Confusion abounds over Mercedes-Benz COVID-19 vaccination site tab

Fulton County leaders said last week that the county could be eligible for up to $55 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as reimbursement for COVID-19 expenses, and seemed surprised that they would have to spend $11 million of that money for vaccinations at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

But stadium officials said Friday that they aren’t asking for any cash for use of the Falcons stadium.

County manager Dick Anderson told county commissioners that stadium officials offered the building — not to cover associated costs. He said he has a list of $11 million in costs to jab thousands of people a day.

“I was a little shocked when I saw … I just assumed that was their contribution,” Fulton Commissioner Chairman Robb Pitts said during a public meeting Wednesday.

“I think,” said county manager Dick Anderson, “perhaps, all of us when we were setting this up didn’t fully understand what they were committed (and) what the costs were.” He said the deal “evolved over time.”

But a spokeswoman for AMB Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of the Falcons, said Friday they haven’t sent any invoice. She said county staff asked them to make a list of costs to run the site — things like how much to turn on the lights, put out tables and provide security. She said the chair and county manager are misinformed.

There was sure to be miscommunication considering how fast officials had to move to curb the spread of COVID-19. Planning for Mercedes-Benz Stadium to host the mega-site came together in mere weeks.

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County officials said Wednesday they would cover the cost with some of the $55 million in reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Of course, that was before the Falcons group said it was all a misunderstanding.

“We are working with all involved agencies to identify all reimbursable costs, and we do not yet know the full scope of those costs,” Fulton spokeswoman Jessica Corbitt wrote in a statement Friday.

Fulton’s chief financial officer Sharon Whitmore said county staff members are working with stadium officials to continue using the centralized, transit-accessible building once the eight-week mega-site period ends in May. Even after, Whitmore said the county can still get reimbursed by FEMA for using the stadium.

Pitts said he hoped the money could be reimbursed, to which Whitmore replied that FEMA has agreed to front Fulton $5 million of the $11 million tab.

With all the new FEMA money in addition to Fulton’s $207 million from the American Rescue Plan and other funds, the grand total in federal aid received by the county is about $300 million.

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It took Whitmore three hours Wednesday to explain the $300 million game plan to the inquisitive commissioners.

“This might be a record,” she said at the end of the presentation, prompting chuckles.

The money is split into four categories: $72 million for health response (including roughly $40 million for vaccination/testing), $130 million for operational stability (with $35 million to pandemic-proof county facilities and $60 million for the massive court backlog), $70 million for community needs (think rental/mortgage assistance and food insecurity) and then $68 million in a contingency account (partly in case the FEMA reimbursements don’t work out).

Whitmore said the FEMA money was part of the package approved by Congress in early March. According to the National Association of Counties, the package directed $50 billion from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund to state, local, tribal and territorial governments for reimbursement of emergency services through September.

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Gov. Brian Kemp confers with Steve Cannon, CEO AMB Sports & Entertainment as they arrive along with members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), Fulton County Board of Health and Fulton County as operations get under way for Mercedes-Benz Stadium to become the largest Community Vaccination Center in the southeast serving an average of 42,000 citizens a week on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Atlanta.  Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com
Gov. Brian Kemp confers with Steve Cannon, CEO AMB Sports & Entertainment as they arrive along with members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), Fulton County Board of Health and Fulton County as operations get under way for Mercedes-Benz Stadium to become the largest Community Vaccination Center in the southeast serving an average of 42,000 citizens a week on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

“I’ve been suspicious of this all along,” Anderson said of the FEMA money. “I don’t know how the government is going to give us $206 million and then reimburse us for vaccinations, but it appears that this is the way it works.”

Pitts responded with his favorite expression: “A lot of this is loosey-goosey.”

Since the pandemic began, venues built using taxpayer dollars have opened their doors for voting and testing/vaccinations.

AMB CEO Steve Cannon in February declined to say how much the testing/vaccination endeavor is costing them. That was before the mega-site was announced, in an AJC story about public-private partnerships.

“We’re just essentially lending in-kind services,” he said at the time.

The stadium’s owners will receive, based on current projections, between $700 million and $900 million of Atlanta’s hotel-motel sales tax funds over 30 years.

“Suddenly people are realizing that these folks aren’t just takers, they’re givers, too,” Cannon said in February.

Credit: WSBTV Videos

Huge lines outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium on 1st day of mass vaccination site

Credit: WSBTV Videos

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