What are City Services, exactly?

This is something I wrote about “City Services” in 2013 for the Patch online newsletter, and it’s still relevant.

   Herman Lorenz, Neighbor

People Talk About "City Services". What Are They? How are They Managed?

Posted Tue, Nov 19, 2013 at 9:15 am ET

There are actually lots of services defined in the Georgia Constitution as "city services". And any of these services may be performed by the County, if there is no city to take care of them. But all of them are the responsibility of cities, within the City borders.

You may have heard that a city has to perform at least three services to be a city.  You also may have heard that there are 11 possible city services. That's close, in an end-result sense; but not legally correct. I'll talk more about that in a moment, but here is a list of the services constitutionally defined as the responsibility of Cities in Georgia.

  • Police Protection
  • Fire Services
  • Garbage and Solid Waste Disposal
  • Public Health Facilities and Services
  • Street Construction and Maintenance
  • Parks and Recreational Areas, Programs and Facilities
  • Storm Water Collection and Disposal
  • Development, Storage, Treatment, Purification and Distribution of Water
  • Sewage Collection and Disposal
  • Public Housing
  • Public Transportation
  • Libraries, Archives and Arts and Science Programs and Facilities
  • Terminal and Dock Facilities
  • Parking
  • Codes, Including Building, Housing, Electrical and Plumbing
  • Air Quality Control
  • Creation, Modification and Maintenance of Retirement or Pension Plans for Employees
  • Planning, Zoning and Community Development
  • Electric Utility
  • Gas Utility
  • Street Lighting

And by the way there are others that relate to specific situations and governmental requirements.

These services are defined as city services.  But if there is no city in an area, they fall back to the County to perform them.  They are not County services that a City takes; they are City services that a County takes care of only if no City is there. 

When people come up with small lists (11 services), it's because they combine services that are really distinct – "fire and police", "water and sewer" (totally unrelated, I hope), "roads and drainage", "utilities", etc.  The lists people talk about also typically skip things no one really wants to do – public transportation, utilities, air quality; and they skip over the things that really only apply in certain situations – dock facilities and parking.

So, do cities "select three or more services"? No. Cities are constitutionally responsible for all of the listed services:

  • Cities may perform these services directly, by creating a police force for example;
  • they may contract with a company to perform the services (like road maintenance);
  • they may joint venture services with groups of cities;
  • they may contract with another city to perform the services (Sandy Springs' library system is run by the City of Marietta);
  • they may contract with their own, or another County to perform a service;
  • they may split some of these apart (buy water, but manage the distribution).

But the City is responsible for all of them.

All of the cities which have been created in the last 10 years have concentrated on a set of services they thought were being handled poorly by their county, and created their own process for handling those services.  Almost all thought that they were getting poor police protection from their County; almost all wanted more resources put in Parks; many took on street maintenance (partially because they wanted sidewalks); and everyone wanted to control zoning and planning in their areas.  On the other hand, cities frequently contracted with their County to provide fire services, trash collection, public health, public housing, and water and sewer services.

Cities can change the way they're handling these services at any time. A city may decide to start their own fire department; they may decide to create a parking garage, or put up parking meters somewhere; they may decide some day to start their own trash collection. They can also decide to stop doing some service (as long as they continue to perform at least three services, distinct from their County). 


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Senator Sally Harrell has mentioned cityhood in her newsletters

Some of you have been subscribed to Sen. Harrell's emails, and other have not. Here are excerpts from some of those emails* that are relevant to cityhood.

* Updated to add excerpt from April 4 Snapshot

From Sally’s Snapshot # 4, February 6, 2022:

Cities Galore! 

The idea of smaller county commission districts appeals to me because smaller districts mean elected officials are closer to the people. Perhaps if the number of commissions had gradually increased as the county grew, service delivery would be better than it is today.

When we think of cities, most of us imagine a picture book version with a downtown area, neighborhood fire department, library, schools, sidewalks and a nicely designed City Hall. But in Georgia, how services are delivered at the city and county level is much more complicated than this because of how it is spelled out in our Georgia State Constitution.

For instance, the whole of DeKalb actually began functioning as a city in 1972 with the passage of “Amendment 19” that allowed counties to deliver services such as police/fire, water/sewer, parks/recreation and garbage collection. Prior to that the DeKalb Commission was called “The Commission of Roads and Revenue,” because that’s about all the county did. Outside cities, services were provided by the state.

Further, the Georgia Constitution defines what a city is, and it says a city must deliver a minimum of three services. The Georgia constitution does not allow for a layer of government such as “townships” or “villages” that you sometimes see in other states.

Sometimes it feels like we’re trying to squeeze our new cities into the kind of box our constitution offers, but what we really need is a different sized box. This is why Sen. Elena Parent and I are considering authoring a constitutional amendment that specifically spells out which services need to stay with the county. Currently, every time a city forms the county services contract. This not only makes for difficult management, but there are some services that are just better off being managed county-wide. I’ll keep you posted on how this effort develops.

So when you think about cities in DeKalb county, and perhaps whether or not you want to live in one, I encourage you to think less about cities you might see in picture books, and more about how services are best delivered.

That being said, there are many cityhood proposals being batted around by the legislature this session. They are all far from the same, and must be discussed individually on their own merits and demerits.

The most visible is the secession of Buckhead, and it is not a pretty picture. It’s reminiscent of the 2018 Eagles Landing referendum, which was rejected by voters. Had it passed, Eagles Landing would have siphoned half the tax revenue from the city of Stockbridge while creating a new city one-third the size, made up of the neighborhoods with the highest tax bases. Not only does this Buckhead proposal put Atlanta Public Schools at risk, but the loss of bond ratings would put the entire state at risk.

Cobb county has several cityhood proposals: 1) HB 826 “Vinings”, population 7000; 2) HB 840 “Lost Mountain” in west Cobb, population 75,000 and 3) HB 841 “East Cobb,” population 60,000. These are being rushed through the legislature now.

During the last two years I have spent a significant amount of time discussing and researching the impact of forming a city in unincorporated DeKalb north of Decatur -- which happens to be where I live. There are several reasons why this has become urgent. 

First, a new city in north DeKalb would protect DeKalb County Schools by permanently defining school district lines relative to cities that have their own school systems (Decatur and Atlanta). This keeps them from annexing commercial areas that have a strong tax base and few students, which would drain revenues from DeKalb schools.

Second, surrounding cities with their own police departments are actively annexing unincorporated neighborhoods, which enlarges their city police force. A recent study conducted by the Carl Vinson Institute on Government concluded that expansion of city police departments in north DeKalb is significantly and adversely impacting the DeKalb Department of Public Safety. There is now a consensus that any new city will contract with DeKalb for police services.

Finally, residents of this area need a stronger local voice in regional planning. For example, the mayors along the 285 corridor have been working on adding Bus Rapid Transit to the 285 express lanes plan, but the residents in the unincorporated areas are not at the table.

In the past, Republicans have used their majority power to ram through cityhood bills without getting the consent of local elected legislators. Instead, DeKalb Senators will utilize the “local bill” process, which requires the support of the majority of legislators in the entire DeKalb delegation for passage. This process ensures that residents of the whole county have a voice in what is decided.


From Sally’s Snapshot # 6, February 20, 2022

Cityhood: This week the Senate voted on two controversial bills to incorporate the cities of East Cobb and Lost Mountain in Cobb County. Too often, the timing of these initiatives is questionable. These Cobb cities gained momentum after the 2020 election when the Cobb County Commission became a majority Black body controlled by Democrats. These initiatives have the same feel as the Republican push to make the Gwinnett School Board non-partisan, only after it gained a Democratic majority which is also all Black.

As I evaluate cityhood proposals, I must not cast judgment with one broad stroke. These initiatives are nuanced. For instance, the city of Mableton, which is majority Black, is passing through the legislature without much political rancor. It has been in the works for some time and seems ready to move forward. Closer to home, after years of talk and planning, I believe that the unincorporated area where I live is also ready to move forward. I have found that cities in Senate 40 tend to enhance local civic engagement and promote a sense of community.


From Sally’s Snapshot # 11, March 27, 2022

“Are We There Yet?” The City of North Decatur 

While many cityhood bills moved through the process this year, there were not enough votes within the local DeKalb delegation to move forward with the City of North Decatur. I will say, however, that the conversations moved forward and I believe we will be able to hit the ground running at the beginning of next session. This will give time for the community to review the City Charter, which outlines the city governance structure, and the City Map, including city boundaries and city council district lines.


From Sally’s Snapshot # 12, April 4, 2022

Cityhood Suspense

Given a few news stories last week, you might get the impression that I’ve suddenly introduced a new cityhood proposal. But the media simply picked up on some work that’s been ongoing for several years.

During the past two years, I’ve spent time researching how forming another city in north DeKalb can help protect DeKalb County Schools from costly annexations by cities that have their own school systems (Decatur and Atlanta), as well as shoring up public safety resources county-wide. This year, I spent much-needed time discussing the proposal with my colleagues in the Dekalb Senate delegation to get their input.

This is all still in the proposal stage — there is no bill yet. I plan to hold community meetings to get input from those in the map footprint. Some have asked specifically about the Evansdale area. The reason the area outside the perimeter is not currently in the map is because of the need to preserve choices among several options. These are among the discussions I look forward to having in the coming months.

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