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Viewpoint: Georgia has too many counties — and other jurisdictions — to run as well as it could

A map of Georgia on a Downtown building, with Atlanta City Hall in background. File/Credit: Maggie Lee A map of Georgia on a Downtown building, with Atlanta City Hall in background. File/Credit: Maggie Lee

By Maggie Lee

How many governments operate just in Fulton County? Police departments? Obscure, unelected bodies called “authorities?”

Dozens. And I’m just thinking of the ones I know offhand.

There are the 16 city governments plus those of Fulton, Georgia and the United States, for a start. Atlanta Public Schools aren’t run by the city, the Fulton County schools aren’t run by the county — they’re all separate.

A map of Georgia on a Downtown building, with Atlanta City Hall in background. File/Credit: Maggie Lee

A map of Georgia on a Downtown building, with Atlanta City Hall in background. File/Credit: Maggie Lee

Once you hit a county line, a lot of local services reset. That happens more often in Georgia than other states. North Carolina has about as many people as Georgia, but they have 100 counties, compared to Georgia’s 159. Only Texas has more counties than Georgia.

Cities generally have their own police forces. And so do universities. And so does MARTA. State troopers work the Capitol and a few immediate blocks.

Speaking of MARTA, it’s an authority, an entity created by state law for a specific purpose. But it can only work in the counties that have invited it and levy taxes for it — Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton. But there’s also the new Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority that does other transit things, like coordinating plans among its 13 member counties.

Back in Atlanta, the city is in charge of planning. But it’s the Georgia World Congress Center Authority that oversees much of what happens on their campus, which also includes Centennial Olympic Park and the Mercedes-Benz stadium. There’s also a state authority that’s overseeing the redevelopment of 145 acres of the former Fort McPherson. Between the two, the governor has most of the board appointments.

All this complexity makes government hard to understand, hard to oversee. And in a lot of ways, it doesn’t serve the people all that well.

Atlanta and APS will spend who-knows-how-much money in court with each other in a case the city filed against the schools this year.

Some mobile phone 911 calls that hit cell towers across a county or city boundary are still getting bounced around different 911 call centers, delaying responses.

Atlanta has two competing economic development agencies — the city has one and Fulton has one — that have recently argued via letter over jurisdiction.

It’s often not clear to laypeople which agency handles simple things. The folks at the East Atlanta library (Atlanta-Fulton County system, but physically in DeKalb) regularly receive books wrongly dropped off by DeKalb borrowers.

But this is the country the framers designed: we’ll have different levels of government and we won’t be centralized. And anyway, merging different governments wouldn’t make fighting about money disappear. Plus, people seem to like local control — at least the people who’ve voted to create five new Fulton cities and four in DeKalb since 2005.

Still, there are yet ways to make local governments work better together. Now, I’ve never heard any mainstream politician endorse Fulton and its cities consolidating. (Though that’s exactly how Augusta, Columbus, Macon and Athens are run. None of those is a “city.” Each is a “consolidated government” that’s one-and-the-same with its county.)

Nor have I ever heard anyone seriously propose merging any metro Atlanta counties.

So we’re left with more modest things. Forums like the LINK trip and Leadership Atlanta training put people from different levels of government (and the private sector) on road trips, at meals, and in classrooms together. So at least a person on city council will personally know someone at the county commission, or at the county next door.

Fulton County convenes meetings of the city’s mayors from time to time. Sometimes some of the city of Atlanta’s elected leaders come to regularly scheduled meetings of the city’s state lawmakers.

All those things are good because the result is local leaders who have friends in other governments and are more liable to make a call to see what’s going on — instead of just throwing up their hands and saying it’s some other jurisdiction’s problem.

Any other ideas for overcoming jurisdiction lines? The comment section is open.

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Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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3 Comments

  1. Matthew R Houser August 6, 2019 10:20 am

    Georgia has a law that is commonly referred to as the Service Delivery Strategy that requires a county and all cities within a county to periodically agree upon who delivers what service where and what funds will be used to pay for the service. It basically guarantees that a parcel of land won’t be forgotten or double taxed. That said, I agree that to the layperson, which government is responsible for what can be confusing. With the growth in population in the Atlanta-metro it seems that the desire for more local governments will continue, while outside the metro, in areas of rural Georgia not seeing much growth the trend may continue to consolidate counties and the county seat into a combined local government. The Georgia Constitution only recognizes one type of a city as opposed to villages and towns that may have limited authority. Regardless, the government entity should be structured to allow for the optimal delivery of the service or services to be provided.Report

    Reply
  2. Harry C D Underwood September 29, 2019 10:40 pm

    A few questions:
    * Why is no one advocating for merging Fulton and DeKalb (and other Metro Atlanta) counties together?
    * Why is no one advocating for merging many, many more counties – especially in South Georgia – together to reduce the number to 67 (the same number as in Alabama and Florida), 56 (same as the number of Senate districts) or 36 (if you make the Atlanta metro area into one county)?
    * Why is no one advocating for more levels to municipal government beyond “city” and “consolidated government”?
    * Why is no one questioning the racist legacy of county partitions in Georgia as a means of protecting plantations?

    So many of these counties – especially those who have some of the lowest GDP of any county – can’t even fund themselves without ticketing passersby and imprisoning people. County government in Georgia is a waste.Report

    Reply
  3. Christopher Johnston September 30, 2019 8:35 am

    Harry C D Underwood, DeKalb and Fulton County officials have no interest in consolidating the counties because many of them would lose their jobs if the consolidation happened.
    A more likely bet is that the Legislature would reconstitute Milton County, freeing the taxpayers of North Fulton from supporting South Fulton.Report

    Reply

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