The City of Sandy Springs, Georgia is one of the newest cities in the state, and operates in a Council – Manager form of government. Incorporated December 1, 2005, and the first new city in the State in nearly 50 years, Sandy Springs has made dramatic strides in providing effective and efficient services to residents. Prior to 2005, residents in Sandy Springs relied upon a large, traditionally modeled county government for the provision of services, which were substandard and often nonexistent. These challenges served as the foundation of the movement to create a government that was physically closer to its constituents, responsive to the needs of the community, streamlined and above all, effective and efficient.
Efforts to incorporate the City of Sandy Springs began in 1966 in response to an effort to annex the land that is now Sandy Springs into the City of Atlanta. The fight to form their own government continued by Sandy Springs residents for more than 40 years, until June 2005, when an overwhelming 94% of residents voted for incorporation of the previously unincorporated area of north Fulton County.
The City of Sandy Springs approaches the provision of government services in a non-traditional fashion. The Governor’s Commission for Sandy Springs, comprised of appointed business professionals, municipal representatives and residents, placed great emphasis on implementing a municipal government that was responsive to the community. Since incorporation, the City of Sandy Springs has operated as a public-private partnership (PPP), with nearly half of city staff employed by a private company.
Sandy Springs is a demographically diverse community and covers a 38 square mile area in north Fulton County, Georgia. The City of Sandy Springs is the sixth largest city in the State of Georgia and is the second largest city in Metro Atlanta. While its residential population is 99,000, due to the concentration of major corporations and businesses, the daytime population swells to more than 300,000. In 2009, the City’s population was 67.3% White, 18.2% Black and 14.3% Hispanic with a diversity index of 63.2%. Geographically, Sandy Springs is bordered by the City of Atlanta to the south, the City of Roswell to the north, DeKalb County to the east and Cobb County to the west. Sandy Springs has more than 43,000 housing units (92% occupied and 59% multi-family dwellings) and 22,000,000 square feet of office space, ranging from single story office parks to more than 125 high rise buildings (more than four stories). Sandy Springs’ per capita income is $55,752 and while the median home value is $486,500, many of the City’s residents reside in lower value multi-family dwellings. Earlier this year, Sandy Springs was ranked the 9th wealthiest community in the country by Portfolio.com and as having the safest neighborhood in the metro Atlanta area (rated by real estate and relocation site Neighborhoodscout.com). Sandy Springs truly represents a cross section of all demographic and socioeconomic classifications of residents.
Sandy Springs residents knew there was a better way to provide efficient and cost-effective services to the community. Prior to 2005, services to the area were essentially non-existent. Situated in a large county stretching nearly 70 miles along the Chattahoochee River, residents living and businesses operating in unincorporated Sandy Springs found that the county services provided were disproportionate to the tax dollars generated in the area. Police and fire protection services in the community were woefully insufficient, and capital investments in road improvements and infrastructure enhancement were practically nonexistent for decades. Simply stated, the community received very little return on the investment they made in county government.
Sandy Springs is a full service municipal government under Georgia law and provides public works, community development, code enforcement, recreation and parks, court services, administrative services, information technology, communications, public safety, ambulance and emergency 911 services to the community. The City realizes financial efficiencies in its organizational structure (through a smaller workforce) and through limited post-employment obligations (by offering a defined contribution plan and no post-employment health benefits, rather than a traditional pension plan).
When the Governor’s Commission for Sandy Springs was formed, it was clear that there was a better way of doing business than through a large, traditional government model. Sandy Springs is a trailblazer in government structure and function. Rather than employ hundreds of city employees, the City utilizes a public-private partnership, which has resulted in the lowest per capita ratio of municipal employees in the State of 1.51 per 1,000 residents. Public safety personnel in both the fire and police departments are City employees, as are personnel in senior management positions (the City Manager and his immediate staff). There are 271 city employees and 200 positions supplied by private contractors. By comparison, estimates by the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government on the feasibility of incorporating the City of Sandy Springs, indicated the need for 828 employees when compared to similarly sized-local governments.
Not only did partnering with a private entity streamline the government, it also filled the City ranks with a wide variety of critical subject matter expertise, particularly in the areas of public works and community development. However, before these departments could begin to positively impact the community, many basic needs had to first be met. One especially important area was mapping.
At the time of the City’s incorporation, little geographic information was available. Fulton County was able to provide raw data from various departments, such as community development, tax, and 911, but a comprehensive strategy for mapping was required. In an effort to clearly identify the new Sandy Springs’ boundaries and provide a visual representation of it to both staff and the public, the Geographic Information System (GIS) staff created an online GIS repository with multiple maps within the first 60 days of incorporation. These maps provided a baseline for all future GIS initiatives.
As one of the contracted City services, the GIS Department had the opportunity to approach the provision of its services to the City in a holistic manner. Rather than the approach to mapping that Fulton County and many other governments had previously taken, whereby each department maintained its own dataset, Sandy Springs GIS determined it would be more effective to develop an accurate, enterprise-wide dataset. Since having adopted this philosophy, GIS has become an integral part of nearly every department and decision-making process. For example, GIS was instrumental in assisting the newly formed police department in determining a patrol and resource deployment strategy by creating detailed maps of historical crimes by location. Similarly, when Sandy Springs restructured its contract for emergency medical services with Rural/Metro Ambulance, GIS provided decision support related to the most effective deployment of ambulances according to anticipated response and travel times along the City’s road network.
In the areas of community development, public works, and revenue enhancement, GIS was also instrumental in informing public policy. Through a comprehensive property addressing campaign, GIS assisted the community development and revenue departments in their efforts to identify commercial establishments and ensure that the appropriate business occupation and license fees were being assessed and collected. Most recently, data from the GIS unit was used to inform targeted efforts for distributing information on Census 2010 and the importance of responding.
Once the City’s borders, road network, parks, and other infrastructure were inventoried and mapped, it became easier to quantify and prioritize the needs of the community – both from a service-level and a capital improvement perspective. Sandy Springs’ Mayor and Council, faced with an aging infrastructure, placed a tremendous focus on improving roads, sidewalks and other assorted capital needs. To that end, more than $72 million has been allocated to improving the quality of life in the City through capital projects since the City’s incorporation, with another $17 million anticipated in Fiscal Year 2011. By operating as a PPP model, the City estimates $20 million per year in savings to taxpayers. These operational savings are reinvested in the community for additional service enhancements and infrastructure improvements.
While Sandy Springs was the first newly incorporated city in the state in 50 years, other municipalities have implemented a PPP model to varying degrees. In Georgia, the Cities of Dunwoody, Johns Creek, Hinesville and Decatur have contracted out portions of their municipal services. Outside the state, experiences in Centennial, Colorado; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Weston, Florida and Falls Church, Virginia demonstrate that PPPs are effective forms of governance. The primary difference between the Sandy Springs experience and these other examples is the sheer scope of the effort. By contracting out the majority of municipal services, Sandy Springs became the first of its kind in the country. The bottom line for Sandy Springs is that the PPP model has value, adds flexibility, builds accountability and provides the highest level of customer service.
Sandy Springs has experienced positive outcomes on all levels: reducing costs for services, improving public safety, enhancing infrastructure and increasing the government’s accountability. Prior to incorporation, a common citizen complaint was the lack of responsiveness to their needs. Improving efficiency and increasing customer service are key tenants for the operation of the City of Sandy Springs. In its first year of incorporation, the City instituted the Citizen Response Center to provide a live person to respond to citizen comments, concerns and complaints 24 hours a day. During that year, the Citizen Response Center handled more than 70,000 calls for service. In 2009, the Center answered 101,327 calls for service. In the coming months, the City will also be implementing an iPhone/PDA mobile application to report issues to the Citizen Response Center.
Prior to incorporation, Sandy Springs residents experienced lengthy delays in response times to emergency and non-emergency requests for assistance. Specifically, there were no more than a handful of officers dedicated to patrolling the area that is now Sandy Springs. By contrast, the Sandy Springs Police Department routinely deploys between 10 and 20 units for patrol purposes depending on time of day and demands for service. As a result, response times decreased dramatically, as a result of the availability of resources in the community. Through the department’s efforts thus far, the City’s property crime rates have decreased dramatically, as have violent crime rates (see chart below).
Future plans of the Police Department include developing a predictive model for the deployment of its patrol and specialized resources based on where crime and disturbance is anticipated to occur. This approach will shift the department’s approach to one that is even more proactive than today’s and is anticipated to have an even greater impact of the safety of the community.
The City is currently working towards the implementation of an Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) system for the entire police, fire, and emergency medical services fleet. Through the installation of the AVL system, dispatchers will be able to coordinate the effective deployment of emergency response vehicles, resulting in a dramatic decrease in response times. Promoting public safety and decreasing crime is vitally important to the health of a community. Sandy Springs plans to continue to utilize cutting-edge technology (i.e. license plate readers, biometrics and mobile identification units) to rapidly react and respond to violations of law.
Realizing that nothing is more important than the health and welfare of its residents, Sandy Springs is committed to improving the quality of life in our community, and specifically to improving cardiac arrest survival rates in the City. The Sandy Springs Fire Department was designed as an “EMS based fire department” to emphasize the focus on the provision of medical care. In partnership with the Emory University Department of Emergency Medicine, the Sandy Springs Fire Department has trained more than 1,000 residents each year in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and on the use of automated external defibrillators (AEDs). Additionally, the City has outfitted every public safety first response vehicle, including the police fleet, with AEDs and would like to strategically position these devices at locations throughout the City. In the three years since the fire department commenced operations, these combined efforts have resulted in dramatic increases in survival out of the hospital for persons who have experienced cardiac arrest.
Developing effective regional partnerships is an important aspect of the City’s approach to service provision. After nearly two years of planning, the Cities of Sandy Springs and Johns Creek jointly opened a regional 9-1-1 center known as the Chattahoochee River 9-1-1 Authority, or ChatComm in 2009. After their incorporation, these cities focused a great deal of effort building and standing up their own police and fire departments, as well as all other general government services. Once these agencies became operational, it was apparent that the performance of Fulton County’s 9-1-1 center was not at the level that these communities desired. Sandy Springs and Johns Creek contracted with iXP Corporation, a New Jersey-based public safety communications consulting firm, to perform a feasibility study and provide a business case for the establishment of a joint 911 venture. This analysis reviewed anticipated revenue streams and call volumes to generate recommendations for a governance model, as well as facility, technology, and staffing requirements.
The two primary performance requirements of the contract are 9-1-1 call answer time and call processing time. Specifically, iXP is required to answer 90% of 9-1-1 calls within 10 seconds and process 90% of those calls for dispatch within 60 seconds. These industry benchmarks were not being achieved by Fulton County. ChatComm’s new, state-of-the-art facility has 14 console positions, 11 of which are staffed at peak hours and enables the center to meet and exceed both the contractual performance requirements and the operational needs of the public safety response agencies.
Sandy Springs also believes strongly in employing the latest technologies to serve its residents in areas other than public safety. The City actively communicates with the public through the use of social media (i.e. Facebook, Twitter and Flickr), and via a state-of-the-art and frequently updated website, www.sandyspringsga.org, which underwent a complete redesign earlier this year. During FY 2009, more than 300,000 unique web surfers visited the City website, logging more than 625,000 visits.
As innovators in the field of municipal services, Sandy Springs is constantly seeking ways to improve services for the community. The City’s Public Works Department developed and opened a state-of-the-art Traffic Management System in less than six months that links 16 cameras and miles of fiber optic cable to efficiently control the flow of traffic on Sandy Springs’ busiest corridors. Once the entire system has been completed, there will be more than 70 traffic cameras, and possibly connectivity to neighboring traffic management centers.
As a large suburban city, increasing parklands and providing pioneering recreation programs is key to improving the quality of life in Sandy Springs. At the time of the City’s inception, existing parklands were still property of the county government. Under state law, the county could not legally give the parkland away, nor could it be sold for development purposes. After lengthy negotiations, the City purchased 14 park properties for $16,000. Developing a “greenprint” for the expansion of parks and other public lands will enhance Sandy Springs’ efforts to improve environmental sustainability within the community. In July 2010, after making a capital investment of $9 million, the City anticipates opening additional parkland at Morgan Falls, representing our only park on the Chattahoochee River. The park and most of the facilities date back to the mid-1970s and serves more than 1,000 families with an average family size of 3.2 people. Improvements for the Athletic Complex at Morgan Falls were designed and constructed from the park master plan and included new field lighting, 20 new dug outs, four underground utilities, new sidewalks, pedestrian lighting, security lighting and cameras, a new football press box, new bathrooms and sewer lines. Protecting and improving Sandy Springs’ natural resources and infrastructure is also an important goal. Within the last two years, the City has invested $4.2 million in 6.9 miles of sidewalks with another $3.8 million committed over the next two years for additional sidewalks. Getting residents out of their cars and walking to nearby destinations is essential to reducing energy usage, and ultimately improving the City’s environmental sustainability.
With the approaching expiration of the City’s initial five-year contract with CH2MHILL next year, the City has undertaken a survey campaign to gauge citizen satisfaction with current operations. Using Survey Monkey, more than 200 responses were received in the first week of its posting – a remarkable rate of response for an online survey. Thus far, more than 300 responses have been received, with the vast majority of respondents (83.8%) indicating satisfaction with the overall services provided by the City. Sandy Springs has recently engaged the National Research Center, Inc. to administer the widely-utilized National Citizen Survey™ in order to gauge the community’s level of satisfaction across a comprehensive area of services.
Sandy Springs was truly built “from the ground up.” In 2005, the Georgia General Assembly passed House Bill 37 giving residents in the unincorporated area, which was the community of Sandy Springs the right to vote on incorporation. This bill allowed for the creation of the Governor’s Commission for Sandy Springs to begin preparations towards the creation of the new city.
After the Governor’s Commission for Sandy Springs formalized the intention to operate the City in a public-private partnership model, and because no one could obligate the City until after municipal elections were held, the City’s private sector partner, CH2MHILL, operated on a “handshake” from September 2005 until December 1, 2005, when incorporation was official. The private sector partner invested $5,000,000 as a loan to the city to lease space, recruit, hire and train staff, and implement all services needed to stand up the city in less than 90 days.
In FY 2006, the Sandy Springs’ contract with CH2MHILL was $29,700,000, of which $5,000,000 represented the repayment of the initial loan to the City. The chart above reflects annual contract amounts for Sandy Springs’ partnership with CH2MHILL.
The City of Sandy Springs is funded through traditional municipal government sources including property taxes, sales taxes, occupational licensing fees and business license fees. The City utilizes the same tax rate that was set prior to incorporation at 4.73 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Even without an increase in this rate (which has remained at the same level as was levied by the county), the City has implemented programs and services that decrease crime, improve public safety and enhance the quality of life for its residents.
Every year since incorporation, the City has operated under their approved operating budget, allowing the Council to provide for a significant investment in capital projects such as sidewalks, paving and parkland enhancement.
State and local governments across the country are faced with diminishing revenues, resulting in tremendous deficits. Compounding the issue, the demands for government services continue to increase. The lessons learned in the Sandy Springs PPP model are applicable to governments across the United States and abroad. Over the past four years, Sandy Springs has demonstrated that the PPP model is not only effective and efficient, but also builds value for our residents, increases accountability and provides the highest level of customer service.
Improving the economic viability of our community is a key goal. Sandy Springs was not formed in a vacuum; as such, City leaders strive to involve residents and members of the business community in City operations. The City is working to stabilize portions of its downtown area by seeking the designation of an Opportunity Zone from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. This designation will afford the City state job tax credits, which are leveraged to encourage redevelopment in the area. Mayor and Council have also implemented another incentive plan in the form of lower permit fees to encourage additional redevelopment.
The strategies that Sandy Springs implemented are applicable to local governments across the country. By approaching the provision of governmental services in a non-traditional fashion, the City was able to realize significant cost savings and efficiencies. Implementing data-informed responses to citizen needs allows the City to better position limited resources to areas of greatest need.