Saturday, January 8, 2011


It is the silly season when the General Assembly meets under the gold dome to engage in all manner of absurdities. One item on the hit parade is the quaint notion of re-creating "Milton County" when that is exactly the wrong thing to do.

The Atlanta area faces serious problems in transportation, air and water resource management and spotty if not systemic financial mismanagement. These are regional issues, bigger than any one county or any one city and we are structurally incapable of marshaling the region's resources to address these problems. In fact, it is the structure of governments in this region that have created many of the problems. 

The Atlanta region suffers from small, self-interested and competing governments organized around what are now irrelevant and what have always been arbitrary geo-political boundaries.  It should be no surprise then, that these are run by small, self-interested politicians. To make matters worse, rather than consolidating for the common good, in recent years we've seen splits along socio-economic class lines further exacerbating balkanization by institutionalizing resource fragmentation and formalizing cultural separatism. The City of Dunwoody is just the latest example.

This balkanization and the power grabs behind it have created inappropriate loci of control and responsibility, and wasteful use of resources due to inefficient replication in the administration of key services.

What follows is a proposal for a new regional structure with appropriate allocation of responsibilities and resources to recover from our self-inflicted damage.

But just what is "this region"?

The US Census Bureau considers the Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area to include 28 counties in North Georgia with an area equivalent to the entire state of Massachusetts. The Atlanta Regional Commission only covers 10 counties: Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale.

This proposal, since it is radical anyway, would create a "Martha County" consolidating Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Cobb, Cherokee, Gwinnett and small, contiguous parts of Rockdale and Douglas counties. At the outer edges this new county would acquire property or property rights to establish a green belt of undeveloped land providing a barrier to outward sprawl, and encouraging (re)development of a well-defined metropolis. Where the cost of outright acquisition is prohibitive, the purchase of future development and/or rights of refusal achieve the same goal. By agreeing to deed restrict the future use of their property owners receive immediate compensation and lower their current cost of ownership.

Furthermore, there would be no unincorporated areas within Martha County. Each area inside the County would be annexed into an adjacent city, chosen by the voters in the annexed area or incorporated as a new municipality. This is critical to maintaining the separation of regional and local responsibilities and control.

There are relatively clear responsibilities, and resources, that belong at the regional level simply because the regional problems are shared by everyone in the region.  That most of these newly formed cities have banded together via IGAs offers an existence proof that they have taken on what are indeed regional issues. These would be handled by Martha County and would include:
  • Water Management: including potable water supply, storm and sanitary sewers, conservation and enforcement. This would unify the potable and waste water systems and consolidate management and enforcement of conservation, runoff and pollution ordinances.
  • Waste Management: including yard waste, garbage, household waste and recycling. Consolidation will bring the scale necessary to negotiate favorable contracts and establish effective recycling programs.
  • Law Enforcement: traffic enforcement on all interstate highways and arterials as well as maintenance of a county wide SWAT and drug interdiction force. Regionalizing these removes the current money-motivation behind some smaller cities taking on jobs they cannot handle. Jails and detention centers are also a regional responsibility.
  • Fire Protection and Safety: all first responders, medical and fire. This will also include life-flight operations and subsidized trauma centers.
  • Transportation: the 800 lb gorilla. The Martha County Transportation Authority would take over responsibility and control for public transportation through out the county. It will also assume control and responsibility for ground transportation maintenance and growth, including arterials within municipalities.  Residential and other surface streets remain a local responsibility. And, most controversially, full responsibility and control over air transportation in the area, freeing Hartsfield-Jackson from the well earned reputation of being a cesspool of corruption and leveraging those resources for the common good of the region.
Municipalities retain responsibility for those things that benefit most from local control:
  • Schools: All K-12 become a municipal responsibility. This results in smaller school systems that more accurately reflect the community. At first glance this would seem inefficient, but the Atlanta area has proven time and again that large systems are intrinsically corrupt and cause more waste and educational damage than any loses that would be associated with replication across smaller systems.
  • Zoning: since this establishes the character of a community it is naturally a local concern, as is administration of variances and enforcement of codes.
  • Parks and Recreation: much like zoning, parks and recreation are a reflection of the community and the value they place on public spaces and common areas.
  • Local Law Enforcement: concerned primarily with quality of life ordinances and municipal traffic enforcements. Should police in the schools be necessary, these would be local LEOs.
  • Streets: maintenance of surface streets and associated infrastructure (street lights, power rights of way, etc.) are managed by municipalities. This justifies their precious back-door tax of franchise fees.
This plan will not sit well with the politicians who will lose power due to consolidation, nor with overpaid school admins as smaller systems can neither justify, nor hide, their outrageous pay. Local police chiefs will not like having their wings clipped, but citizens will not suffer the burden or oppression of a hodge-podge of paramilitary forces. The good ole boy network that controls roads and the airport will cry foul--that alone justifies immediate action.

If one accepts this definition of "crisis", a crucial stage or turning point in the course of something, then this region is at just such a turning point. We will either muster the grit and determination of a Scarlett O'Hara and pull ourselves out of an enlarging disaster or we will continue to tune Nero's fiddle, leaving it to our children to sing "Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down" and for their children to pick up the pieces.