Toward a new regional cooperation model

Recurring critiques about the dearth of regional thinking linked to the advent of new metro cities shows that those normally with a finger on the area’s pulse are missing some significant vital signs.

First, what is the function of government? Simply, it is to deliver basic services that individual citizens cannot provide for themselves.

Existing large, regional governments (i.e. vast metro counties) failed in this fundamental responsibility. There are many reasons for this failure. Some were political, but most were structural. Large governmental units struggle when tailoring localized services for the various communities within their jurisdiction.

That is why the roll of proposed cities continues to grow. As communities see the service quality, responsiveness and overall customer satisfaction improvements these new cities are delivering, they want it for themselves. This desire for better services transcends ethnic, economic and other factors that exist in the metro region.

Critics of this phenomenon hint that these new cities are insular, uninterested or even incapable of regional thinking and action. Wrong again. In fact, more regionalism is occurring because of the new cities than at any time in decades.

Proponents of larger, regional solutions overlook the fact that the new cities represent a “Lego block” opportunity for service delivery. Using service agreements, cities can efficiently attach or detach to provide regional-level services, or return to solely localized approaches as circumstances dictate.

For example, in certain north side city of Atlanta neighborhoods, Sandy Springs firetrucks regularly respond to emergencies. Why? To serve our city’s southern boundaries, we leased a fire station bay from the city of Atlanta to house our trucks at much lower cost than building our own station.

After a few years of mutual cooperation, Atlanta opted to sell us the station, a deal which included service support from Sandy Springs to nearby neighborhoods. The result benefited both cities.

When the North Fulton region needed a new public safety radio system, Sandy Springs, Roswell, Alpharetta and Milton jointly funded a regional communications network that eliminates dead spots which put officers in jeopardy, lowers costs and affords greater coordination among area public safety organizations during widespread emergencies.

Ditto 911 services. Sandy Springs and Johns Creek pooled their resources, creating the Chattahoochee River 911 Authority. This state-of-the-art emergency call center employs technologies to help first responders arrive faster and more prepared to deal with conditions. Today, Fulton’s Sandy Springs and Johns Creek and DeKalb’s Dunwoody and Brookhaven share this emergency call center.

Recently, Sandy Springs and Dunwoody began working on joint mobility and growth solutions for the Central Perimeter Market, arguably the region’s most important business center, which straddles our common border. We know that mobility issues don’t confine themselves neatly within political boundaries. Dunwoody and Peachtree Corners are tackling similar issues along their borders and the other examples are simply too numerous to recount here.

Thus, what is emerging, thanks to these new cities, is a fresh approach to regionalism. First, this model acknowledges that some problems must be solved through regional engagement. Secondly, it works best when local governmental are free and encouraged to define appropriate service districts.

Third, it must engage our counties? We can’t do it without them. That is why the spirit of cooperation evolving between Fulton County and its cities is so encouraging.

However, we must redefine our concept of “region.” Our definition of “region” must be flexible enough to adjust to the set of problems that need solving. Also, it must capitalize on the nimble, innovative, practical, “Lego block” culture that exists in both our new and legacy cities.

Metro Atlanta has grown too large and has too many varied needs for broad-scope, one-size-fits-all approaches like T-SPLOST, which failed because, by trying to please everyone, it pleased no one.

Yet, to move forward, we must accept that the paradigm has shifted. So, rather than bemoan those bygone not-so-“good ole days”, naysayers would better serve our region by embracing the world as it is and focusing on the opportunities it is creating.

It’s still not perfect, but it is better.

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Rusty Paul is mayor of Sandy Springs.

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