Mark Niesse at the AJC has been covering the Georgia General Assembly’s debates on bills to allow incorporation referenda and annexations in DeKalb County. His efforts to dig beneath the slogans and rhetoric on this issue has been commendable. I’ve been particularly interested in an article he wrote in late February that predicts a rapidly diminishing rate of return for each successive incorporation in the region.
All of the seven cities that have been created since 2005, when Sandy Springs started the local government trend, have become mostly white islands of safety and affluence. What’s remaining is heavily black, less well-off and will have to devote more resources to solve tougher crime problems.
Niesse goes on to make an argument that echoes what I’ve written about the limits of public choice theory in practice–the early adopters of incorporation secure control of high-value taxable property and are able to set boundaries that enclose affluent populations that demand few services. The real equity problem comes from the fact that a process that works well for the early-adopting cities is inherently less good for latecomers.
They also lack as much precious commercial property whose taxes help fund municipal governments. Only two of them, LaVista Hills and South Fulton, would bankroll their own police departments. The potential cities of Greenhaven, Tucker, Sharon Springs and Stonecrest would continuing to use county police.
The formation of wealthier cities has denied unincorporated residents resources, said Kathryn Rice, who lives in the southern part of DeKalb County. She too wants safer neighborhoods, fewer potholes, freshly paved roads and better parks.
“They need to know that they’re hurting me,” Rice said. “We don’t want to be scapegoats.”
What’s interesting, however, is that the new cities in Fulton and DeKalb Counties may not even be good instruments for local control or good, responsive government. Johnny Edwards and Craig Schneider in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution provided an interesting report in late January describing on discontent among residents with local government in many of the suburban cities incorporated since 2005. I had meant to blog about it at the time, and didn’t, but since incorporating more cities is on the agenda in the Georgia Legislature’s annual session, it’s worth digging in a little bit.
As Edwards and Schneider write,
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found numerous problems among the growing ranks of metro Atlanta’s new cities, from Johns Creek to Brookhaven, Dunwoody to Sandy Springs. Elected leaders have faced complaints that they steered city business to relatives and campaign donors, accepted gifts and favors barred by ethics codes, spent too freely on salaries or dreamed up mega-dollar development deals that many constituents didn’t want.
- Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker took a free vacation and rented a townhome from a developer and campaign contributor, then voted favorably on his zoning request.
- A family member of Brookhaven Mayor J. Max Davis secured a $28,000 renovation contract with the city.
- A Brookhaven councilman’s top campaign donors quickly won city work, and another councilman faced complaints that he routinely conducted private business at City Hall.
- The impulse to smaller government sometimes turns into grand civic dreams once a city is born. Sandy Springs, the first in the wave of new cities, now plans a $100 million city center to house government offices, a performing arts center and shops.
The last is particularly ironic, because the movement to incorporate Sandy Springs drew great strength from the tax revolt that erupted in Fulton County in 1991. That tax revolt was a backlash by many of Fulton County’s wealthiest residents against legally required corrections to property tax assessments that finally made owners of the most valuable property pay something resembling the full share of taxes mandated by state law. But leaders of the tax revolt, many of whom would take leadership roles in the Sandy Springs incorporation movement and hold elected office in new cities or represent north Fulton voters in the state legislature, directed ire toward Fulton County’s “Taj Mahal” government center.
More seriously, advocates for cityhood in north Fulton areas in the 2000s and in DeKalb today, along with advocates for splitting Fulton County, frequently defend against the charge that they seek to create majority-white political enclaves by shifting the conversation to “good government” and condemning corruption at the County level.
This, however, is an example of the kind of good government that some residents of new cities have been getting, as Edwards and Schneider describe:
In 2013, several city officials in Johns Creek accused Mayor Mike Bodker of unethical conduct in his official dealings with men who had given him campaign contributions and gifts. The city hired former DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson to investigate.
According to Wilson’s preliminary report, Bodker pushed the council to buy property from a campaign donor, Bob Cheeley, and urged the city to pay Cheeley’s asking price. Cheeley gave Bodker’s campaign $1,000 in 2006.
Cheeley was asking for more than $3 million for the property, former City Manager John Kachmar told the AJC. The council insisted on an independent appraisal, which came in at $2 million.
Wilson’s report also explored Bodker’s relationship with developer Richard Aaronson. Wilson said that in 2010, Bodker spent a free week in Aaronson’s Destin, Fla., beach house, then spent a year renting a townhome from Aaronson at a rate below what other tenants were paying.
In December 2010, a few months after the beach trip and just as he was moving into the townhome, Bodker voted in favor of changes Aaronson had requested in the Johns Creek Walk Phase II project.
The Aaronson family and company gave Bodker’s campaign $2,000 in 2008 and $3,500 in 2013.
Edwards and Schneider note that these actions are not in and of themselves illegal. But is “not technically against the law” a good standard for government integrity? In some of the new metro Atlanta cities, where
Gaining influence with top officials can be easier…. There are fewer power players, and some have known each other and done business for decades,
that standard might have to do.
I won’t beat a dead horse about this any more than necessary, but these kinds of complaints do suggest that the folks in most of these communities who voted to incorporate may have had a particular vision of “good government” in mind when they hit the voting booth. The notion that African American voters are not to be trusted with the public purse is hardly novel in Atlanta’s political culture, and there’s pretty strong visual evidence for the proposition that the complexion of new cities’ leadership strata is not an irrelevant factor in enthusiasm for incorporation.
Sometimes, an apparent failure of policy–cityhood opening the door to corruption instead of responsiveness and transparency–reflects a critical misunderstanding of the actual goals of the policy.