This is the first of a periodic series that will look at Solano County’s special districts.
FAIRFIELD — Solano County has what almost seems like a stealth government that oversees millions and millions of dollars annually.
This obscurity isn’t necessarily by choice. It’s just that most of these various bodies are governed by boards that have nowhere near the profile of city councils or the Solano County Board of Supervisors.
More than 40 special districts make decisions in the county concerning everything from cemeteries to water deliveries. They maintain levees and they fight mosquitoes and they fight fires. They are “special districts” because they are limited to specific tasks within a specific area.
Solano County isn’t unique. Special districts can be found all over the state. California’s 58 counties have either about 3,300 or 4,700 special districts, depending on how special districts are defined.
Some local districts play a big role in everyday life for citizens. The Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District runs the sewer system and the sewage treatment plant that serves Fairfield and Suisun City. The end product is water that meets federal and state environmental standards so it can be emptied into Boynton Slough in Suisun Marsh.
Some districts interact with the populace. The Solano Resource Conservation District conducts field trips in Suisun Marsh, Rockville Hills Park and various Vallejo parks that teach schoolchildren about the local environment and watershed. It helps farmers better understand the soils and hydrology of their properties and comply with state Water Board regulations.
Other local special districts are obscure for good reason – they are small and affect few people.
Most residents have little interest in Reclamation District 2034, which consists of two landowners with a duck club. The district operates a pump and the landowners share the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. bill. Its most recent expenses are unknown, according to a report by the county Local Agency Formation Commission.
Special districts have boards that are in some cases elected by voters and in others that are appointed by the county and its cities. In a few cases, city councils and the Board of Supervisors do double-duty and serve as the board.
The districts under state law are subject to public scrutiny. They post agendas for their board of directors meetings and anyone can attend. It’s just that people often don’t.
“It’s never a large amount of people,” said Jon Blegen, manager of the Solano County Mosquito Abatement District. “Some people will come in just if they’re interested. We have a lot of meetings where it’s basically the Board of Trustees and myself and the secretary/bookkeeper.”
The Solano County Auditor-Controller’s Office in the early 1990s issued audits that found problems with the financial records of several of the smaller, local special districts. No cases of embezzlement or wrongdoing surfaced, just some instances where districts didn’t make deposits on time or improperly classified some revenues.
Some special districts simply lacked expertise or didn’t make a priority out of bookkeeping, then-Auditor Controller Bill Ricciardo said in 1993.
“Often the people running the district are the same people who fight the fires,” he said.
Then-Chief Auditor Simona Padilla-Scholtens in 1993 said sloppy bookkeeping could make it possible for someone to steal money without anyone realizing it.
Twenty-one years later, Padilla-Scholtens is the county’s Auditor Controller. She sees progress on the special district front.
“I think for the most part today there has been some significant improvements for most – I don’t want to say for all,” Padilla-Scholtens said. “They have improved the controls, they have better systems, the audits reflect there are less audit deficiencies within special districts.”
Special districts are a world of their own. A 2010 state Senate Local Government Committee report found both pros and cons.
The districts can tailor services for local needs, link costs to benefits and respond to their constituents, the report said.
On the other hand, having too many special districts can create inefficiencies, with some districts providing the same services that counties and cities provide. Plus, it can be hard for residents to figure out who’s in charge, the report said.
The State Controller’s Office puts out a list of the 250 special districts in California with the most revenue. Topping the 2011-12 list is the Sacramento Municipal Utility District with more than $1.4 billion, followed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, also with slightly more than $1.4 billion.
Solano County has only one district on the Top 250 list and that just barely – the Vallejo Sanitation and Flood Control District, at number 241 with $29.6 million.
The county’s special districts are small in the big scheme of things. Still, they handle taxpayers’ money and make decisions that help shape the community. It’s just that they often do so with few people paying attention.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.