Near Atlanta, a burst of newly minted cities
SANDY SPRINGS, GA. — Sandy Springs is Georgia's seventh-largest city, but City Hall is located in a leased office complex. It outsources planning and zoning to an out-of-town company. Its fire engines are county castoffs.
If Sandy Springs seems like a city that's just been thrown together, it's because that is exactly what it is.
Just 10 months old, this former unincorporated part of Fulton County represents the spear-tip of a suburban revolution, founded by average taxpayers with little political experience, but backyards full of passion.
The new city has sparked a movement where people in at least half a dozen metro Atlanta suburbs – some small, some huge – are practically overnight carving cities out of suburbs to establish a sense of identity and legislative independence, even if strip malls have to double as town squares.
"This is really about the tension between the city and the suburbs caused by changing attitudes in society," says Daniel Franklin, a political science professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
Sandy Springs is home to 87,000 Georgians living among luxury townhomes and 1960s-style apartments, and is anchored by the Big Tree Forest Preserve. Where's the downtown? They'll have to build it.
For years, its residents fought against Atlanta, which wanted to annex Sandy Springs to collect more tax revenue. More recently, they battled for more control of how Fulton County raised and spent their taxes.
Shaped like an hourglass with Atlanta in the center, Fulton County is an unwieldy entity comprised of some one million people. Racial tensions between the mostly white suburbs and black city core have contributed to problems in its government, experts say.
"Fulton County may be one of the worst-run governments in the US, but a big part of that is that half the people in the county don't want it to work," says Mr. Franklin. "It's partly racial, but, today, it's less about race and more about taxes and services and efficient government."
For 30 years, the Democratic legislature refused to allow the county to be broken up, largely in deference to an African-American constituency that needed the tax wellspring to deal with urban issues from sewers to welfare.
When Republicans took control of both houses of the general assembly in 2005 for the first time since Reconstruction, they lifted the cityhood blockade.
Now critics say the growing number of new cities is a Republican-led gambit by rich and mostly white enclaves to gerrymander borders and boost property values.
Leaders in Sandy Springs, meanwhile, are treating its ascension to cityhood like eager scientists overseeing an experiment in governance.
Its most audacious project outsources most of its city hall functions to a consulting firm, CH2M HILL, which has an office in Atlanta. In other locales, outsourcing some city hall jobs has had limited success.
"There's no guarantee the [new cities] will make it," says Franklin.
But a recent city council meeting looked similar to one in any other city: Cranky developers, pleading residents, councilors on soapboxes. More importantly, officials say, potholes are now being filled. Some residents are thrilled to see the presence of police cruisers – with "Sandy Springs" logos – and have invited officers into their homes for supper.
"It's just sort of a wide-eyed delight on the part of the citizens," says Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos. "All of a sudden they see government is doing something."
Two areas – Johns Creek and Milton – voted for incorporation in June and will become cities Dec. 1. Chattahoochee Hills Country, Dunwoody, and South Fulton are next in line to vote.
"It's sad that we had to create more government to get better government, but sometimes it's so bad that it takes drastic measures to improve it," says Mike Bodker, mayor of Johns Creek, a 63,000-pop. area.
The incorporation burst here touches on how to deal with the population growth that is felt throughout the South. Some metro areas, such as Nashville and Raleigh, N.C., grew by 50 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to the US Census Bureau, and continue to grow at that pace. Along North Carolina's ritzy, growing coast, Camden County recently voted to incorporate as a city, and the debate has already reached Orlando, Fla., where some 300,000 suburbanites live in dense, but unincorporated, areas.
"People are wrestling control away from a higher government and bringing it back to the local level," says Geoffrey Segal, director of government reform at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank in Los Angeles. "It's very Jeffersonian, Madisonian, and Washingtonian. There's something very American about it."
Others argue that it is un-American. Fragmenting metro areas into individual cities destroys the democratic ideals of "majority-rule/minority-rights" by gerrymandering city boundaries to create cities defined not by people, but by politics, some social scientists say. After all, Mayor Galambos refers to Sandy Springs as "a Republican town."
"[Suburban incorporation] is a way of guaranteeing social exclusivity and higher property values, and that undercuts the logic of eliminating fragmentation so that a rising tide lifts all boats," says Mark Gottdiener, an urban sociologist at the State University of New York, Buffalo. "It paralyzes the region ... especially when you have smaller cities divided up between Republicans and Democrats so people no longer have a need to work together politically."
But for many county residents, founding a new city brims with more possibilities than pitfalls. "It's starting anew, it's fresh, we're part of history," says Sandra Hardy.
Ms. Hardy is part of a steering committee working to create what is being called the City of South Fulton. But residents say they will probably dump that bureaucratic moniker after incorporation. They're considering a name that they say has more promise: Utopia, Ga.