Oliver Porter on contract cities at the Lansing Center

A few days ago I had the opportunity to listen to Oliver Porter speak at the Lansing Center. If you’ve never heard of him, you could do no better than watch the following fascinating video from ReasonTV.

Oliver Porter helped preside over the incorporation of Sandy Springs, Georgia, a city of about 100,000 where the only services provided directly by the city government are police and fire. Every other service that is commonly provided directly by city government today is instead contracted out, through one major contract with CH2M Hill and many sub-contracts. And the results are impressive – the city today has no debt and no long-term liabilities whatsoever, and has even built up $35 million in savings (assuming I understood him correctly). And before you think, “OK, but it’s probably a debt-free wasteland” – as the video states, in the first election after incorporation every member of the starting city council was reelected with, at minimum, 84% of the vote. That’s a pretty good sign people are happy.

A few other things I learned from his talk that I didn’t already know from the video:

1. We like to hold up Sandy Springs as a sort of market-driven success story – which it is, but Porter also made the point that they almost had no choice. No new city had incorporated in Georgia in 50 years, so they had no model to follow. The referendum to create the city passed on June 5th, and by midnight on Dec. 1st they had to have a fully operational city. So they had very little time – and in the interim period, nobody had any authority to hire anyone, and no money to pay them anyway. So what are you going to do? Nothing traditional.

I also found it amusing that after the city council did meet on midnight at Dec. 1st, one of their first acts was to adopt the county zoning plan pretty much wholesale – because if they hadn’t, there was nothing to stop some developer from starting up some bulldozers at 12:05 and pretty much doing whatever he wanted.

2. Are employees happy under the new system? Porter said morale was high, and that employees told him that under the old system, when they were government employees, they suggested ways to improve the way their job was done for years to the county, but were always ignored. Working now for a private company, the company is actually quite eager to hear their suggestions because the potential for greater profit gives them a great incentive to work efficiently and well, an incentive lacking in government.

3. One idea implemented in Sandy Springs that could easily be implemented in any city is the work-order. He said that if a citizen notices a problem (pothole, for example), they can call the contracted-with company and let them know. That company has pledged to, within two days, call them back with a work-order number for the problem, which is also passed along to the politician overseeing that part or aspect of the city. So there is accountability – if, a month later, the pothole still isn’t fixed, it’s very easy for either the citizen or politician to call back and say, “so, what is the status of work-order number XXX”. Seems like a great idea. East Lansing, where I live, uses SeeClickFix.com, which is a great way to notify the city about problems – but the city doesn’t pledge to respond (and often doesn’t), and there is no easy accountability mechanism.

4. “Did you hear what that fool said?” – what employees of CH2M Hill said to each other after meeting with Porter and learning that he wanted to contract-out the whole city! He learned later. He said they thought his idea was so off the wall they almost didn’t pass it on to their superiors.

If you’d like to know more, a video of the whole event (featuring the back of my head!) is linked at the bottom of this article from the Mackinac Center.

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