"A Georgia Town Takes the People’s Business Private
By David Segal. June 23, 2012
IF your image of a city hall involves a venerable building, some Roman pillars and lots of public employees, the version offered by this Atlanta suburb of 94,000 residents is a bit of a shocker.
The entire operation is housed in a generic, one-story industrial park, along with a restaurant and a gym. And though the place has a large staff, none are on the public payroll. O.K., seven are, including the city manager. But unless you chance into one of them, the people you meet here work for private companies through a variety of contracts.
Applying for a business license? Speak to a woman with Severn Trent, a multinational company based in Coventry, England. Want to build a new deck on your house? Chat with an employee of Collaborative Consulting, based in Burlington, Mass. Need a word with people who oversee trash collection? That would be the URS Corporation, based in San Francisco.
Even the city’s court, which is in session on this May afternoon, next to the revenue division, is handled by a private company, the Jacobs Engineering Group of Pasadena, Calif. The company’s staff is in charge of all administrative work, though the judge, Lawrence Young, is essentially a legal temp, paid a flat rate of $100 an hour.
“I think of it as being a baby judge,” says Mr. Young, who spends most of his time drafting trusts as a lawyer in a private practice, “because we don’t have to deal with the terrible things that you find in Superior Court.”
With public employee unions under attack in states like Wisconsin, and with cities across the country looking to trim budgets, behold a town built almost entirely on a series of public-private partnerships — a system that leaders around here refer to, simply, as “the model.”
Cities have dabbled for years with privatization, but few have taken the idea as far as Sandy Springs. Since the day it incorporated, Dec. 1, 2005, it has handed off to private enterprise just about every service that can be evaluated through metrics and inked into a contract.
To grasp how unusual this is, consider what Sandy Springs does not have. It does not have a fleet of vehicles for road repair, or a yard where the fleet is parked. It does not have long-term debt. It has no pension obligations. It does not have a city hall, for that matter, if your idea of a city hall is a building owned by the city. Sandy Springs rents.
The town does have a conventional police force and fire department, in part because the insurance premiums for a private company providing those services were deemed prohibitively high. But its 911 dispatch center is operated by a private company, iXP, with headquarters in Cranbury, N.J.
“When it comes to public safety, outsourcing has always been viewed with a kind of suspicion,” says Joseph Estey, who manages the Sandy Springs 911 service in a hushed gray room a few miles from city hall. “What I think really tipped the balance here is that they were outsourcing just about everything else.”
Does the Sandy Springs approach work? It does for Sandy Springs, says the city manager, John F. McDonough, who points not only to the town’s healthy balance sheet but also to high marks from residents on surveys about quality of life and quality of government services.
But that doesn’t mean “the model” can be easily exported — Sandy Springs has the built-in advantage that comes from wealth — or that its widespread adoption would enhance the commonweal. Critics contend that the town is a white-flight suburb that has essentially seceded from Fulton County, a 70-mile-long stretch that includes many poor and largely African-American areas, most of them in Atlanta and points south.
The prospect of more Sandy Springs-style incorporations concerns people like Evan McKenzie, author of “Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government.” He worries that rich enclaves may decide to become gated communities writ large, walling themselves off from areas that are economically distressed.