If St. Simons Island ever does become a city, its leaders might very well follow the example of other recently-formed Georgia municipalities and hire a private contractor to handle the day-to-day business of local government.
While the drive to create a new layer of government has often been described as a grassroots effort desired by residents of the area, a recent media investigation conducted by a Glynn County weekly newspaper shows much of the heft behind the effort originates in Atlanta. Those complex Atlanta ties include connections to an international company with a strong profit motive related to operating fledging cities.
That is the way they do it up there, in the bedroom communities of Atlanta. Feeling overtaxed and underserved by their county governments, affluent suburbs of the Big Peach have been trending toward independence since the early 2000s. With private contractors handling the business of government, a locally-elected governing board addresses such homegrown issues as zoning, code enforcement and taxation.
To show folks down here how it is done, the group pushing for island cityhood needs look no further than to George Ragsdale — a veteran of the incorporation process with the right public and private connections up there. Ragsdale is president of Citizens for St. Simons Island and Sea Island, which hired Cynthia Garst of CPS Strategies to lobby its cause for cityhood to members of the Georgia General Assembly in Atlanta.
Among the public relations executive’s other clients is CH2M, an engineering and consulting firm that specializes in handling basic municipal services such as planning and zoning and code enforcement. Garst’s husband, John Garst, is a lobbyist for CH2M.
John Garst also runs an Atlanta public relations firm, which has written press releases for the Citizen’s group. In January, he was hired to conduct a poll on its behalf that showed 61 percent of islanders supported incorporation.
CH2M’s present municipal clients include Sandy Springs, Johns Creek and Milton, all communities that did not become cities until the 21st century. In fact, Ragsdale helped spearhead the movement to incorporate Milton before retiring full-time to St. Simons Island last July.
Ragsdale’s connections to Atlanta are not the only ones within the leadership of the Citizens for St. Simons Island and Sea Island, according to some investigative digging done by The Islander, a weekly newspaper serving the island and Glynn County. Managing Editor Pamela Permar-Shierling’s investigative efforts show that the incorporation group’s vice president, Cesar Rodriguez, is a former Atlanta resident and retail developer. When Citizens for St. Simons Island and Sea Island formed as a nonprofit corporation in January 2015, its listed agent was Alexander Suto, a practicing attorney in Atlanta and St. Simons. He is the brother-in-law of Citizens secretary Jim Foster, who is originally from Florida.
State Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Dunwoody, knew where he was going when he picked up sponsorship of the Citizens’ city charter incorporation bill in March and introduced it Thursday. Taylor served as president of the Citizens for Dunwoody, Inc., the group that launched the successful bid to incorporate Dunwoody in 2008. He launched his political career with a two-year term on the City Council before being elected to state office in 2011.
Ragsdale said this week the connections between the lobbyist Garst and CH2M are coincidental. And while he did deal with CH2M during the Milton incorporation effort, Ragsdale said hiring Garst was his first foray into hiring a lobbyist.
“One has nothing to do with the other,” Ragsdale said of Garst and CH2M. “When I worked on the Milton incorporation, we did not have a need for a lobbyist. I did work with CH2M in Milton, but I haven’t worked with anybody from CH2M in a good six or eight years.”
However, the model laid out for these new cities in the Atlanta area, including some privatized services, is a good pattern for a proposed city of St. Simons and Sea Island to follow, Ragsdale said.
All of these Atlanta-area cities operate on the so-called “city lite” model, providing the basic state requirements for municipalities. These can include planning and zoning, code enforcement and trash pickup. Police and fire-rescue as well as parks and recreation services often are contracted through the county from which the new cities split.
Such is the model Ragsdale has proposed for a city operating on St. Simons and Sea Island.
CH2M is a globally poised corporation with far-reaching designs on engineering and project management, but here in Georgia the firm has tapped into the cottage industry of operating start-up cities.
In cities like Sandy Springs and Johns Creek, CH2M takes care of everything from customer services and bookkeeping at city hall to code enforcement and trash pickup in the field. Shortly after Ragsdale and company successfully attained city status for Milton in 2006, the new municipality’s city council passed a resolution to hire CH2M “to have Milton operational as quickly as possible.”
CH2M’s value as private contractor in the public sector is particularly evident in the start-up phase for new cities, Ragsdale noted. Newly-incorporated cities have not yet generated the revenue to begin providing basic services to its citizens. CH2M prides itself on being able to establish a fully-functioning municipality within 90 days, providing everything from customer service to field staff.
“In order to get a city started, you’ve gotta have the funds,” said Ragsdale, who lived on St. Simons in the 1980s and has owned a home there since 2003. “What CH2M does, they have agreed to foot the bill for providing those services and they’re paid retroactively once the city starts generating revenue. The way the calendar works, it’s a pretty short time frame between those November elections for the first city council and the New Year, and suddenly you’ve got to have services ready.”
Some cities opt to phase out the level of services CH2M provides once basic services are operating on solid footing, Ragsdale said. He said a city of St. Simons and Sea Island would certainly consider contracting with a private firm for some, if not all, city services.
But CH2M would be just one of many such private firms the new city officials would consider, he said. Some services, such as GIS, might best be shared with neighboring cities and government agencies, he said.
“It’s obviously not my call to make, but my expectation is we want to get the best deal for the city,” Ragsdale said. “It’s not something we would necessarily want to go to just one firm for. We would want to solicit from several different ones.”
That option will not be available to anyone on the island anytime soon, despite paying Garst $10,000 to lobby state representatives for its passage. The St. Simons city charter bill was introduced by Dunwoody’s Taylor late Thursday in the closing hours of the last day of the session. Members of Glynn County’s state delegation said it will have to be reintroduced next session because it was dropped too late and without the signature or support of any member of the local delegation.
Citizen’s remains undaunted and plans to take up the incorporation issue anew in 2017. More is certain to be revealed in the interim.
State Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island, is in the process of drafting his own city charter bill for St. Simons Island. He was the original sponsor of the Citizens’ city charter bill, but dropped his support last month over concerns that it put too much power to tax in too few hands.
Despite strong objections from Jones, Taylor agreed earlier this month to sponsor the Citizens’ city charter bill. It is something of an unwritten rule that new city incorporation bills take a minimum of two years to pass – an introduction in the first year followed by a vote in the second year.
Meanwhile, a Georgia Tech governmental think tank is conducting a study on what financial effects island incorporation would have on Glynn County and its only current municipality, Brunswick. The Glynn Commission paid Center for Economic Development Research $43,634 for the study, which began this month and is due in early July.
The easy rhythms of St Simons have long held a strong attraction to those seeking refuge from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan Atlanta, said Jones.
“There certainly is a connection between Atlanta and the general assembly with St. Simons island … including Speaker Ralston and a number of representatives and senators,” Jones said. “The Georgia Chamber of Commerce holds one of its annual regular meetings on St. Simons.”
However, when it comes to the affairs of government in the Golden Isles, Jones would just as soon see less of the big city influence.
“It is always nice to have the attention paid to our beautiful part of Coastal Georgia,” Jones said. “Problems only occur when people from outside the area try to insert themselves into strictly local matters, such as the St. Simons Island incorporation.”