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In-Depth: Understanding 'special districts' in Florida

Posted at 3:50 PM, Apr 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-20 17:26:00-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — With the Florida Legislature voting Wednesday to strip the area around Disney World of its special district status, the question many Floridians are asking is what is a special district exactly?

ABC Action News goes in-depth on the topic to help you understand what a special district is and what the legislature's moves may mean.

What are special districts?
According to the Florida Constitution, "Special District" means "a unit of local government created for a special purpose, as opposed to a general purpose, which has jurisdiction to operate within a limited geographic boundary and is created by general law, special act, local ordinance, or by rule of the Governor and Cabinet. The term does not include a school district, a community college district, a special improvement district created pursuant to s. 285.17, a municipal service taxing or benefit unit as specified in s. 125.01, or a board which provides electrical service and which is a political subdivision or a municipality or is part of a municipality."

What exactly does that mean?
Put another way, special districts are units of local, special-purpose government. They are similar to municipalities and counties. The main difference, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, are municipalities and counties have broad powers and provide local general governmental services; while special districts have local specialized government services and have limited, related, and explicitly prescribed powers."

How many special districts are in the state of Florida?
According to the Florida DEO, there are currently 1,844 special districts across the state. The full list can be found here.

What are some examples of special districts?
One of the more famous examples is The Villages in central Florida. But the main one of interest for Governor DeSantis and the GOP-controlled state legislature is the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

What is important about Reedy Creek?
Disney World is completely in the Reedy Creek Improvement District that was created in 1967. According to the district's website, the Reedy Creek Improvement District "encompasses approximately 25,000 acres in both Orange and Osecola Counties, servicing 19 landowners including Walt Disney Co. and its wholly-owned affiliates." The district includes: 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, 1 sports complex, 175 lane miles of roadway, 67 miles of waterway, multiple municipal systems, along with more than 40,000 hotel rooms, hundreds of restaurants, and retail stores. Because of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, Disney has the ability to control zoning, operate its own police and fire departments, and doesn't operate under rules other counties must use.

Why are special districts an issue for a special session of the legislature to address?
Governor Ron DeSantis, and some conservative lawmakers, have been angered with the stance the Disney Corporation took on the recently signed law that critics called, "Don't Say Gay." Many Disney employees opposed the bill and some protested. The company didn't have an official position on the bill until after it passed, but said it worked behind the scenes to weaken the new law. At that point, Disney apologized to employees for how it handled the situation and announced it would temporarily stop political donations in Florida.

Will Reedy Creek be the only district impacted by the legislature's move?
No, Florida House leaders said the new law would impact five special districts: Reedy Creek Improvement District, Bradford County Development Authority, Sunshine Water Control District in Broward County, Eastpoint Water and Sewer District in Franklin County, and the Hamilton County Development Authority.

Map of Special Districts to be terminated by Legislature
Map of Special Districts to be terminated by Legislature

If the legislature gets rid of the special district for Disney, then what?
Orange and Osceola counties would assume all assets and liabilities of the special district. The infrastructure and its associated workers would likely be absorbed into the counties, according to ABC affiliate WFTV. In exchange, the counties would collect the tax revenue that Disney currently pays itself, WFTV reported. However, the counties would also assume all debt from the district and could cost taxpayers upwards of $1 billion, lawmakers said. The counties would also be responsible for all infrastructure improvements and Disney would have to go to the county for major renovations or additions.

When would all of this take place?
The move wouldn't happen until June 1, 2023.

What happens now?
The legislature is likely to pass the changes during the special session in April 2022. However, the legislature could always change its mind during the 2023 session and change everything. Additionally, according to WFTV, county leaders in Orange and Osecola counties could set up local special districts for Disney, but what happens to the debt isn't known. At least one state senator said it doesn't matter what the legislature does, the changes will never fully take effect.