Defending the Special District

Posted on May 13, 2015

Bobbi Nance, Park District of Oak Park Project Manager, follows up on her last column – Parks and Recreation’s Perception Problem by discussing special districts. 

In light of John Oliver’s take on special districts, we re-post Bobbi Nance’s article where she shared her experience working for a special district.

Want to join the conversation by sharing your opinion on special districts? Send an email to Kirsten Wyatt –

Defending the Special District

By Bobbi Nance – LinkedIn and Twitter

As someone who works in local government, I’m not always looked upon as a model member of our society (yet….changing the world’s perception takes time). As a local government worker in Illinois with our rich history of corrupt governors (don’t forget that we’re the Land of Lincoln too!), I get even less respect from the public. When you add on that I work for a “special districts,” let’s just say that I sometimes draw a lot of strange looks from my fellow local government peers, especially when I leave the comfort zone of parks and recreation in Illinois.

Not Gone and Not Forgotten
I understand that special districts can seem a little odd.  In case you aren’t aware, special districts are government districts that exist independently from general purpose local governments such as county, municipal, or township governments, and as the name implies, usually exist for a special or specific purpose.  Often, they were formed to fund services that general purpose local governments could not (or did not want to) pay for.  Years after they have been formed and the citizens have long forgotten that these special districts were created by the voters themselves, they can take a beating by politicians, university professors, the public, and other local governments as being fragmented, duplicative, and wasteful.
Illinois special districts are under fire right now as the state and other local governments are trying to tighten their purse strings. And everyone inside and outside of the state likes to throw around the statistic that Illinois has the highest number of local government districts in the country with a total 6.963 according the 2012 Census of Governments. But before you grab your pitchfork and jump on the special district doubter bandwagon though, it’s important to take a few moments to think about what that number really means.
“More Government Doesn’t Necessarily Equal More Government.”
Illinois may reign in the total number of special districts and overall number of local government districts, but when you examine the number of local government districts per capita, it’s dwarfed by many states and is only 14th in the country.  Additionally, if you look at the number of state & local non-educational government employees per capita, Illinois falls even further down the list to #47.  Yes, you read that correctly…#47.  Illinois, the state of “big government” has one of the lowest percentages of government employees in the country.
In Oak Park, IL, residents pay taxes to several general purpose and school districts, but also to multiple special districts, which on the surface may seem ridiculous for a jurisdiction that is less than five square miles.
It’s important that we’re honest where some of this distaste for special districts comes from. People often view additional local government districts negatively because they see local government in general in a negative light and that’s a problem for all governments to deal with, not just special districts.

“…people see additional local government districts negatively because they see local government in general in a negative light and that a problem for all governments to deal with, not just special districts.”

Quick and Nimble

imagesHowever, in our community with all of our special districts (and a municipal, township, and county government), we also have some of the best partnerships and sharing that takes place within our boundaries – more than I often witness between many general purpose governments – not because we’re any better, but just out of necessity. Without the mission or ability to be “everything to everyone,” special districts do what they do well and then work with others to make sure the rest of citizen needs are carried out by those that do them best.
You could also argue that special districts like our park district, give citizens the ability to control the amount of spending dedicated towards its parks and recreation services without as much worry that politics or inter-department budget battles will close their swimming pool or cancel their child’s dance class.  Additionally, operating as a smaller, more focused organization, it allows our park district to be more nimble and responsive to big challenges like the Great Recession.
Survey Says….
In a study by the University of Illinois, findings indicated:

  • 88% of Illinois residents were satisfied with their Park Districts;
  • When asked to consider the issue of consolidated government, 90% of respondents think park and recreation services are best provided by a park district;
  • Nearly 75% felt that park districts allow the greatest opportunity for community input compared to services provided by a city or village government.
  • When asked specifically about consolidation, a majority of respondents believed that park and recreation services would suffer if consolidated with city, village or county government; and
  • Only 10% of residents felt that park and recreation services would improve with a consolidated government.
“There is strong support for the park district, as compared to city/village government, as the unit of government that would provide greater opportunity for citizen input… A majority of household respondents felt that park and recreation programs and services would suffer if consolidated with city/village or county government… Furthermore, nearly eight out of every ten respondent households indicated that the park district would be the best local governmental unit to provide park and recreation programs, facilities, and park areas. ”Illinois Park Districts: Citizen Perspectives
I’m not advocating for more special districts, nor am I campaigning for a “Hug Your Local Special District Employee Day” (although that would be nice).  There are exceptions of dysfunctional special districts operating in silos, and I know some amazing park and recreation departments that operate within municipalities. The next decade will be challenging for local government as citizens and politicians weigh a distaste for what they believe is “more government” versus some of the funding opportunities that can go along with special districts.
I encourage you to not let the naysayers on either side win.  Regardless of the type of government you work for or have in your community, this is not an “us vs them” situation because ultimately we are working to make our communities better places.
Your Homework
Work for a general purpose government?  Reach out to your counterparts at a local special district to introduce yourself and see if there are any commonsense ways that you can partner or share resources. Their areas of specialization might help propel your agency forward in ways that you couldn’t do on your own and your larger set of resources could be exactly what they need in some cases to reach more people.
Work for a special district?  Invite someone from your local municipality for coffee and show them what you do?  It’s amazing how many conversations that I have had with colleagues at municipalities started with a misconception about the bureaucracy of special districts that have ended with a twinge of jealousy about what a special district can accomplish when all staff are heading in the same direction.
Are you a resident?  I know sometimes our websites aren’t the most customer-friendly, but keep trying to get involved – we need your involvement too most of all.
Maybe someday together we can even turn that statistic of 6,963 units of local government in Illinois from a point of embarrassment for some into an actual point of pride. Hey, a girl can dream, right?
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