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