What Are Special Districts? John Oliver Highlights The Government Bodies You've Never Heard Of — VIDEO
A week after taking on a man running for the most important job in U.S. politics, John Oliver still has his sights set on the government — but at a level far less noteworthy or prestigious. It's not state government, nor county or city government. On Sunday's Last Week Tonight, Oliver looked at special districts — small, independent governmental units that are administratively and fiscally independent from all other forms of local government. Huh? Right. That's pretty much Oliver's point. The obscurity of these districts, and the difficulty in understanding how they work, has led to many cases of of local government gone wild.
How do special districts work? Essentially, they can take your tax dollars to do one specific thing, like pay for water, mosquito prevention, or the fire department. Sounds pretty benign, right? Everybody wants food and a quickly-responding fire truck, and mosquitoes are no fun. Well, hold up. Oliver shared how last year, special districts took in $100 billion in taxes — about $16 billion more than the Russian military. And not everyone is affected equally by their tax burden. Oliver featured two neighbors who live across the street from each other but were in different water irrigation districts. One paid $1,000 a year and the other just $7.
People in certain areas can be covered by as many as five districts. There are about 40,000 special districts nationwide, many of them overlapping. Even the question of how many exist is hard to answer. According to Oliver, Idaho created a commission whose sole purpose was to monitor special districts in the state and how much they spend. The first thing on their agenda? Figuring out how many districts there were in the state. Oliver sees this as a problem. This is the most common form of local government, and yet no one's paying attention.
Sometimes that's OK, as many special districts are on the up and up. Oliver showed clips of a YouTube video made in Litchfield, New Hampshire. The city created a mosquito control district, and thanks to Internet uploads, Oliver can show what one of their meetings looks like. There's the mosquito control district's chairman and vice chairman, and no one else. They run the meeting as though the room were full, even asking for public comment. As you can imagine, there was none.
The problem comes when civil servants are not so upstanding. Oliver gives the example of Kentucky. The state found that about 40 percent of its special districts did not submit a budget to county governments, as required by state law. Another gross example is a fire chief who allegedly used his funds on porn and chewing tobacco.
With such little oversight and public vigilance, there's not much to stop such abuses from happening. Nothing except John Oliver, that is. Check out the video below.