By Guest Columnist BILL FLOYD, Mayor of the City of Decatur and president of the Georgia Municipal Association
There are a number of interesting conversations going on nationally about the role of cities.
The common theme among the various discussions is that cities matter. They are seen as critical elements in our economic recovery, and they are considered to be core components in tackling any number of critical issues facing our society.
But in Georgia the discussion about cities doesn’t reflect the national conversation. Too often cities are painted, along with counties and local schools, as ineffective and not representing the needs of their citizens.
Recent polling, however, paints another picture, one which suggests people have much more trust and confidence in their local governments than they do their state government.
A February CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll indicates that over 52 percent trust their local government most or all of the time while only a third feel the same for their state government.
And a February Rasmussen Reports survey reported that 43 percent felt their local government does a better job than their state government. Only 19 percent believe their state government outperforms their local government.
Local leaders must be doing something right.
I don’t cite these polls to disparage our state government, or to say that we always execute perfectly at the local level, but to point out that there is some truth to that old adage that the closer the government is to the people, the more responsive and trusted it is. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be 152 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) and 158 Education SPLOST (E-SPLOST) currently in effect around the state.
Polls only tell part of the story, however. Cities in metro Atlanta are the focal point of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s successful Livable Centers Initiative.
To diversify the local economy, Dalton officials are looking to partner with Dalton State University to bring more activity to its downtown. Savannah has taken on reversing the impact of poverty and blighted neighborhoods as key to its future. Leaders in Cordele are looking to make that city an inland port. Senoia is experiencing a renaissance because of its downtown improvement efforts, and the list goes on.
Let’s also not overlook cities in relation to our state economy. Eighty-four percent of the state’s domestic product is generated in cities, and 64 percent of the jobs in the state are located within a city. In Georgia, cities are truly economic powerhouses.
From dealing with poverty and public safety issues to making transportation and water/sewer infrastructure investments to creating effective land-use plans, city officials are making critical decisions that will impact not just their community, but also the long-term health and economic viability of our state.
The bottom line is that cities are a core strategic asset for Georgia, and the energy and creativity found in them is what will create, nurture and sustain our economy.
It’s time for the conversation about cities in Georgia to change. But that change will require state leaders to embrace three things.
First, they will need to appreciate the grassroots. Although people may love their state, they don’t live and work and play at the “state level.” Instead, they live their lives at the “local level.” It will be here where leaders will be able to tap into the energy of people and institutions to make a difference.
Two, the state will have to partner with cities to get the results we all seek. Innovation and expertise are found at the local level throughout Georgia.
Third, the state will have to learn to trust her local governments and not legislate to the least common denominator. Instead, they must create the political and policy infrastructure that allows communities to meet the diverse social and economic demands they face, both within their boundaries and in the larger regions they serve.
Bob Dylan once wrote “The times they are a-changin.” In order to move Georgia forward to a bright economic future, we need to recognize that the times have indeed changed.
And with those changes, we must shift our thinking and our attitudes in the way we look at cities by recognizing that they are fundamental to our state’s economy.