Community Services Districts, Explained: When County Government Isn’t Enough

Areas that the county overlooks can form their own local governments.

PUBLISHED DEC 1, 2021 12:11 P.M.
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There are more than 300 community service districts in California.

There are more than 300 community service districts in California.   Fernandoh41025 / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 4.0 Share-Alike License

On Dec. 2, 1952, three men met in a small store on Mission Boulevard in Riverside, California, where they convened the first board meeting of a body called the Rubidoux Community Services District. When George Skotty, the board chair and owner of that small store, banged his gavel, Rubidoux officially became the first community services district in the state, under a law passed by the legislature just a year earlier.

That law, though it has been amended and updated numerous times since, became enshrined in California law and section 61001 of the government code, the Community Services District Law. The legislature reenacted the law—a process required when lawmakers decide to amend a section of an existing statute—in 1955. Since the Rubidoux district convened its initial meeting, voters in 321 regions have elected to form community service districts (CSDs) to handle various forms of basic service generally provided by city or county governments in California.

Under the law, those voters must really want or need those services pretty badly, because it takes a two-thirds majority of residents inside a CSD’s proposed boundaries to approve the formation of a CSD. The effort to create one can be started by a citizen’s petition, or county resolution. Community services districts serve unincorporated areas where the county itself provides many of the services a city might provide. But county governments cannot always meet each community’s specific local needs, leaving residents feeling overlooked or ignored.

The community services district law was designed to solve that problem, allowing residents of unincorporated areas local control of governmental functions and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to raise money for those functions by levying property taxes—tax money that is channelled directly back into the local community, rather than filtering through the state government.

CSDs: Standing In for Local Government

Community services districts make up about 10 percent of the approximately 3,300 special districts in California. But special districts are allowed to perform only one specific service: water, fire protection, cemeteries, parks, and so on. The difference is that CSDs may perform any combination of multiple services—up to 32 in all, ranging from water and fire, to street lighting, sanitation, airport management, libraries, animal control and more.

Most CSDs, however, limit themselves to just a couple of functions. The Point Dume CSD in Los Angeles County manages a public park and a community center, as well as sponsoring various neighborhood recreation events. Christian Valley Park CSD in Placer County is limited to water delivery and road maintenance. On the other hand, the Bear Valley CSD in Kern County takes responsibility for water delivery, wastewater treatment, road and other infrastructure maintenance—even a police department.

The original CSD, Rubidoux in Riverside County, started out by covering trash collection and disposal, street lighting, weed abatement, and fire prevention services for just 4,000 residents. Today, the district also provides water treatment and delivery, as well as wastewater collection and disposal for a population of more than 26,000.

How CSDs are Governed, and Where

Once formed, under current law, CSDs are governed by a five-member board of directors in most cases elected by voters within the district’s boundaries. Often a CSD is carved into five “divisions” with one director elected from each division, but some CSDs still elect their governing boards on an at-large basis. Directors serve four year-terms, staggered so that the entire board never turns over in a single election.

Districts with elected directors are referred to as “independent.” But a small number of CSDs remain “dependent,” that is, governed by the local city councilmembers or county supervisors, who double as the CSD directors.

Perhaps not surprisingly, CSDs tend to appear most commonly in primarily rural counties, with plenty of unincorporated area and where services are often difficult for a centralized county government to provide. Tiny Del Norte County with a population under 28,000 and only one incorporated city (Crescent City, the county seat) is home to no fewer than eight community service districts. The state’s most heavily populated county—Los Angeles County with more than 10 million residents—has only one (the above-mentioned Point Dume). But only about 1 percent of Los Angeles County residents live in areas classified as rural.

Santa Cruz County with about 270,000 people has none. San Diego County, the state’s second-largest at 3.3 million people—more than one-third of them in the city of San Diego itself—has seven community service districts. The county is about 76 percent rural territory. 

Sacramento County is home to two CSDs. Cosumnes CSD traces its history back to the Elk Grove Park District in 1923, which reorganized to become Elk Grove Community Services District in 1985. That district merged with Galt Fire Protection District in 2006 to become the Cosumnes CSD as it exists today, providing water service, solid waste disposal, police services, street lights, and several other functions.

The other CSD in Sacramento County, Rancho Murieta, was formed in 1982, and provides water, sewer, public security, recreation and garbage collection to its 6,300 residents.

So You Want To Start a Community Services District?

So you live in an unincorporated area of California and you want better public services, and you think that forming a CSD sounds like a good idea. Well, think long and hard because the process of creating a community services district is not easy or quick. First, citizens planning to create a CSD must first meet with their county’s Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, the independent agency that under state law regulates and must approve the creation of any new district, of any type.

After the LAFCO meeting, during which staff will provide guidelines and advice on how to go about forming the new CSD, next up is the formation of a study committee made up of local citizens. Members of the committee draw up proposed boundaries for the prospective CSD, decide which services the district will offer, perform a feasibility study to present to the LAFCO, create at least an estimated five-year budget, and ultimately go through all of the red tape involved in circulating a petition.

That petition must collect signatures from at least one of every four residents of the planned district, or the whole effort is dead. And not incidentally, this entire process costs money in filing fees and various other costs that the citizens committee must cover.

If the effort survives that cumbersome and expensive process, it then goes through an extensive review by the county LAFCO, in which the agency examines the proposed district’s finances, environmental impact, and potential impact on other local governments and districts. LAFCO holds a string of public hearings and can add to, cut from, or otherwise alter the CSD proposal—or reject it entirely.

And then, assuming the CSD proposal is still kicking, comes the election with its two-thirds majority requirement.

Latest Revision Streamlined the CSD Law

The sort-of good news, however, is that the hefty and much-amended 1951 Community Services District Law has been stripped down considerably. The latest revision of the law, authored by San Diego Democratic State Senator Christine Kehoe, slimmed the law down from an unwieldy 300 separate sections to just 82. The revision, SB 135, most importantly brought the CSD statute up to date with changes to California Constitution—including 1978’s tax-limiting Proposition 13, and the 1974 Political Reform Act that created stricter ethical standards for local agencies and officials.

Gov. Arnold Schwarznegger signed the new version of the Community Services District Act in 2005, and the new law took effect on Jan. 1, 2006.

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