Traditionally, local governments are divided into two categories: general purpose and special purpose. The distinction depends on the number of areas or functions in which services are to be provided. General-purpose governments provide services in many areas. Special-purpose districts may provide many services, but the services are all targeted on one type of function. In Georgia, however, the definition of special-purpose districts is narrower.
Georgia law declares that the terms city, town, municipality, and village are identical in meaning. Municipalities anywhere are formed when residents of an area ask the legislature to grant a charter. A 1963 law provided three requirements for charter eligibility: there must be at least 200 people living in the area, the proposed municipality must be more than three miles from another one, and 60 percent of the area must be developed and divided into tracts.
In 1993 the Georgia legislature passed a law defining the minimum conditions necessary for a community to remain as a municipality. As a result, the 724 cities in Georgia were reduced to 537 by 1995. The law required that in 1995 and thereafter the following three conditions must be met if the municipality is to retain its charter: the city must perform a minimum of three services from a prescribed list; it must hold at least six regular, officially recorded public meetings in a year; and it must have held or show that it could hold regular municipal elections.
If the municipality does not meet these criteria, then it can be eliminated in one of two ways: either the state can revoke its charter, or after the municipality has been inactive for ten years, a majority of the registered voters in the area can petition the court to dissolve it. An inactive municipality is one that has not laid or collected any taxes or fees; has not provided water, sewage, garbage collection, police protection, fire protection, or a library; and has failed to hold municipal elections. To remain active, municipalities also must levy taxes or fees or franchise taxes on utilities, firms, and corporations, and ad valorem (property) taxes on real property.
Residents seek municipal status because they want new or improved services. Thus, the central feature of a municipality is service provision. For example, the town of Keysville in Burke County was eliminated after Reconstruction following the Civil War (1861-65). Residents petitioned the state legislature for the revival of Keysville and received a new charter in 1991. Soon thereafter, the town had developed a night literacy program, a new library, a recreation center, and a new city well.
The Georgia Constitution prescribes sixteen different services that a municipality may provide:
— police and fire protection
— garbage and solid-waste collection and disposal
— public health facilities and services
— street and road construction and maintenance
— parks, recreational areas, programs, and facilities
— storm-water and sewage collection and disposal systems
— development, storage, treatment, purification, and distribution of water
— public housing
— public transportation
— libraries, archives, and arts and sciences programs and facilities
— terminal and dock facilities and parking facilities
— codes, including building, housing, plumbing, and electrical
— air-quality control
— the creation, modification, and maintenance of retirement or pension systems for local-government employees
— planning, zoning, and community redevelopment
The 1993 law added to this list electric or gas utility services and street lighting.
Cities (and counties) may create City Business Improvement Districts (CBIDs) to redevelop the central business district. These have become increasingly popular in recent years and have spread to the suburbs. CBIDs differ from municipalities in that they focus exclusively on the improvement of an area. Like municipalities, however, they may impose property taxes on the affected area if 50 percent of the commercial landowners and 75 percent of the business owners agree. The Georgia Constitution also authorizes CBIDs to provide street and road construction and maintenance; parks and recreational areas and facilities; storm-water and sewage collection and disposal systems; development, storage, treatment, purification, and distribution of water; public transportation; terminal and dock facilities and parking facilities.
Georgia law authorizes the establishment of "local independent authorities." Of the five types of authorities, three are required. A Downtown Development Authority is required for every central business district. Each county and municipality must also have a Development Authority and a Resource Recovery Development Authority. The latter is responsible for sewage-sludge, solid-waste, and water-resource recycling. Land Bank Authorities for acquiring and developing properties sold through foreclosure are authorized by law but not required. Finally, a special category of local authority, limited to cities with populations of 350,000 or more, is the Urban Residential Finance Authority. Cities and counties may create "joint authorities" between themselves and neighboring cities and counties.
What distinguishes these local authorities from local governments and CBIDs is their financing. They operate through revenue bonds, which are loans secured by the authority and repaid from leases or sales to organizations performing the projects approved by the authority. In each case, these bonds are declared not to be indebtedness for the state.