Last summer, the city of Sandy Springs, Georgia, did an about-face and hired more than 125 employees who previously provided various services to the local government on a contract basis.
At the time, city leaders said the move would save the city as much as $4 million a year over the next five years.
The decision was significant because Sandy Springs, which incorporated in 2005 from an unincorporated area in Fulton County just north of Atlanta, had long billed itself as a model of efficiency, with a majority of municipal services outsourced to private contractors.
The move was also viewed with particular interest in the Baton Rouge area because Sandy Springs has long been touted as the poster child for how the prospective city of St. George would run.
So how’s the new model working out, seven months in?
Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul says it’s too soon to say, but city leaders are beginning to do a deep dive into the numbers to see if, in fact, the anticipated savings appear to be materializing.
“We did some extensive reviews last year and felt we could save between $2 million and $4 million a year by hiring workers,” Paul says. “Now, we’re going back and taking a look to see if we are, in fact, saving that money or are there things we didn’t look at on the front end and trying to figure out if there are things we didn’t anticipate.”
Paul says he doesn’t have a gut feeling one way or the other, just yet, about which form of government is less expensive. But he says, “If we find that going the contractor route is cheaper we’re totally prepared to go back to that model.”
That’s not as easy as it sounds, however. For the sake of stability and planning, the city council voted last year to adopt the new model for five years, so if Sandy Springs ultimately decides to go back to its privatization model it will take several years to dismantle the new system put in place in 2019.
Paul says the beauty of Sandy Springs is the ability to be flexible. That’s why the local government decided in early 2019 to shift to a traditional form of government over a privatization model.
“Privatization was always better, cheaper, faster,” he says. “But this year, it would have cost us more than $4 million more to stay with the contractor. We’re such a hot economy and there is a tight labor market, and the vendors were charging a significant premium over what we were paying.”
He says it continues to be nimble and efficient, even with a payroll and employees. As for lessons learned over the past 15 years, he says there’s very little Sandy Springs would do differently if it had to do it all over again.
“The only thing I would change is something we did about five years in, when we realized one large contractor, which we had initially, cannot manage everything and be expert in everything,” he says. “So we drafted smaller contracts and we got more companies, lower bids, more participation and more specific expertise. It’s worked out much better that way.”
The prospective city of St. George, approved by voters last October, has been on hold pending the outcome of a lawsuit challenging the legality of the incorporation. An initial hearing in that suit is set for Feb. 24.