Georgia ReportNews

What to Blame for the Atlanta Ice Storm Fiasco

Georgia became the country’s laughingstock after the national media watched the metro Atlanta region grind completely to a halt over a two-inch snowfall.

Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed have been targeted by media elites as the public officials who will receive most of the blame, fair or not, 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 made a comment that pinpointed better than anything else 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.”

The governor is correct. He cannot control the decisions that private businesses make about when employees will be allowed to go home if a storm hits.  

A governor also cannot coordinate the closings of government agencies or school systems during an emergency because we have far too many of them. Georgia is the most balkanized state in the nation with 159 counties, which is twice as many as you would need to govern effectively. We should have started consolidating those counties years ago.  Instead, Republican legislators want to create yet another county at the northern end of Fulton County.

The Atlanta region is similarly one of the most balkanized metropolitan areas. If you take the 10 core counties around Atlanta, there are a total of 65 incorporated cities within their boundaries, each of them 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 produce a coordinated emergency response involving that many local governments.  

At least seven of those cities have been created by the Legislature since 2005 in Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties, and lawmakers want to carve out even more of these local governments. That is 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 lawmakers instead are trying to create even more systems in parts of DeKalb County. These additional cities and school systems will only make it that much harder to carry out any kind of coordinated response to future emergencies.

Another problem illustrated by the winter storm is the fact that 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 by more than 25 percent 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, which means there has been little money 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 to help people who were caught out by the weather, but there just were not enough of them.

If you want to know what to blame for the winter storm disaster, you can blame it 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.