Kentucky has 43 different kinds of special districts collecting taxes or fees to provide a variety of public services that, while not quite running the gamut from A to Z, at least go from A to W — ambulance service to watershed conservancy, air pollution control to waste management.
Some of the more familiar types deal with water and sewer services, libraries, hospitals, mass transit, airports and riverports.
But there are also flood control districts, drainage districts, levee districts, and multitasking combined drainage, levee and reclamation districts. Even subdivision road districts. The list goes on and on, and on some more.
But while we know how many kinds of special districts are authorized under Kentucky law, no one knows how many of these districts actually are operating in the commonwealth.
State Auditor Adam Edelen's office estimates their numbers run between 1,300 and 1,800 and that they collect from $500 million to $1.5 billion in taxes and fees annually.
State law requires them to file uniform reports with the state Department for Local Government annually. But the simple fact that no one knows how many exist tells you some of these districts just aren't really into complying with this requirement. Some don't even make regular reports to fiscal courts in their respective counties.
They're little fiefdoms operated with minimal accountability and even less transparency — all on the public's dime. The messes uncovered when a light was shone on the workings of the Blue Grass Airport and the Mountain Water District in Pikeville tell you all you need to know about how badly these districts can go astray in the absence of adequate oversight.
On Wednesday, Edelen announced plans to compile a user-friendly online database providing the kind of transparency that allows the public to compare the tax or fee rates and spending practices of their local districts with similar districts around the state.
It's an ambitious task, given the enormity of the data the auditor's office hopes to compile and the kind of resistance it can expect to meet from the entrenched and often politically influential people who run these special districts.
But it's a task worth undertaking because we'll never know how much of the estimated $500 million to $1.5 billion of the public's money is paying for messes like Blue Grass Airport's or Mountain Water District's until someone shines a light on all the state's special districts.