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On Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver explained special districts (or special-purpose districts), which are small units of government with the power to use tax dollars to do one specific thing. Most people don’t even know they exist, because they operate on a micro level of government. But despite how important some special districts may be, others are run by incompetent local officials with access to millions of funds.
Sometimes called ghost governments, there are 40,000 across the United States spending $100 billion a year. In many places, several districts overlap, and it’s possible neighbors don’t even pay the same rates. Oliver found one person who paid $1,000 as part of an irrigation special district, while his neighbor across the street that was part of a different district only had to fork over $7.
Many special districts are run efficiently, but as with any part of government, the inefficient ones are a huge problem. Oliver discusses a Kentucky fire district where the former assistant fire chief spent more than $100,000 on chewing tobacco, fireworks, and pornography.
In Conroe, Texas, a company wanted to build a new neighborhood on undeveloped land, and in order to form a special district to issue bonds, there needed to be a vote. Since no one lived there yet and a vote was impossible, they hired another company to set up a mobile home and move two people in on a nine-month lease, so the pair could eventually be the only people eligible to vote in favor of the bonds. It’s a lot to unravel, which is why Oliver asked some special guests to join him in explaining the districts that most people don’t even know exist.