$31M funding for Atlanta training center crosses first hurdle

Council members voice the need for transparency from the Atlanta Police Foundation

An Atlanta City Council committee approved legislation on Wednesday that dedicates millions in general fund dollars from last year’s budget to construction of the planned public safety training center.

Members of the Finance and Executive Committee OK’d the plan that includes the original price tag of $30 million and allows the city to use $1 million in public safety impact fees to build a gymnasium on the site.

The mayor’s office confirmed to council members during the meeting that the capital costs of construction would not go over that amount.

The legislation passed 5-1 with Council member Liliana Bakhtiari voting against it. Council member Jason Winston abstained. It will now go to full council for a final vote.

Council members have faced intense scrutiny from groups opposed to the 85-acre planned training facility for police officers and firefighters on the site of Atlanta’s old prison farm in unincorporated DeKalb County.

Last council meeting on May 15 drew nearly 300 public commenters who pleaded with council members to push back against the project. Testimony from residents lasted more than 7 hours.

Council member Dustin Hillis, chairman of the Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee, introduced the ordinance that outlines the city’s contribution to the training center that is in line with estimates from the original lease agreement passed in 2021.

The Atlanta Police Foundation — the powerful public safety nonprofit leading construction — agreed to raise the remaining two-thirds of the total $90-million cost. Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in March that the police foundation would be expected to cover any additional costs incurred from the project.

Mayor’s office staff gave an entire cost breakdown of the project to council members.

The estimated costs for site improvements is $23.8 million; building construction $50.2 million; furniture and equipment $9.7 million; and soft costs — including engineering and design — $6.3 million.

All the funds are being managed by the Atlanta Police Foundation and the nonprofit is responsible for overages, the mayor’s office said.

Under questioning by Councilman Alex Wan, chair of the committee, the administration confirmed that the police foundation will handle all construction contracts related to the training center, even though the land is owned by the city.

Chief Financial Officer Mohamed Balla addressed concerns that a lease-back provision for Atlanta to begin using the training facility once it’s constructed would boost the city’s expense beyond $31 million.

Costs incurred by leasing back the facility are offset by dollars being used currently to rent inadequate facilities for public safety training, Balla said, which is about $1.4 million. The annual operational costs to use the new facility are stipulated in the legislation at $1.2 million.

“The city’s commitment is the funding that’s in front of you,” he said.

Council members also brought up concerns that the Atlanta Police Foundation, which is spearheading the project, doesn’t have any transparency and oversight requirements that other nonprofits or city partners operate under.

“Part of the concern that I have in terms of the relationship between the city as well as the foundation does lie with governance,” Wan said, and noted other nonprofits have council members that sit on their boards.

“We’re elected here and we are answerable — as you’ve seen today — to the people,” he said.

Council member Liliana Bakhtiari, who voted against the proposal, previously pushed for a change that would have required the police foundation to give quarterly reports like other city departments and partners. She echoed the call for a city representative to sit on the Atlanta Police Foundation’s board.

“As of right now, the appearance to my community, to my district and their concern around policing is reflective of the board and who is there,” she said. “Which right now are a lot of corporations that aren’t accessible to the public.”

Members also asked whether or not a decision has been made to allow other law enforcement agencies outside Atlanta to use the facility. The mayor’s office said that decision has not been made.

“We’re just trying to work to make sure our police and our firefighters have an opportunity to have somewhere to train at times that work for us,” Deputy Chief Operating Officer LaChandra Burks said. “Now is that a possibility for the future? Probably.”

At the end of the meeting Bakhtiari introduced legislation that would reaffirm the city’s commitment to conserve and expand access to the South River Forest. The resolution requests the city to plan to implement recommendations in the Atlanta Regional Commission’s $100 million ‘Explore the South River Forest’ Initiative to improve the area.

“The point of this is to continue the conversation because even though we voted for the facility today, the fact of the matter is is that the conversation should not end there,” she said.