News - Making a city history

Sugar Hill latest among small cities targeted for extinction

Sugar Hill has a short and unremarkable history. The city gained a charter 62 years ago this month when a group of property owners broke off from neighboring Buford. Since then, the Gwinnett County municipality has grown to an estimated population of 11,399 and become a bedroom community to Atlanta.

To an outsider, this city of cul-de-sacs looks like just another quiet suburb. But behind the basketball goals and front porch swings, another group of disgruntled residents has been organizing. Galvanized by high natural gas bills this winter, the Committee to Dissolve Sugar Hill wants to make the city history. Approximately 1,600 residents signed a petition attacking the city for its lack of services and calling for a referendum on the city’s future.

And in Douglas County, 80 percent of Lithia Springs voters decided to revoke their city’s charter in a March 20 election. The vote came after a group of residents brought a lawsuit against the city, saying the government does not provide enough services to justify its charter.

The push to strip these communities of their city charters is another in a procession of campaigns to do away with the state’s smallest cities. It’s been an uphill battle to unseat local politicians and to come to terms with backroom deals made almost a century ago.

“It’s probably in the best interest of good governance that small, inefficient governments do dissolve,” says Greg Streib, a professor of public administration at Georgia State University.

As the cost of running a city has risen, many cities have come to rely on county governments to provide necessary services like police protection. Sugar Hill sold off its water and sewer services to Gwinnett County in the early 1990s when it faced looming infrastructure costs.

Still other communities have sought to create an economy of scale. In suburban Stone Mountain, the mayor is pushing a plan to annex 90,000 people into the city of just over 7,000 in order to provide residents with more services for their tax dollars. Elsewhere in the state, Athens and Clarke County merged their governments, as did Macon and Bibb County.

Until recently, it was relatively easy to charter a city in Georgia. That power lies with the General Assembly, and for years representatives rewarded friends and constituents back home with city charters. The practice proliferated from the 1900s until the Great Depression, says former State Senator Kil Townsend.

The roster of Georgia cities had swelled to more than 700 by the mid-1990s. But in 1995 the General Assembly pulled the plug on more than a quarter of the cities that did not do enough for the people they were formed to serve. The law required cities to provide at least three municipal services, such as road maintenance and firefighting. A total of 187 cities disappeared, and the count now stands at 534. Those cities had combined expenditures of $4.6 billion in fiscal year 1999, up $1 billion from 1995.

Many small municipalities with limited services stayed in business. Another Gwinnett County city, Berkeley Lake, has a population of 1,695 and provides police, zoning and other services on an annual budget of less than $540,000.

Closer to Atlanta, the DeKalb County city of Pine Lake encompasses about 350 houses and totals 621 residents. The city government of 2,609-person Avondale Estates wedged next to Decatur provides a police force and recreation services.

Townsend, an Atlanta Republican, led legislative efforts to get rid of do-nothing counties and cities. That’s not to say that the city legislator is railing against the charms of small-town life. The issue, he says, is when should a community of people form a government, and what is that government’s responsibility to the people it serves?

“Some of these towns may be only 200 families,” Townsend says. “It’s sort of like a rotary club or something. What are they doing with a government?”

The issue remains a political hot potato, just as it was during Townsend’s years in the House, from 1965 to 1992. It’s one thing to give lip service to government efficiency, but it’s quite another to coax politicians to surrender their power.

The city of Sugar Hill does not have a post office or much of a business district. The city hall building is so small that even the part-time mayor doesn’t have an office there. Sugar Hill also relies on the county for fire, police protection and emergency medical services.

The Committee to Dissolve Sugar Hill is led by a former mayor who is anything but sentimental about the city he led from 1994 to 1997.

“It’s the bottom line for me. What are these people giving me for my tax money? Nothing,” says committee chair Gary Webster. “I even had this thought when I was the mayor. What are we doing here?”

But by Mayor Roberta Crabb’s count, Sugar Hill provides seven municipal services on a budget of about $6 million a year. In addition to natural gas, the city provides planning and zoning services and building inspection. It’s also in charge of street maintenance, garbage collection, storm water management, a city park and a golf course.

“I hope when it comes time to vote, if this does go to a vote, that people will really think about what they’re doing,” Crabb says. “You can get rid of a city a whole lot easier than you can get another charter.”

In response to the committee’s petition, State Senator Billy Ray, R-Lawrenceville, filed a bill that would require a nonbinding referendum. Even if a majority of residents vote to dissolve the city charter, it will still require an act of the state legislature to make it happen. Ray says he filed the bill at the behest of his constituents, not out of concern over government inefficiency.

“I have no opinion on whether the city should stay or go,” Ray says. “That’s up to the residents of Sugar Hill. The question of if the cost of it, which is taxes, is outweighed by the benefit, is one that local citizens should make.”

Senate Bill 306 quickly passed the State Senate, but did not come to a vote in the House before the session ended. Unless Gov. Roy Barnes admits the bill during a special summer session, it’s unlikely that Sugar Hill residents will be voting on their city’s future this fall.

Aside from the rock throwing among Sugar Hill’s administrations, the debate is about the best way to serve taxpayers. Municipal services could be provided more efficiently in many cases by the county, but residents would not have the same access to decision-makers as they do in a city government. But as the cost of running a city rises, it’s the small cities that struggle most to keep up.

If change occurs, it will likely be a result of economics. The last consolidation of local governments took place during the Great Depression, when Milton County went broke and merged with Fulton County.

Says Townsend: “In most cases it’s more expensive to run these little tiny fiefdoms, but they like the control.”??

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