On Sunday, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver looked at special districts — a part of government you may not know exists even as it takes a big chunk of your tax dollars.
So what are they? Special districts are small, local units of government set up to raise taxpayer dollars for a single purpose, such as a school or water district. Each year in the US, special districts spend about $100 billion.
"It's a little weird in a country that talks so much about government accountability that a huge amount of our tax dollars go to fund entities that most of us know absolutely nothing about," Oliver said.
But these districts can make a big difference. The Arizona Republic reported on one instance in which a Phoenix man paid more than $1,000 in taxes in special district taxes, while his neighbor across the street was in different districts and paid only $7.
Some districts are also run disastrously. Oliver cited several examples:
- An audit recently found, for example, that the Isaacson Municipal Utility District in Texas had $70,000 in losses going back at least four years. Even worse, the district didn't even appear to bill residents correctly — consistently billing for 13,721,200 gallons of water despite changing weather and economic conditions.
- In Kentucky, the Garrett Volunteer Fire Department allegedly used special district tax money to buy flat-screen televisions, chewing tobacco, and fireworks. Investigators also found hundreds of pornographic videos on a department-owned computer.
"Porn and chewing tobacco are obviously inappropriate," Oliver said. "But you know what really upsets me the most there? Fireworks. They're a fire department! That's like hearing EMTs have been using their budget to stage scissor races."
- In Rhode Island, an undercover investigation found the chief of a fire district appeared to smoke marijuana and drink and drive while on the job.
Yet many Americans don't know much about special districts. They may not even know how many special districts they live in — or that they exist.