The legislation to fund the controversial public safety training center known as “Cop City” is moving forward despite reports alleging it will cost Atlanta taxpayers twice what the mayor’s office has told the public.
City officials have previously said that the Atlanta Police Foundation would cover about two-thirds of the facility’s $90 million price tag, while Atlanta would chip in $30 million.
But last week, estimates by the Atlanta Community Press Collective, a local media nonprofit, put the city’s potential contribution closer to $67 million. That number is based on the collective’s analysis of legislation introduced by District 9 council member Dustin Hillis that the finance executive committee voted to advance on May 24.
The training center funding ordinance is scheduled for a final City Council vote on June 5.
The ordinance would allow the transfer of $30 million from the city’s general fund to the Atlanta Police Foundation to pay for the center and an additional $1 million in public safety impact fees to build a gym at the 85-acre project site, located in the South River Forest in south DeKalb County, outside city limits.
In addition, the ordinance also grants the mayor the power to enter a “lease-back agreement” with the foundation, which is managing fundraising efforts for the facility.
Mohamed Balla, Atlanta’s chief financial officer, said that the lease-back would come via a loan that the police foundation will take out to help pay for the center but that the city will pay back through annual $1.2 million installments over 30 years, for a total of $36 million.
City officials consider the lease-back payments to be “budget-neutral” because the city will no longer have the expense of renting facilities for police and fire training, according to an email from police department spokesperson Chata M. Spikes.
The Rev. Keyanna Jones, a vocal member of the Faith Coalition to Stop Cop City, told Capital B Atlanta that she wasn’t surprised about news that the facility’s price tag could double for taxpayers. In her opinion, the entire project has been shady from day one.
“These deals were done in dark rooms with no public access,” Jones said. “How much money is [Mayor] Andre Dickens willing to bleed this city?”
Jones was one of the opponents of the training center who rallied outside City Hall before the May 24 hearing in an attempt to dissuade council members from advancing the legislation during the meeting’s public comment period.
Sasha Von Hanna, a member of the Weelaunee Coalition, a group of educators and families that supports the Stop Cop City movement, asked lawmakers at the hearing to “make it make sense.”
“You folks are concerned about finances, right? How can you so carelessly consider spending our hard-earned tax dollars on systems of harm instead of care?” Von Hanna said.
The five council members who voted “yes” at last week’s Finance Committee hearing were Hillis, Marci Collier Overstreet, Matt Westmoreland, Howard Shook, and committee chair Alex Wan.
Winston and Bakhtiari expressed uncertainty about statements made during the meeting by Atlanta Chief Financial Officer Mohamed Balla and Deputy Chief Operating Officer LaChandra Burks, who insisted that the city’s share of training center costs won’t top $31 million.
“They claim the answer is no, but I have to dig into the Press Collective report because I have not had a chance to read that aspect of it,” Bakhtiari said after the hearing. “I knew that they got the lease-back part, so I have to do some digging in.”
Winston told Capital B Atlanta after the hearing that he “wasn’t ready today to either support or not support the project.”
“I’m hoping in the next few weeks that I’ll be able to have more meetings and conversations with the administration around the funding source and just making sure I’m more comfortable making a decision to support this,” he said.
How $30 Million Became $67 Million
Prior to Wednesday, city officials repeatedly said the police foundation would be responsible for raising $60 million of the project’s total $90 million price tag.
The day after the council authorized the training center in September 2021, former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ office stated in a press release that the city would contribute to the project through one of two mechanisms: “a 30-year $1 million per year lease starting in FY24 or a single contribution through a general obligation bond.”
Spikes, the police department spokesperson, told Capital B Atlanta the word “or” is only used in the press release, not the original legislation.
“The word ‘OR’ was mentioned in a press release released by the previous administration. We can’t speak to the reason why ‘or’ was utilized versus the word ‘and,’” she said.
On Friday, AJC reported that a source inside City Hall stated the public has been misled as to the true cost of the facility.
Emails obtained by the press collective through open records requests suggest that officials have long expected the price tag for the city would be at least $50 million, rather than the originally stated $30 million. The collective shared the documents with Capital B Atlanta so we could do our own review.
The documents show that on Oct. 31, 2021, the city’s former chief operating officer, Jon Keen, sent an email to the police foundation and city officials breaking down the training center’s projected funding sources, including the following:
- $30 million from philanthropic funding
- $10 million in New Market Tax Credits (from the federal government)
- $20 million loan taken out by APF that will be “repaid by a 20-year lease-back from the city at $1 million per year.”
- $30 million infrastructure bond (from the city of Atlanta)
“To avoid the lease back requirement and to complete all two phases of proposed facilities / improvements, the Bond would have needed to include approximately $50 million in funding for the PSTC,” Keen wrote in an email to foundation COO Marshall Freeman and former Atlanta deputy COO Justin Johnson on Nov. 2, 2021.
Keen’s messages imply city officials knew two years ago that taxpayers would be on the hook for the $30 million single contribution, in addition to a $20 million lease-back agreement.