Regional priorities need focus

Many U.S. citizens, even those far inland, believe the United States Coast Guard is an important service that benefits our entire country. Congress has agreed and chosen to pay for the USCG using funds from national taxes, because of its national benefits.

The story is similar at the state level. State governments collect taxes statewide and use them to support regional initiatives, or local initiatives with regional benefits. State support for cities’ budgets is so widespread that U.S. cities receive an average of 15 percent of their revenue from state government.

Georgia, however, has taken a different approach — at least so far. Its support for cities is far smaller than that of other states. In fact, state support for cities in Georgia is one-third (5 percent of city general fund budgets) the national average, and support for Atlanta specifically is one-fifteenth (about 1 percent) the national average.

States provide this support out of self-interest for the needs of the state as a whole, not out of some charitable impulse. Many issues (e.g., water, sewer, transportation) involve multiple jurisdictions, and the only way to address these problems is through the leadership and funding of a government level above the city.

They also provide support because of the benefits of major cities (e.g., taxes, economic development) and in recognition of the unique costs of some major cities (e.g., swelling of daytime population; crime; dense, costly infrastructure).

The lack of state support to Atlanta and surrounding cities and counties is a clear and present danger to the future success of the region and state.

Consider: A few short years ago the economic health of the state was threatened when an area occupied by about 1 million people in and around Atlanta was almost put under a complete development moratorium by a federal judge because of Atlanta’s delay in addressing regional sewer problems.

Simply put, Georgia’s past improvements in job growth, standard of living and other measures cannot be sustained in the face of emerging crises in areas such as water, sewer, and transportation services.

It is at this point that many politicians throw up their hands and admit that while more state support is necessary it is “politically impossible,” given the urban/rural split, racial issues and local history. While certainly difficult, most other states have overcome similar challenges.

Three things can be done in Georgia:

Increase public debate. The state and city need to calculate and publicize the damage that will be done to the state if the problems in North Georgia are not addressed. And we need to understand what other parts of the state need regional assistance.

Prioritize problems. The state needs to lead not only on the biggest issues but also those where it has unique legal authority. For example, the biggest single fiscal problem Atlanta faces is its pension liability. In other states, the government has changed the laws to facilitate lowering of city pension costs. Although early, it appears some of these changes can be made at little to no cost to the state.

Vote. Georgia residents who agree with the idea of greater state support for regional problems need to vote for leaders who have the interest, willingness and track record of working across jurisdictions for the good of cities and the state. Voters need to elect a governor, Legislature and local mayors who have demonstrated the ability to work together at the state level to tackle such problems.

Peter Aman is a partner with Bain & Company, a global management consulting firm that has conducted pro bono studies for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the city of Atlanta.