Unlike the Macon-Bibb consolidation, metro Atlanta keeps adding more cities

By Maria Saporta

A new tale of “two Georgias” is evolving as local governments take different approaches to respond to modern day issues.

On July 31, metro Atlanta added yet another city to its region when voters decided to create a new City of Brookhaven. This follows the establishment of a host of new cities in the Atlanta region — Sandy Springs (2005), Johns Creek (2006), Milton (2006), Chattahoochee Hills (2007) Dunwoody (2008) and Peachtree Corners (2011).

But in another part of the state, a totally different vote was underway on July 31.

Voters in the City of Macon and Bibb County decided to consolidate the city and county governments.

So as one region is splintering into smaller and smaller pieces, another region is choosing to create a more unified government structure.

Macon-Bibb is only the latest in more than a half-dozen counties in the state that have opted for consolidated government.

In 1971, the City of Columbus and Muscogee County consolidated bringing together two governments that had been independent since 1828 when the city was founded and 1825 when the county was founded.

That was followed by the unification of the City of Athens and Clarke County in 1990 — an effort that had been decades in the making. It started in 1955 when the school systems of Athens and Clarke were consolidated. And then there were several attempts in the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s to totally consolidate the city and the county.

Finally, on Aug. 7, 1990, there was a successful referendum to create a consolidated Athens-Clarke government — the measure approved by a margin of nearly 60 percent in both the city and county.

Until the Macon-Bibb County consolidation, the latest major city and county to consolidate was the City of Augusta and Richmond County in 1996. At the time that merger was approved, voters did decide to keep two other Richmond County cities — Hephzibah and Blythe — as separate governments.

The bottom line is that with the exception of metro Atlanta, most of the other major cities in Georgia are moving to a more unified form of government. Interestingly enough, both the Augusta and Columbus regions passed the 1 percent regional transportation sales tax — perhaps an indication of a more regional mindset in those communities.

Lamar Norton, executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association, said that Macon Mayor Robert Reichert was a key champion in the Macon-Bibb consolidation vote.

“Mayor Reichert is an outstanding mayor who is very focused and very loyal to his city and to Middle Georgia,” Norton said. “People there listen to Robert, and he thought this would move that part of the state forward. The timing was probably right. This is the best opportunity for Macon and Bibb County to live up to their potential.”

Dating back to when I was a reporter for the Macon Telegraph covering county government in the early 1980s, there were community conversations about consolidating the city and Bibb.

But consolidating governments is a tricky feat because it means that some one or some entity will have to give up some political power in the hope that a region can create a more efficient government.

“Hopefully they’ll see some reduction in costs,” Norton said of Macon-Bibb. “It’s an opportunity to reinvigorate the economy in that part of the state.”

Otis White, president and founder of Atlanta-based Civic Strategies, pointed out some parallels between metro Atlanta and Macon-Bibb.

“The creation of new governments and the elimination of governments are two sides of the same coin,” White said. “We have become dissatisfied with our governments. People are unhappy.”

It’s just that voters have chosen to respond in different ways in different parts of the state.

In metro Atlanta, much of the desire to create new cities has been driven by a desire of wealthier areas to unbuckle from counties with financial challenges.

“You don’t tend to find poor areas incorporating for obvious reasons,” White said. “They don’t have the tax base to support a new government.”

In some ways, Georgia makes it easy to create new cities. Other states like Florida require that if you start a new city government, you have to reimburse the county for all the money that it has invested in an area. That policy can curb a “new city” appetite rather quickly.

Compared to Texas and North Carolina, Georgia also makes it harder for cities to annex new areas, according to White. It used to be that when an area wanted municipal services, such as sewer or trash pick-up, it would be annexed into an existing city. Over time, Georgia’s counties actually have begun providing a host of municipal services that used to only be offered by cities.

Ross King, executive director of the Association County Commissioners Georgia, said there are other options for local governments to work together short of consolidation.

King described one of those as “functional consolidation” — when two governments decide to consolidate certain services. For example, in South Georgia area that includes Americus and Sumter County, eight counties got together to offer “consolidated enhanced ‘911’ services.”

Other communities have found was to consolidate libraries, schools, parks and recreation as well as arts and cultural affairs programs.

For decades, there had been talk about consolidating the governments of the City of Atlanta and Fulton County. Twenty years ago, the consulting firm of McKinsey & Co., helped coordinate discussions on a possible consolidation of Atlanta and Fulton. But those never materialized.

The two local governments, however, have joined together to provide shared services, such as the Atlanta-Fulton County library system. There also have been some folks who have proposed a closer alliance between the City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties because those entities already support MARTA and Grady Hospital

But now the trend is moving in the opposite direction with growing talk of splitting off the North Fulton County area into a new Milton County.

As King sees it, the state could play a more important role in getting local governments to work together if it provided incentives for cities and counties to work across political boundaries — in an effort to save overhead costs and taxpayer dollars.

“If two counties or three or more worked together, there would be greater efficiencies,” King said. “Functional consolidation of services is a bold step that can and should be taken. Then the next logical step then would be full consolidation.”

That may be true in the rest of Georgia, but it probably won’t happen in metro Atlanta any time soon. And that’s a shame.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

18 replies
  1. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    I wouldn’t say that it’s a shame that new cities are being formed in a fast-growing, heavily-populated and densely-populated metropolitan region of 6 million people as the formation of new local governments is often the outgrowth of a continued and sustained period of explosive population growth in which new communites have literally risen up from the ground in a very short period of time and existing communities have grown more dense in both population and development and have formed their own unique civic and local idenities with their own unique set of political, zoning and socioeconomic needs.
     
    Even within the same county, which some Metro Atlanta counties have populations that are higher than many major American cities, many different sections of a highly-populated county have vastly-differing political, zoning and socioeconomic needs as a Norcross 30093 zip code has a totally different set of needs and wants than a Norcross/Peachtree Corners 30092 within Gwinnett County or a Mableton 30126 zip code in struggling South Cobb may have a totally different agenda than a Marietta 30062 zip code in affluent East Cobb.
     
    There also has already been functional consolidation of services in Metro Atlanta as Fulton and DeKalb pay taxes to support Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta and MARTA is also supported by taxpayers in Fulton and DeKalb counties.Report

    Reply
  2. Burroughston Broch says:

    The new metro area cities in DeKalb and Fulton counties were all formed for two reasons –  to provide their residents (1) increased control over their lives and (2) relief from oppressive, unresponsive county governments.
     
    These cities would not have been incorporated had the county governments governed evenly. Instead, the county government milked these communities for taxes that were spent elsewhere for the most part, and provided substandard services. For example, many nights DeKalb County had only one police officer on patrol in Dunwoody, population 46,000, out of a total force of 1112 officers.
     
    If Milton County is re-established from north Fulton County, the cities that comprise it may choose to consolidate their governments into it, and Dunwoody could leave DeKalb and join them. It would have a population of over 395,000 and would be the 5th most populous county, surpassed only by Fulton, Gwinnett, DeKalb, and Cobb.
     Report

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  3. Rob Augustine says:

    I have seen first hand the inefficiencies and dysfunctionality of large county government operations. New cities are formed because local control by a fiscally responsible government is preferable to the lack of control and waste associated with these too big governments.

    That these county governments got so big is largely a result of prior legislation which allowed county governments to function as de facto “municipalities” and other law which prohibitted the formation of new cities within a few miles of existing cities, essentially shutting down new city formation. Both of these policies were a big mistake for Metro Atlanta. Not only did huge county bureaucracies get created, but we lost any sense of regionalism because each county was an entity unto itself.

    This is not the typical pattern across the US. In fact in most places, city formation is encouraged and relatively easy to do. Further county governments perform roles in certain limited, specified areas such as the judicial system, public health system, and maybe a few others such as libraries. Otherwise most municipal functions are left to city governments that are more attuned to and accountable to local populations of manageable size.

    Having someone in downtown Atlanta on the Fulton County Commission decide local zoning matters in Sandy Springs or North Fulton or South Fulton just did not work. It never did and we should never have had to put up with it. Having 7 commissioners running counties with several hundred thousand residents was a recipe for major disenfranchisement and substantial problems. All of which we know well.

    On the other hand, where you have a multitude of cities handling local matters, things work much better. Each city has a much more accountable, responsive, and effective government. Had Georgia not artificially restricted city formation, we would have more cities today than just the recent several new ones. I think it is fundamental that these local goverments are going to do a much better job. And had we allowed more cities, we would have avoided the all too powerful big county governments, and we would have fostered the cooperative effort needed between all these municipalities on matters such as roads, transit, etc. Indeed with more municipalities the need for regional cooperation becomes more compelling.

    In fact such regional cooperation would have led to a cooperative regionalism with a regional body to handle transportation, etc. Assumning we had adequate state leadership on this. So I do not buy the arguments that cities are bad at all. In the end they provide not only local control but a major impetus for regionalism. Which, of course Metro ATL sorely needs and which someday, because of the inevitiablity of such an idea, will occur.

    I cite but one example: we had all these big counties vote on MARTA back in the 70’s. It failed the first time, then on the second round narrowly passed in Fulton and DeKalb. Had other big counties approved it, we’d be way ahead of where we are now. So because of these big counties and a lack of regional thinking we have what we have now. Why in the world would a regional transit system be left up to such vagaries? And why in the world would we not have a regional transit authority from day one? Again, these old state laws and the lack of state leadership are telling.

    I’m sure Mr. Broch and the inestimable Last Demo will have even further insights into this topic, as they’ve already broached a number of key points. I must return to daily efforts, but thanks for listening.Report

    Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

       @Rob Augustine
       No, thank you Mr. Augustine for using your own insight to make some excellent points about how the formation of new cities after an extended period of explosive population growth is actually a benefit towards regionalism rather than a hinderance to or a liability towards regionalism.Report

      Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

       @Rob Augustine
       You also mentioned the first regional referendums for the formation of MARTA back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and how all five core counties rejected MARTA on the first vote in 1968 and Clayton, Cobb and Gwinnett counties rejected MARTA in all subsequent referendums.
       
      One really shouldn’t hold the rejections of MARTA, especially the early rejections of MARTA, against Cobb, Clayton and Gwinnett as those counties, along with all of Metro Atlanta, were very different places back then over 40 years ago when the very first MARTA referendums were held back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
       
      When the first votes were held to form and fund MARTA between 40 and 50 years ago, what is now a predominantly-black and rapidly-urbanizing Clayton County was a predominantly-white upper-middle class suburban county that was populated heavily with airline employees (some of the children of Delta and Eastern airline employees would get into fights with each other on the playground over whose parents’ airline was the best).
       
      About around that same time frame when the first votes for MARTA were held between 40-50 years ago, Cobb County, which with 700,000 residents is now a key part of the five-county urban core of the Atlanta Region, was basically a predominantly-white distant suburb of about 150,000-200,000 people that was outer suburban to exurban in nature and similar in nature to what an exurban Carroll County (110,000) or a exurban Paulding County (144,000) in West Georgia is today.
       
      It should also be noted that at the time and in the roughly subsequent two decades after the first MARTA votes, Cobb County was at the very center of the local white-flight movement of middle and upper class whites out of the City of Atlanta into the surrounding rural, exurban and suburban areas, a national movement that occurred in most major U.S. cities that was fueled locally by a very-high crime rate in the City of Atlanta at the time that was much higher than today (City of Atlanta homicides reached an all-time of about 271 in 1971 and were very high for many years from the 1960’s through the 1980’s while the City of Atlanta was home to the largest concentration of public housing complexes south of Washington D.C. up until the Olympics-era when many of those very high-poverty and very high-crime complexes that were close to or near MARTA lines began to be disassembled in earnest).
       
      People who had moved to what were then predominantly-white and distant suburban Cobb and Clayton counties wanted nothing to do with what was then an urban core in the City of Atlanta that had some very substantial concentrated pockets of extreme poverty and very high crime (see the erstwhile-notorious Techwood Homes near the campus of Georgia Tech north of Downtown, the erstwhile-notorious East Lake Meadows in East Atlanta).
       
      Also about that time that the first MARTA votes were held back in the mid ’60’s and early ’70’s, now rapidly-urbanizing ultra-diverse mega-suburb Gwinnett County which now has a population of 825,000 people, was a predominantly-white overwhelmingly-rural distant exurb at best with a sparce population of between 40,000-70,000 people.
       
      Many people who lived in the City of Atlanta at the time did not even know where Gwinnett County was located as it was sort of like the equivalent of what mostly-rural and exurban Jackson County up I-85 in Northeast Georgia is to Metro Atlanta today (Where is Jackson County you may ask?…Which is what most Atlantans asked about Gwinnett County at that time as it was considered so rural and far-flung from the urban core at that time).
       
      Even though then far-flung Gwinnett (and Metro Atlanta) was fast-growing at the time, except for the most forward-looking of urban planners (who strangely turned out to be correct in their distant 40-year forecasts for explosive and often crushing population growth in Metro Atlanta) many Atlantans both inside the city and outside the city at the time 40-50 years ago thought that the forecast that Gwinnett would grow to nearly a million people and that the Atlanta Region would grow to 3-5 million or more people was some kind of wild fantasy type of outrageous prediction that would never come true.
       
      It is because many Atlantans and Georgia government officials never thought the Atlanta Region was not capable of such growth that such predictions were laughed off as being purely fantasy and not additional reservoirs for water storage were never built and the suggestion that MARTA needed to be extended out to then-suburban Clayton, exurban Cobb and mostly-rural Gwinnett to prepare for a time when mass transit would be a necessity to get around a metro area of more than five million people was rejected by most suburban and exurban voters in a much-smaller Atlanta Region that at the time of the first MARTA votes had just recently eclipsed the 1 million resident population mark in about 1960 (by the way, as a reference point, the population of the ENTIRE Birmingham, AL region is just over 1 million).
       
      At that time, Atlanta still very much aspired to be a larger city and metro area with much more national and international influence so the view of everything as we see it today as a metro region of six million people was much, much, much different when viewed through the lens of a much smaller and much more provincial region that was still trying to maneuver its way into the so-called “Big Leagues” during a much more racially-polarized era over 40 years ago.Report

      Reply
      • Rob Augustine says:

        @The Last Democrat in Georgia

        I agree with your detailed historical analysis. And there’s still more that could be said in retrospect. My main poin, however, is that critical regional planning AND implementation should be accomplished by the state through a regional authority. Leaving either the plan or the funding up to the vagaries of local politics was and still is (TSPLOST) a huge error.

        Back in the 70’s we know who controlled the legislature following on from the days of the county unit system. It was certainly not urban Atlanta. Which devolved into several large counties. Even now we have failed to implement more than the most rudimentary and unfunded regional planning across the area. Two counties in Marta is ludicrous. Inadequate funding for Marta is absurd. All followed closely by the disinvolvement of big county governments in any type of comprehensive road work. How in the world did it take more tha 20 years to get the Hammond improvements at perimeter. Or the flyover bridge.

        The vacuum created by the lack of state involvement in key regional planning was only exceeded by the failure of big county governments to do anything either.Report

        Reply
        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

           @Rob Augustine  @The
          Mr. Augustine, you are as correct as can be as I completely agree with your excellent points about the virtual total and complete lack of state involvement in the critical planning and management of transportation infrastructure in a major population center of 6 million people.
           
          You hit the nail right-on-the-head that the State of Georgia absolutely must take the lead role in transportation planning in the Atlanta Region through a regional authority of some kind, especially when it comes to mass transit as is customary in virtually every other metro region of five 5-6 million people or more on the continent and throughout the planet.
           
          The State of Georgia also must take the lead role in transportation planning for the greater Atlanta Region because it is the state that is responsible for and owns many the key transportation right-of-ways (Interstates, state highways, existing freight railroad right-of-ways) that are the anchor of any comprehensive plans to overhaul and expand the transportation network of the Atlanta Region.Report

          Reply
        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

           @Rob Augustine  @The
           And counties outside of Atlanta led by the rural and agricultural interests of Middle and South Georgia may have had firm control of the state’s transportation policies by way of their domination of the State Legislature throughout much of the state’s history, but with the explosive growth of the greater Atlanta Region over the last four decades, the balance of political power within Georgia politics now lies largely with the greater Atlanta Region and North Georgia as the Governor (Nathan Deal), Lt. Governor (Casey Cagle), Senate Majority Leader (Chip Rogers) and the House Speaker (David Ralston) all hail from North Georgia above the Gnat Line with Deal (Gainesville), Cagle (Chestnut Mountain near Gainesville) and Rogers (Woodstock) all basically hailing from the Northern suburbs and exurbs of the Atlanta Region.
           
          It’s not the erstwhile-powerful rural and agricultural interests of South Georgia that are standing in the way of upgrades to the transportation infrastructure of the Atlanta Region anymore, now it is the powerful suburban and exurban interests of Metro Atlanta and that are primarily standing in the way of critically-needed transportation upgrades in the Atlanta Region.
           
          Metro Atlanta itself is the only thing that is still standing in the way of its own transportation progress. Report

          Reply
        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

           @Rob Augustine  @The
           Mr. Augustine, you are very correct that after four decades of explosive and almost unheard of rates of population growth, rail transit in the form of MARTA is still only in two counties.
           
          You are also very correct that after four decades of heady growth that saw the Atlanta Region grow by more than 4 million residents since 1970 and more than tripling in population in four decades, that it makes absolutely no sense that there has been such severe underinvestment in our transportation network as demonstrated by the fact that the 6 million-person Atlanta Region only has 48 centerline miles of rail transit track and is the largest metro region in North America east of the Mississippi River with no type of regional commuter rail service.
           
          One only look at our severely-dysfunctional state government (the Georgia Department of Transportation and its “managing” parent, the Georgia Legislature) to see why it took more than 20 years to complete the improvements to the Georgia 400 interchange with Hammond Drive or the Georgia 316 Westbound flyover bridge to I-85 Southbound to eliminate that deadly left-hand merge into the high-speed lane.
           
          Despite the failure of the large urban metro counties of Metro Atlanta to voluntarily come together to come up with an amicable regional transportation plan, it still comes down to the Georgia Legislature’s failure and outright refusal to do its constitutionally-mandated job to provide proper oversight and maintenance to the state’s transportation network of which the Atlanta Region is a critical part of.
           
          The failure of the Georgia Legislature to do its job in properly maintaining the state’s entire transportation network, a network that rail transit is a critical part of, is the reason why we get half-assed convoluted initiatives like T-SPLOST in which the State Legislature gleefully punts to the voters its responsibility to take care of the state’s transportation network while attempting to take care of all of its politically well-connected cronies in one fell swoop.Report

          Reply
  4. Rob Augustine says:

    I do apologize – when I responded I included several paragraph breaks. Somehow they disappeared in my post, making it all too consolidated and a bad metaphor for unigovernment, perhaps.Report

    Reply
  5. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    Speaking of regionalism, the U.S. Census Bureau now estimates the population of the Atlanta Region, a 33-county area in across North Georgia and into extreme Eastern Alabama that is technically known as the Atlanta-Gainesville-Cedartown-Thomaston-LaGrange, GA-Valley, AL Combined Statistical Area to be at over 6 million people.  This area is tabulated by the U.S. Census Bureau according to commuting patterns between outlying areas and the urban core.
     
    {{“Atlanta’s larger combined statistical area (CSA) adds the Gainesville, Georgia MSA, and the LaGrange, Georgia, Thomaston Georgia, Cedartown, Georgia, and Valley, Alabama micropolitan areas, for a total 2012 population of 6,034,270. The CSA also abuts the Athens, Macon, and Columbus MSAs. The region is the central metropolis of the Southeastern United States, and is the largest metropolitan area in the emerging megalopolis known as the Piedmont Atlantic MegaRegion along the I-85 Corridor.”}}
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlanta_Metropolitan_AreaReport

    Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      I guess that technically, the population of the Greater Atlanta region has now officially reached the 6 million mark according to the federal government.
       
      Where’s the champaign?  Where’s the celebration of years past when the region’s population reached 1 million, 2 million, etc.?
       
      Isn’t the Atlanta Region reaching the 6 million population milestone cause for celebration?Report

      Reply
    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      Is explosive population growth not as “cute and cuddly” a thought when the population is 6 million and you can’t go anywhere and you’re running out-of-water and for that matter, jobs?Report

      Reply
    • thedrewboo says:

       @The Last Democrat in Georgia Although wikipedia states 6,034,270 as the population, it cites/links to a “page not found” on the us census website that bears a title insinuating it was published in 2009. The 2012 estimate will not be released until 2013, and the 2011 estimate is no where near that estimate (300k less). So, it may be a projection based on pre-2009 data, but its def not an estimate (I was getting excited for a second there).  Also the CSA is called the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Gainesville, GA-AL CSA.  MSA and CSA titles only have three principle city names ranked by size. LaGrange, Cedertown, Valley, Thomaston, are the names of the Micropolitan Statistical Areas included in the CSA.Report

      Reply
  6. Rob Augustine says:

    Well said Last Democrat. I hope everyone reads your posts below and thinks very carefully about how and why we are where we are now. Well behind other major metro areas. Not in need of fewer governments or consolidation. Rather in need of a regional – state authority that is in charge of and will act on and has the capacity to pay for transportation efforts in the metro region.

    The ultimate implementation of such a system is both long overdue and inevitable. The proven way to address regional matters. What are we waiting for?Report

    Reply
  7. thedrewboo says:

    My hometown Statesboro, while smaller, is the only incorporated city (out of 4) in the county with over 1,500 population. Its urban population is over half of the county population and the county already shares many of the services with the city. If so many of the city and county services were not already merged, it would seem silly to expand the city limits from 12 to 685 square miles.  They actually finally started talking about consolidation a few years ago, but that conversation ended quickly between local officials wanting to keep their no-competition positions to tea party-esque rhetoric of unincorporated citizens not wanting to pay a slightly higher millage rate.  Consolidation makes sense for cities like Macon which already encompass the vast majority of Bibb County.  It can also make sense for smaller cities which comprise the only urban area within a large rural county, especially when services are already mostly shared.  The hardest part about doing what is best for your local community government is asking the people through referendum if they want to do their part as well.Report

    Reply
  8. Rob Augustine says:

    Your post reminds me, thedrewboo, that not only cites are caught up in this issue in Georgia about local governance. We essentially have the same situation with public school systems. Some time ago the legislature decreed that you couldn’t have any more school districts. So no new ones have been established.

    Now does that make any sense today? Especially in light of the major problems some of these all too large systems have created. I realize this is a topic for another thread, but it is related, so consider the history here. Look at the case brought originally by parents in Whitfield County as funding discrepancies occurred in public schools between two systems: the city system and the county system.

    Here’s a reference to the case: 285 S.E.2d 156 248 Ga. 632
    McDANIEL, et al. v. THOMAS, et al. THOMAS, et al. v. McDANIEL, et al.
    Supreme Court of Georgia.
    Nov. 24, 1981. Rehearing Denied Dec. 17, 1981.

    Looking at the historical analysis you will see that decades ago the legislature effectively froze the status quo for school districts and prohibited the formation of any new districts. Thus, we were left with the hodgepodge of systems that we have today. Many county, some city, and abundant difficulties regarding financing. The state supposedly stepped in as a funding equalizer. But even that is not fully resolved.

    So I ask today why are we bound by these historical precedents in the modern era when the ability and talent of so many is frustrated by the overly bureaucratic and ever more expensive large (mega) school systems. No doubt these frustrations have led to the formation of extensive private schooling in Georgia. Is there a better way — one consistent with more opportunities for smaller more manageable and ultimately better public school systems? This issue becomes even more relevant with technology advances, parent participation, and opportunities for allowing more focused, local control of schools under guidance by the state. Perhaps worth thinking and writing about folks on the Saporta Report.Report

    Reply

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