In King County, there are 100 special taxing districts, not including school districts. The special purpose districts, as they're called, operate independent of local governments, even deciding when and how to conduct elections. The King County Council is looking at possible ways to exert more oversight over them.
Special taxing districts tend to fly under the radar. Often residents aren’t even aware they live in one. But, King County Council member Reagan Dunn says, we should be paying more attention to them. At a recent council meeting, he pointed to a special drainage district in Enumclaw where commissioners haven't run for re-election since 1986. "Although the districts were still collecting checks from the county, which dispenses their budget in accordance with state law," Dunn said.
Dunn sponsored a motion that asks the King County executive to do a comprehensive review of all special purpose districts and come up with suggestions for improving transparency. Last year, revenue for all special districts in King County, not including school districts, was $821 million.
King County Council Chair Rod Dembowski said he’s particularly interested in seeing more transparency with the King Conservation District, which was established by the state Legislature in 1949. Dembowski said the conservation district spends millions annually in taxpayer dollars collected through a special assessment of county residents.
But, in a recent election “it was difficult for constituents to figure out how to vote” for the district’s Board of Supervisors. Dembowski said that’s because there was a special process that required constituents to request a ballot. Only 3,500 people voted, he said.
Julie Wise, director of elections for King County, told the council members that her office has no authority to run the elections in special districts, including in the King Conservation District.
Special districts have a long history in Washington. Some drainage and ditch improvement districts were created by the Legislature in the late 1800s. In more recent eras, public facility and stadium districts were created beginning in the late 1980s.