Privatizing the city

David Segal, writing for the New York Times Magazine this past weekend:

SANDY SPRINGS, Ga.—If your image of a city hall involves a venerable building, some Roman pillars and lots of public employees, the version offered by this Atlanta suburb of 94,000 residents is a bit of a shocker.

The entire operation is housed in a generic, one-story industrial park, along with a restaurant and a gym. And though the place has a large staff, none are on the public payroll. O.K., seven are, including the city manager. But unless you chance into one of them, the people you meet here work for private companies through a variety of contracts.

It was inevitable that an anonymous suburb populated by predominately rich, white folks would take city government to its corporate extreme. But what’s concerning is that “the model”, as they call it, could be exported to other cities with established city governments.

Sandy Springs had only to gain. It had no existing city government to dismantle—the city wasn’t incorporated until 2005, and the county previously provided services (with which residents were dissatisfied). To a disgruntled community, any amount of local self-government would feel like a step up, which is probably why Sandy Springs residents are so effusive about privatization. But with established cities, it’s likely to be a different story. Even if costs drop and service improves, “the model” siphons money away from the local community. Say what you will about the pay of city employees, but at least their money stays in the community. For-profit entities don’t have those incentives.

Plus, does anyone think the private sector is so vastly more efficient that it can pay employees decently, reduce costs, maintain quality, and make a profit? At least one of those will suffer with a switch to private contractors, and it won’t be profits.

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