Special districts exist to provide various elements of infrastructure filling gaps in services other units of governments do not provide. As such, special districts have a major stake in federal infrastructure initiatives. Among the Coalition’s top federal legislative priorities is the passage of policies investing in the nation’s physical and natural infrastructure and assuring special districts have definitive access to infrastructure programs, thus bettering district operations and services to millions of Americans.
Special districts provide millions of American households, businesses, agricultural enterprises, and a variety of institutions with drinking water, wastewater treatment, and irrigation services. Ensuring the integrity of water infrastructure for a supply of safe, clean drinking water is critical to the safety and viability of the communities that rely on their services. NSDC advocates for policies and inclusive implementation of programs enhancing these services
Special districts house many primary community facilities essential to the vitality of rural and urban communities alike. These services include, but are not limited to, fire stations, healthcare centers such as hospitals and medical clinics, libraries, parks and recreation, public water resources, and the buildings housing the staff to implement these programs. The coalition works to secure special districts’ access to programs and funding that enhance these community facilities.
Special district services rely on a steady flow of energy for the continuity of critical services. The Coalition advocates for electrical grid enhancements and investments in grid security, not only for those special districts responsible for the generation, transmission, and delivery of public electricity but also those that rely on stable and consistent sources of energy to operate. This includes water districts that require pumping facilities for deliveries, healthcare districts that need power to operate lifesaving equipment, and emergency responders such as fire protection and ambulance providers to maintain communication during events. Further, to accommodate 21st Century energy solutions, NSDC supports programs fostering the development of renewable energy and the ability for special districts to utilize renewable energy to execute their essential services.
The Coalition’s platform includes support for policies investing in natural infrastructure such as the maintenance of federal forests and federal lands, enhancing watershed quality, flood control, flood plain management, and fostering quality development of recreation and open space. Many special districts offer, broadly, natural resource conservation services and, more specifically, essential services to communities in areas prone to natural disasters. These districts are stakeholders in natural infrastructure and mitigation activities. The Coalition embraces programs to address reasonable natural infrastructure investments with direct and indirect benefits for special districts.
Park and recreation districts are independent agencies with the same infrastructure needs as their local, state, and federal government counterparts, including irrigation for water access; multimodal forms of transportation including bridges, roads, local and regional trails; wildfire and flood mitigation; stormwater management; climate resiliency programming; urban greenspace and heat island mitigation; carbon sequestration; and provide safe locations in times of emergency or disaster – from reunification locations for school shootings to post-disaster shelter locations. NSDC strives to ensure park and recreation districts are seen as equitable and meaningfully considered for resources that benefit this public service type.
Unfortunately, many park and recreation districts struggle to access popular federally sourced programs that could advance community association with green spaces, natural infrastructure and recreation services. This is due to their status as a special purpose unit of local government, whereas other recreation services are commonly viewed as exclusive departments of a town, city, county, state, or even federal government. NSDC supports efforts to elevate awareness of special districts as a specialized public provider of essential park and recreation services and to enhance access to programs aimed to connect people to the natural environment.
Special districts provide urban and regional transit services that keep many of America’s commuters on the move. The Coalition supports programs that strengthen district-provided public transportation options and expand services into rural communities. Further, the Coalition supports programs investing in the nation’s roads and bridges, and for the special districts providing these services to have access to such infrastructure funding.
Special port, harbor, and airport districts share in the responsibility for the import and export of goods and services, as well as the movement of passengers, upon which entire regions and the nation depend. Many port and harbor special districts play an important role in their local economies, providing jobs, supporting businesses, and serving important coastal industries such as fishing and tourism. Airports also contribute to economic development and foster wide impacts on regional commerce. The Coalition recognizes the significance these districts play in regional and state economies, and likewise supports policies to ensure the operational integrity and enhancement of these districts.
Many special districts provide essential services in rural and remote communities that lack reliable internet access. This ability to connect to the worldwide web is critical for communities’ sustainability, modernization and economic development. Special districts are uniquely positioned to offer – or facilitate – broadband services to communities currently lacking access and provide avenues to help close the digital divide. NSDC is a proponent of additional funding to proliferate reliable high-speed internet access to communities across the nation and is an advocate for districts capable of provide these services to receive the support needed to successfully connect all Americans.
More than 1,400 special districts provide communities across the nation with park and recreation services. This sector of special districts provides unique, diverse programs to enrich their communities based on the needs of the community – including hosting sports tournaments that boost local economies, maintaining multi-use defensible space to protect communities from fire and flood, providing environmental education, and more.
Park and recreation districts provide a critical community touchpoint for public gathering, improving mental health and wellbeing, and other community assistance-oriented programs. The COVID-19 pandemic pronounced the vitality of these park district services. These local governments have flexibility to provide free or low-cost programs fostering community health and wellbeing for all generations – from creating early memories of learning how to ride a bike to offering space for seniors to socialize and after-school programs that enrich childhood learning, association, and quality of life.
Just as park districts operate in metropolitan and urban areas, many of the nation’s park districts provide services in smaller, rural communities – oftentimes providing a forum for recreating in disadvantaged communities and providing green space in “park deserts.” As cost/benefit calculations for federal programs often deter investment in recreation services in smaller communities, NSDC advocates for broader population considerations for pertinent federal programming to ensure small and mid-sized communities have access to services similar to their large-community and urban counterparts.
The nation’s park and recreation districts see the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) as the most reliable, accessible federal source of infrastructure assistance. As such, NSDC supports full funding of the LWCF as an excellent conduit for park district needs while also supporting reforms for more efficient program administration, such as streamlining awards to ensure smaller park and recreation districts may fully benefit from the program.
In all, NSDC considers park and recreation districts as part of the nation’s critical infrastructure fabric, supporting health and economic development, the Coalition advocates on relative policies to ensure park and recreation districts’ needs are met
According to the 2017 Census of Governments, more than 1,500 special purpose districts provide approximately 33 percent of all local public health and hospital services, by expenditure, in the United States. These units of local government are public health operations that are locally governed and are close to their communities. Healthcare and hospital districts are locally trusted and have flexibility to tailor their programs to specific community needs – from wellness campaigns to alternative response to mental health emergencies and more.
Many public healthcare and hospital districts provide services to rural and urban communities that are often considered to be medically underserved and socioeconomically distressed. Especially in rural areas, many of these operations are designated as “Critical Access Hospitals,” and “Rural Healthcare Clinics.” NSDC is interested in special districts’ access to the Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) program, as districts operate with similar models and have demands for services FQHCs must deliver. NSDC supports full funding and simple administration of authorized programs to support community-centered healthcare solutions – especially in rural, relatively vulnerable communities.
Many special districts providing healthcare report struggles to recruit and retain a medical professional workforce, largely due to economics of housing in the communities they serve. Rural healthcare districts predominately experience difficulties recruiting physicians and staff due to the remote nature of the location and/or limited housing supply. Similarly, public healthcare and hospital districts in more urban communities face factors of high housing and excessive capital costs, which challenge their sustainability. The wages needed to recruit and to retain employees in these high cost of living locales further strain the ability to invest in real estate and capital equipment to offer quality healthcare services. Urban and rural healthcare districts, alike, are increasingly finding themselves at the intersection of public housing as they offer rental assistance/coverage as employment benefits. As such, NSDC supports sound solutions to assist recruitment and retention of healthcare workers – especially in underserved communities – and opening direct access to additional programs where necessary and advance recruitment solutions.
Special districts providing public healthcare services report they are often met with restrictions on access to finance capital projects. This, despite bearing 51 percent of all public hospital capital expenditures, as reported in the 2017 Census of Governments. NSDC supports policies to breakdown these barriers to capital grant and low-interest finance programs. Beyond financing barriers, most special districts struggle with staff capacity to identify, write, and administer – if successful – grant opportunities. NSDC not only supports measures for healthcare and hospital districts access to programs, but also to enhance technical assistance for local public health agencies’ grant preparation and administration.
To ensure special districts can successfully secure financing necessary to complete infrastructure projects, the Coalition is committed to advocacy supporting public infrastructure finance programs. Examples of such policies and programs including, but not limited to, the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, Clean Water and Drinking Water state revolving funds, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Communities Facilities Loan & Grant Program. The Coalition considers priority legislation that would reinstitute, amend, and expand provisions within the Federal Tax Code for private-activity bonds; advance refundings; increasing the limits on bank-qualification pursuant to Section 265(b) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended; and special tax credits or federal subsidies for either the bond issuer or the bondholder, similar to Build America Bonds, and Recovery Zone Bonds created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Further, NSDC works to ensure special districts have equitable access to present and future municipal finance tools cities and counties use to plan for, execute, and complete public works and infrastructure projects.
NSDC supports policies that uphold the integrity and use of tax-exempt municipal bonds as a tool for special districts’ long-term financial success. The Coalition also advocates for tax incentive programs that encourage private investments in infrastructure, such as Opportunity Zones and the New Markets Tax Credit Program.
NSDC advocates for flexible and streamlined federal regulatory processes to enhance efficiencies and prevent hinderance of projects critical to executing the essential services special districts provide. The Coalition supports positive, balanced, and coordinated state and federal regulatory processes that would not threaten special districts’ projects, prevent increased financial burdens on local government finance, and would not compromise environmental laws.
Special districts employ a diverse range of employees to meet service needs, and the examples are endless. Special districts providing hard critical infrastructure services often need certified, skilled workers to lay and repair pipes, operate water treatment systems, and maintain new-generation fleets of electric transit vehicles. Hospital and healthcare districts need physicians to care for patients where they live. Park districts provide jobs for high schoolers, college students, adults, and seniors. Fire protection districts have demanding positions that involve advanced skills and trainings for public health and safety, and mosquito abatement districts need scientists to monitor for next potential public health concern.
NSDC advocates for sound public policy to invest in skilled workforce development and for policies that boost the ability for special districts to provide good jobs for members of the communities they serve. NSDC wholly supports special districts’ access to tools for workforce retention, including smooth access to programs such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and hazard pay in times of crisis. The Coalition also strives to ensure special districts understand the availability of these resources and how to access them.
Aside from employment opportunities, special districts also provide a wide variety of community service opportunities – especially park and recreation districts – from leveraging AmeriCorps volunteers and providing programs for special needs children and adults to volunteer firefighters. NSDC seeks to ensure the ability for districts to uniquely leverage these community resources goes unhindered.