By Geoffrey F. Segal
At 12:01 am on Dec. 1, a vision took reality for a large group of citizens in Sandy Springs, Georgia. After fighting Fulton County for over 30 years, their dream became a reality and Sandy Springs was officially an incorporated city – the first new city in Georgia in 50 years.
What makes Sandy Springs relatively unique is what the new city looks like today. Rather than create an entire new bureaucracy, virtually every city function is privatized. Moments after taking the oath of office for the first time, Mayor Eva Galambos said, “We have harnessed the energy of the private sector to organize the major functions of city government instead of assembling our own bureaucracy.”
“This we have done because we are convinced that the competitive model is what has made America so successful. And we are here to demonstrate that this same competitive model will lead to an efficient and effective local government.”
Fulton County officials, meanwhile, are faulting a deficit on the Sandy Springs effect. It turns out that Sandy Springs taxpayers had been subsidizing other government functions to the tune of $26 million a year – and receiving sub-par services to boot. The county commission needs to tackle the problem head on – a high cost of services and poor performance – rather than blame its ills on Sandy Springs.
The real effect or impact of Sandy Springs will develop over the next year. Sandy Springs is probably just the first domino to fall. Two other communities, Milton and Riverside, are already in the process of incorporating. Legislation will be introduced in January and is likely to be signed into law this April. A citizen referendum would follow shortly thereafter and the new cities would become Georgia’s newest cities on Dec.1, 2006.
The chairman of the Northeast Fulton County Study Commission, Mike Bodker, is reviewing the feasibility of a new city of Riverside. He suggests that the new city will “use privatization and partnering to use tax dollars more effectively.” The commission wants to identify and utilize innovative and competitive solutions, while making the government more responsible, transparent and accountable to taxpayers.
Existing communities including nearby Roswell and Alpharetta are also keenly watching developments in Sandy Springs to see if similar efforts would be appropriate for their city operations.
While this is new to the area, it is very reminiscent of the city of Lakewood, California, and the subsequent “Lakewood Plan.” Incorporated 51 years ago, the city of Lakewood used an innovative and cost-effective strategy to contract for city services. The city council set local policy, performed community planning tasks and set the annual budget. However, the services were provided through a contractual arrangement with private companies and neighboring communities.
Lakewood sprung a wave of incorporation that led to the creation of some three dozen “contract cities” in California. The plan continues to be emulated in California and throughout the country, including in Sandy Springs and Weston, Florida, a community of 65,000 in Broward County with a $100 million annual budget and three city employees.
Weston City Manager John Flint quickly recognized the appeal of contracting for services shortly after incorporation, saying, “We’re not going to have any employees. We’re not going to build a city hall, and no one is going to build an empire.”
Lakewood and successors such as Weston and Sandy Springs demonstrate that there is another way to govern. It is a plan that puts results, performance and outcomes first, rather than focusing on process or systems (i.e., public vs. private) to deliver high-quality, low-cost public services.
Only time can tell how successful Sandy Springs will be. Experience suggests that it will become a model city for both cost and quality of services. Local conditions also suggest that it will be copied time and again as different communities rally against poor performance and high taxes. Unfortunately, not all residents will likely benefit from the real Sandy Springs effect as Fulton County officials seem poised to continue to fight the power of competition.
Geoffrey F. Segal is a visiting fellow at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and the director of government reform at Reason Foundation. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (December 30, 2005). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.