Building a City from Scratch

New municipalities are popping up around the country, rooted in dissatisfaction with traditional governments. The new cities are experimenting with new ways to deliver services efficiently.
by | August 11, 2011 AT 11:00 AM

Here's an option for citizens frustrated with their local government: Start a new one. It's happening around the country, and one thing many of these new municipalities have in common is that their governments don't look like traditional ones.

Residents of unincorporated territory in suburban Denver were unhappy with the services provided by Arapahoe County, so in 2001 they formed Centennial, Colo. The new city has a population of more than 100,000.

In 2007, the city decided there was a better way to provide public works services than by contracting with the county. The following year, it embarked on one of the nation's largest public works public-private partnerships, or PPPs.

Under the PPP, the city initiated a 24/7 citizen call center, which fielded more than 25,000 work requests in 2009. Work orders are ranked by priority and tracked until completed; callers are kept informed of progress until the issue is resolved.

The key seems to be a flexible performance-based contract that allows the city to cost-effectively deal with fluctuations in the demand for services.

Georgia's New City

Citizens in an unincorporated section of suburban Atlanta were similarly unhappy with the services Fulton County was providing. Looking for an efficient, effective government that was more responsive to local needs, 94 percent of residents voted in 2005 to create the city of Sandy Springs (see a more detailed description of the new city here). Its 99,000 residents make Sandy Springs Georgia's sixth-largest city.

With 271 employees and 200 positions supplied by private contractors as of last year, Sandy Springs has the state's lowest per-capita ratio of municipal employees. When the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government compared it to similarly sized local governments, the institute estimated that Sandy Springs would need 828 employees.

As in Centennial, PPPs are used to deliver most services. Crime rates have fallen, emergency response times have been reduced and the city estimates it is saving taxpayers about $20 million annually.

Two more things Sandy Springs has in common with Centennial are its 24/7 call center and citizen surveys showing high levels of satisfaction with municipal services. The similarities are no accident; until Sandy Springs recently ended its relationship with the company, CH2MHILL was the primary private partner for both cities.

Liberating the Rich?

One potential pitfall is for secession to be used as a way for wealthy enclaves to gain independence from larger jurisdictions. The Georgia legislature's Black Caucus recently filed a lawsuit claiming that Sandy Springs and the other new suburban Atlanta communities violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by diluting minority votes in those areas. Although it has a smaller percentage of minority residents than Fulton County (which includes Atlanta) as a whole, Sandy Springs is still relatively diverse. Between 18 and 20 percent of its residents are African-American; 14 percent are Hispanic.

Other moves to remake the municipal-jurisdiction landscape are afoot. Some of the residents of La Jolla, Calif., which is part of the city of San Diego, want to join Coronado, which already has seceded from San Diego. In 2008 and 2009, La Jolla had the nation's highest average home prices. There, residents of both communities would have to approve the move. Since state law prohibits the existing municipality from being adversely affected, the new municipality would have to make "revenue mitigation payments" to San Diego if it were to secede.

It will take more time before we know if these new communities are pioneering a better governance model. But few things are more exciting to policy wonks and those fed up with local government than the opportunity to build a new municipality from the ground up. There are also few things that are healthier for democracy — as long as it's done for the right reasons.