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Sandy Springs Sparks New City-Making Trend

Eva Galambos was the city of Sandy Springs’ first mayor and leader in the founding of the city.
Eva Galambos was the city of Sandy Springs’ first mayor and leader in the founding of the city.

Editor’s note: Read part two and part three of this series. 

For over three decades the unincorporated area of Fulton County fought to become a city.

In 2005, Sandy Springs was created and became the first new city in the county  in over 100 years.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul says there’s one simple reason it became a city.

“It’s really about service,” says Paul. “It’s about getting value for the tax dollars that you pay.”

Paul says his city wasn’t getting its money’s worth when it was just part of Fulton County, and that Sandy Springs was being run from downtown Atlanta.

“In a county as large and diverse as Fulton County ─ it’s 70 miles long ─ it has all kinds of different people, different communities, different needs.” says Paul. “It’s a one size fits all approach to government. Whereas cities have the flexibility to tailor those services to the local needs.”

The Sandy Springs response line is one of those tailored services.

24 hours, 365 days of the year someone will answer the phone and almost any question you can think of ─ like how bad is traffic, or what the weather is like.

On a sunny, weekday afternoon, a response line operator named Rebecca picks up the phone and answers the question of whether an umbrella is needed for the day.

She answers the question without hesitation.

“I don’t see any weather warnings today. I know we got it really bad yesterday, which is why traffic is bad today because a tree is down,” she says.

Over the phone Rebecca is friendly, and one could imagine her living in a place like Sandy Springs, but she’s actually in a call center in Orlando.

It’s all part of Sandy Springs’ business model says Mayor Paul.

“When I sit down and talk to other mayors they say ‘Well we try to run our city like a business’ and I say ‘Well that’s the difference between your city and my city ─ a business runs our city,’” he says.

The business that ran Sandy Springs when it was first created was CH2M Hill. The engineering company, based out of Colorado, operated almost all of the town’s services from trash collection and street cleaning to wastewater management. In 2011 the city decided to re-bid that contract and chose several other companies to provide city services.

The budget for those services came from a special tax Sandy Springs now receives since it’s incorporation.

Mayor Paul says it totaled to $80 million for the city’s current budget.

After incorporation the city was assessed this special tax for municipal services. The money covers everything from emergency medical services, police and fire to parks and other public works.

Other than this special tax, residents pay nearly the same amount in taxes to the county as before the city incorporated says Paul.

“We argued that we could provide a much higher level of service if we had those revenues and were able to spend them locally rather than sending them to the county and not getting an efficient spend on them coming back,” says Paul.

For longtime Sandy Springs resident Bill Gannon, it wasn’t just about the money. In the 1960s, when he first began living in the area, he says it was just an unincorporated part of Fulton County struggling with an identity.

“If you lived inside of I-285 you kind of felt like you lived in the city of Atlanta ─ you know on the south side of Sandy Springs and then Buckhead,” says Gannon. “I think if you lived outside I-285 then you definitely had the feeling that you weren’t living in Atlanta, you were living somewhere, but you weren’t sure where.”

He says since its incorporation a lot of things have improved in the city including police response and road repairs.

Becoming a city didn’t happen without controversy, however, says William Boone, a political science professor at Clark Atlanta University.

“I think that sometimes it’s the so-called elephant in the room that people do not want to talk about,” he says. “Although a good deal of the argument is premised on economics and local control and people being of same kind in terms of economic values, but race does play a role in it.”

Many criticized Sandy Springs, an affluent, majority white community, for wanting to separate itself from Fulton County.

According to 2010 Census data, 65 percent of the city’s population is white, 20 percent is black and 14 percent is Hispanic.

The median income there is nearly $14,000 higher than the rest of Georgia, but it’s not just race and money that play a role says Boone ─ it’s also politics.

Sandy Springs could not become a city until Republicans took over the state legislature in the early 2000s.

“The area of Sandy Springs has been asking for cityhood for 30 plus years,” says Boone. “Republicans were more amenable [to the idea], and early on the local delegation from the Atlanta area, of course dominated by Democrats and a good many black folk, would say no to Sandy Springs.”

Many Democrats have been strongly opposed to the creation of new cities.

To get around this political opposition, when Republicans took over the state legislature they made a change in the rules for how city legislation could be passed.

Before this change any proposals for new cities had to be approved by the local delegation.

Now, once a city is show to be financially viable, through a feasibility study, and a lawmaker supports the proposal, a city can have its bill taken up by the state’s General Assembly without local delegation approval.

If a city’s proposal is passed in the legislature, it goes up for a referendum for citizens to vote on the issue.

In 2005 Sandy Springs residents headed to the polls and over 90 percent of residents voted in favor of becoming a city.

Mayor Paul says everyone knew what people thought about Sandy Springs at the time.

“The perception was that Sandy Springs was a Republican enclave,” says Paul.  “So, there were some partisan politics.”

For the city’s first mayor Eva Galambos, who spearheaded the cityhood movement, it was a lifelong dream.

In 2010 Galambos recorded a video message to celebrate the five year anniversary of the city. In it she reflects on the improvements Sandy Springs has made since its incorporation.

“After five years of cityhood Sandy Springs is excelling in all directions,” says Galambos. “No matter where you look whether it’s Overlook Park with the best playground in metropolitan Atlanta, or whether it’s our new sidewalks all up and down the streets. Or our wonderful police officers whom everybody loves. ”

Galambos died in April 2015, but her passion for creating a city has sparked a trend in Georgia.

Since Sandy Springs incorporation in 2005, several others cities have popped up ─ such as Milton, Johns Creek, Brookhaven and Dunwoody.

Later this year Sandy Springs will celebrate its 10th birthday and around that time some residents in DeKalb County will be heading to the polls to vote on two proposed cities there.

And there are more in the works, as the trend of city making in Georgia continues.