Georgia became a laughingstock last week after the Metro Atlanta region was brought to a complete standstill by a two-inch snowfall.
Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed received most of the blame for the ice storm fiasco. “I accept responsibility for the fact we did not make preparation early enough to avoid these consequences,” Deal said.
Deal also pinpointed the real causes of the traffic shutdown that kept thousands of people trapped overnight in their vehicles or in school buildings.
“We don’t have control over what private businesses do,” he said. “We don’t have control over what school systems do.”
A governor also cannot hope to coordinate the closings of government agencies or school systems during an emergency because we have far too many of them.
Georgia has 159 counties, which is twice as many as you need to govern effectively. We should have started county consolidation years ago. Instead, Republican legislators want to create yet another county at the northern end of Fulton County.
The 10 core counties around Atlanta have 65 incorporated cities within their boundaries, each with their own government and police department. There are 14 municipalities in Fulton County alone, 13 in Gwinnett County and 10 in DeKalb County.
No governor could hope to produce any kind of coordinated emergency response involving that many local governments. It just isn’t doable.
At least seven of those cities have been created by the Legislature since 2005 in Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties, and lawmakers persist in trying to carve out even more. That is just plain crazy.
The same situation applies to public school systems. There are more than two dozen systems in Metro Atlanta because some counties have both a county and a city school system.
The logical thing to do would be to consolidate and reduce the number of school systems, but our lawmakers instead are trying to create even more in parts of DeKalb County.
Another problem brought to light by the winter storm is the fact that our elected leaders over the past decade have made substantial reductions in state spending on government services and infrastructure.
In 2008, the Department of Transportation employed more than 6,000 people, many of whom worked at maintaining and repairing the state’s highways and bridges. Today, the number of DOT employees has declined to 4,400 because of budget cutting.
The budget for the Department of Public Safety, which trains and deploys state troopers to patrol Georgia’s highways, was $110 million in 2008. At that time, there were about 200 vacancies in the 953 approved job slots for troopers. That department’s budget has essentially remained flat since 2008, which means there has been little money available for filling the empty patrol positions.
We saw the effects of these cutbacks during last week’s storm. DOT employees and state troopers worked valiantly, but there just were not enough of them.
The winter storm disaster should be blamed on policies that encourage the proliferation of city governments and school systems that can’t be coordinated, and on budget cutbacks that leave the state without sufficient resources to protect its citizens.