Owens, “can be formed for just about any public service you can imagine. It’s an economy of scale thing. Local government officials will look around and say, ‘Well, it would be easier if we got together with some of our neighbors to finance this, etc.’ The Census Bureau sees this going on quite a bit these days.”

How to locate regional special districts

One way to locate regional special districts is to look through the Census Bureau’s individual state descriptions. Go here for the descriptions.

The image at right is a Census Bureau map of government entities, including special districts, in the U.S. The map is from the latest (2012) Census of Governments.

You can find regional special districts in this Census publication of individual state descriptions. The key to look for in the descriptions, says Owens, is to see how the districts are formed, and what governments participate in them. The districts’ name often includes the term “regional.” These signs, says Owens, are strong indicators of a regional special district.

One kind of regional district that is prevalent is the regional transit authority. “There are a lot of these, especially when you get into metro areas--there are numerous regional transit authorities,” says Owens. “When you look at a service like public transit, unless yours is a city that is quite isolated from everything else, generally it lends itself to running its operations on a regional basis.” Those kinds of regional transit authorities, says Owens, would be considered a regional district. He says they are a fast-growing form of special district.

Where are the largest regional districts?

The top 3 regional districts (districts which are formed by two or more governments) are the New York and New Jersey Port Authority which serves specific county areas in both states, the Los Angeles County Metro Transit Authority which serves LA County as well as several incorporated municipalities, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority which serves Washington D.C., and various local governments in the states of Maryland and Virginia.
The 2011 total expenditures for those three districts (latest available) are shown below:
Port Authority of NY and NJ     $6.1 billion dollars
LA County Metro Transit           $3.6 billion
Wash Area Metro Transit          $2.5 billion

Go here for information on the 2012 Census of Governments data. Governments data from the U.S. Census Bureau is being released on a piece-by-piece basis in 2014.

Go to the Census Bureau’s Tip Sheets, calendar, or the Census Bureau’s Governments Division web page for more information on government counts for the U.S.