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An experiment in government

New cities in Fulton County, Ga., are taking privatizing to the max.

August 19, 2007|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — At last, Eva Galambos is thrilled with her hometown of Sandy Springs: It has almost three times as many police officers now than two years ago, she says, and the streets are cleaner, and the strip clubs will -- hopefully -- be gone soon.

"The most stunning thing," she adds, "is that we're not paying more taxes."

Galambos is the mayor, so it is not surprising to hear her promote this 2-year-old suburban city. What is striking, though, is the number of public-policy experts and free-market advocates also taking note.

When the affluent suburban community north of Atlanta won its independence in 2005 -- after complaining for years that its taxes subsidized poor communities to the south -- it became Georgia's first new city since the 1950s. And rather than set up a city hall, the city chose to outsource the bulk of the administration to a private corporation.

Since then, three more unincorporated enclaves in the county, which covers 529 square miles and is centered on Atlanta, have asserted their independence. Of Fulton County's more than 960,000 residents, only about 50,000 live outside a city -- and that number could shrink to zero if a proposed fifth new city is created in September.

Instead of establishing bureaucracies, the new cities have chosen to outsource nearly all government services to private corporations, making this the nation's most ambitious experiment in privatizing city administration.

For decades now, the county has been racially and economically split, with the north predominantly white and affluent, and the south predominantly black and poor. Although the first three new cities were formed in the north, charges of elitism and racism have faded to some extent as communities in the southern part of the county have sought cityhood too.

The dramatic and rapid shift toward an all-city county has sent shock waves through county government.

With potentially no unincorporated areas, county commissioners are, among other things, considering replacing the Sheriff's Department with a privately contracted jailer. And they are looking at replacing the seven county commissioners with a five-member panel.

Fulton County would continue to collect taxes and provide countywide services such as courts, health centers and senior services.

For the new cities -- and the overall region -- the future is less clear. As the Atlanta area's landscape becomes more balkanized, and the new cities design their own governments, questions remain about the more local, privatized system.

Sandy Springs was not the first U.S. city to outsource most services -- it followed Weston, Fla., a city of 65,000 that incorporated in 1996 -- but it has set off a private cityhood movement of an unprecedented scale.

"This is uncharted territory in the United States," said Robert W. Eger, a professor of public administration and policy at Florida State University. "We're talking about five new cities whose administration is run by private firms. That's just never been done before."

For 30 years, residents of Sandy Springs fought a Democratic-controlled Legislature for cityhood, with legislators refusing to change a law that made it difficult for new cities to be formed. Republicans gained control of the Legislature in 2004 and changed the rules. When Sandy Springs held its referendum on cityhood, 94% of voters approved.

Many who support the cityhood and privatization movement say it cannot be less dysfunctional than Fulton County government has been, especially as population increased by 25% from 1990 to 2000. Cited are the county's troubled public transit systems, a jail taken over by a federal judge because it was deemed unsafe, and a court with security so lax that a prisoner escaped, stole a deputy's gun, and killed a judge and two other people.

Some are scathing too about offerings they consider less than prudent. "Fulton County offers services the Founding Fathers never would have dreamed of for any layer of government, such as cable television at posh senior centers or grants to unknown dance troupes," said Oliver Porter, interim manager of Sandy Springs, in an opinion piece in the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

Yet the movement's aim does not appear to be lowering taxes or unraveling bureaucracy. Despite their differences, the new cities all seem to share a desire for greater regulation, particularly when it comes to zoning.

In Sandy Springs, a highly developed suburban area with 87,000 residents, this means regulating adult entertainment businesses and updating or replacing older commercial buildings. To the south, in Chattahoochee Hill Country, a less-developed area and home to fewer than 2,200, the focus is on preserving most of the land as rural, with the occasional hamlet.

With phenomenal growth around Atlanta, each city is concerned with who controls development and what gets built, said Douglas C. Bachtel, a demographer at the University of Georgia.

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