Nascent City Trying to Keep Its Money Close to Home
For decades, the suburbanites of Sandy Springs complained about the bureaucracy of Atlanta’s Fulton County, to which they were miserably attached. They described it with words like “bloated” and “decaying.”
Now, after voting overwhelmingly this summer to incorporate, the community -- relatively affluent, predominantly white, with a population of 87,000 -- will become Georgia’s seventh-largest city.
And when leaders asked themselves what kind of government best suited them, a clear vision emerged: as little government as possible.
So when the city of Sandy Springs opens for business Jan. 1, private corporations may be called in to manage storm water programs, street maintenance, building inspections, human resources, accounting -- in other words, nearly everything except police, fire and emergency services. The city, one community leader said, will add personnel only when it becomes clear that it is necessary.
“We don’t have the baggage,” said Oliver W. Porter, interim city manager and chairman of the Governor’s Commission on Sandy Springs, which is assisting in the transition process until city officials are elected in November.
“We don’t have people to fire. We have a clean sheet of paper. If we just go the traditional route, we’ll get the traditional reaction, which is ‘Feed me.’ ”
Sandy Springs’ 30-year campaign for independence, which over the years featured three-cornered hats and a staged Boston Tea Party, has centered on issues of money and power.
The area’s first burst of growth came as white Atlantans left the city in the 1970s. Although the region has seen an influx of Latinos in recent years, Sandy Springs has remained distinct from the southern part of the county, which is poor and predominantly black.
Sandy Springs’ median family income, according to the 2000 census, is $85,146 -- compared with $47,321 for Fulton County. In recent years, Sandy Springs residents contributed about $18 million annually in county tax revenues, and complained that their dollars were used to pay for social services in the southern part of the county.
They also contended that Sandy Springs had little control over its own zoning.
For years, Democratic politicians in Georgia took a dim view of Sandy Springs’ bid to incorporate, casting it as a battle of a wealthy white enclave to the north against black Atlanta. So did editorials in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Eva Galambos, a leader of the movement to incorporate and a candidate for mayor, blamed “the liberal bent of the media. They can’t stand to see the suburb get what it wants.”
But last year, Republicans took over the Legislature for the first time in 130 years, and self-determination for Sandy Springs rose on the agenda. Appearing at a $50-a-plate dinner last spring, Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue compared the independence campaign to leading “the Israelites out of Egypt,” the Journal-Constitution reported.
In a June 21 referendum, about 94% of voters were in favor of incorporation.
Now the period of daydreaming has come to an end, replaced by the challenge of designing a government in a few months.
Leaders of the incorporation push were intrigued by the model of Weston, Fla. -- a community of 65,000 in Broward County with a $100-million annual budget and three city employees.
Weston was not conceived of as an experiment in minimum government, but after it incorporated in 1996, planners recognized the appeal of contracting for services, City Manager John R. Flint said.
“It all fell into place,” Flint said. “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. People would come by and ask us, ‘So how’s your little science project going?’ ”
Sandy Springs’ planners made a visit to study the Florida community -- their only such trip -- and came back inspired.
Porter said his main impression was of beauty. “What I mean by beauty is efficiency,” the former AT&T; executive said. “Efficiency and responsiveness.”
Sandy Springs’ leaders also have reached out to the Reason Public Policy Institute, a California think tank that promotes privatization. Geoffrey F. Segal, who recently visited Sandy Springs, said the budding city’s ability to experiment “truly is unique.”
“You can imagine these kinds of discussions taking place when this country was forming,” said Segal, the institute’s director of privatization and government reform policy. “If a year from now, 70 or 80% of functions [in Sandy Springs] are being handled by private contractors, maybe it shows other cities that it can be done and they don’t need the bells and the whistles.”
Last month, 41 companies interested in contracts with Sandy Springs showed up to bid; among them was the British water and wastewater utility corporation that serves Weston. The meeting, Porter said, “was different from anything most of [the companies] had ever seen.”
“We’re pioneering, in a sense,” Porter said. “When the pioneers went across the mountains, they didn’t always know what was on the other side.”
The process of government-building has sparked its share of controversies. Some residents support the idea of erecting a town center with a city hall, while others say it’s a waste of money. And there has been grumbling that the process is happening behind closed doors.
At the same time, several communities around Sandy Springs are watching the process, attracted by the idea of keeping tax revenues closer to home.
State Sen. Vincent D. Fort, a Democrat who represents Fulton County, predicted that Sandy Springs would be the first in a series of suburbs to gain autonomy, and that the shift would force county planners to gradually eliminate social services like libraries or Meals on Wheels.
“You’re going to have this different tax distribution that is going to have an impact,” Fort said. “That’s nothing but apartheid.”
Doug Bachtel, a demographer at the University of Georgia, said newly autonomous regions such as Sandy Springs would face the challenge of satisfying the expectations of suburbanites.
“Your political philosophy says: ‘I don’t like big government, but you’ve got to get it done,’ ” Bachtel said. “They want the garbage picked up.”