Friday, June 15, 2007

Toward A Leaner, More Responsive Local Government

Government Lite: Where Desired Services Are Contracted Out, And The Unnecessary Eliminated, Taxpayers Save

We've seen how local government works in New York -- or, more aptly, how it doesn't work, at least not in favor of the taxpayers and homeowners.

When asked to trim taxes by consolidating or, heaven forbid, eliminating duplicative and/or wasteful services and practices, the response from local government (i.e., the township) is typically, "Residents will never stand for that," or, "We have no control over those services/taxes/duplication/waste."

Well, local government officials, try it -- residents may actually like it!

Today, we take a look at look government not only as seen through the eyes of others -- the residents of Sandy Springs, GA, where not only has local government been trimmed to the bare minimum, meaning big bucks back in the pockets of taxpayers, but, through the magic of contracting services out to the private sector -- a taboo at Town Hall, unless that privateer is well-connected and someone is getting a kickback or a seatheart deal -- residents are enjoying better quality, quicker response time, and government that, to paraphrase that light beer commercial, gives them the same "great services" while at the same time being "less taxing."

Call it, Government Lite!

Perhaps local governments -- or our State Legislature -- here in New York can learn a lesson or two from the Sandy Springs experiment. Sure, that old dog may not want to learn to tricks (Summer of Love and Adopt-A-Pet programs aside :-) -- and all those patronage hacks may well swell the unemployment line -- but wouldn't it be nice, at long last, to have local government whose motto is "GREAT SERVICES, LESS TAXING?"

All we can say is, if they can do it in Sandy Springs, Georgia, they can do it in New York!
- - -
Georgia City Shows Florida How To Cut Costs
By Geoffrey F. Segal

With the Florida Legislature now seemingly intent on mandating lower property taxes, some local officials are warning of libraries shutting down, your 911 call going unanswered, or your local jail turning inmates loose.

Yet if those same officials would only turn their gaze a bit farther north, they could observe a Georgia city that demonstrates how Florida's local governments not only could survive but could thrive, with big savings for taxpayers.

Indeed, the experiment in Sandy Springs, Ga., has proved that local governments don't need hundreds of public employees to function. Sandy Springs, a fast-growing town of more than 80,000 residents, has only four public employees who are not involved with public safety.

Except for police and fire, virtually every government function has been contracted out.
In its two years under private management, Sandy Springs hasn't needed a tax hike or a fee increase, the government has become more responsive, the service quality has improved, and so has customer satisfaction. The residents love it.

In fact, this model has worked so well that two other Atlanta-area communities adopted it last year, and several others are considering a similar approach.

How could Florida's communities follow suit? First, they could take a page from management guru Peter Drucker and require that every "traditional" service or function prove that it's a proper role of government.

Second, they could apply to local government Drucker's famous test for business: "If we weren't doing this yesterday, would we do it today?" Some services may well be discontinued rather than contracted out.

Indeed, certain services that some other cities provide won't necessarily be provided by Sandy Springs - either because they've outgrown their purpose, they're no longer effective, or they're outside the proper scope of government.

Florida's local officials can determine on a case-by-case basis whether it makes more sense for their community to "make" or "buy" public services. If they decide to buy, there are numerous functions that are readily available on the marketplace and could be easily contracted out to the private sector.

Criticism of the way Florida's state government handled contracts for the outsourcing of selected government services shouldn't deter local officials from experimenting. At the state level, the problem arguably wasn't in the game plan but in the execution.

While the Sandy Springs model isn't necessarily a good fit for every city, it does teach us an important lesson: that "business as usual" isn't the only operational model for local governments. Local governments need not adopt the entire model; rather; they can choose some services or entire departments to outsource to achieve savings.

For too many years local governments have been on auto-pilot when it comes to budgeting. They generally tend to spend more than they did the year before, with little real consideration of how sustainable that spending trend would be over the long term.

By breaking the mold and encouraging the kind of innovation and creativity that Sandy Springs exemplifies, Florida's local governments could become more efficient and effective. In Florida, rethinking how local governments operate can be the key to providing real property-tax relief.

Geoffrey F. Segal is an adjunct scholar of The James Madison Institute, a non-partisan policy center based in Tallahassee, and the director of government reform at Reason Foundation.

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