In the spring of 2021, the Atlanta Police Foundation announced an attractive deal for city taxpayers.
If the city put up $30 million for a public safety training center, the nonprofit and its philanthropic partners would handle the rest of the project’s $90 million price tag.
That promise was repeated month after month, year after year, by one mayor and then the next.
Today, the Atlanta Police Foundation still asks for donations to the project on a fundraising page that says the city will only contribute $30 million to the cause.
But that’s not true. And it hasn’t been true for years.
Last month, city officials publicly acknowledged for the first time what some decision makers have known since at least August 2021 — the actual cost to taxpayers for the facility is expected to be more than double what officials have continually said, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of public documents has found.
The additional cost comes in the form of $1.2 million in annual payments to the Atlanta Police Foundation, repaying the nonprofit organization for the bulk of its contribution toward construction.
Against that backdrop, Atlanta City Council members on Monday are set to consider a proposal that dedicates up to $67 million in city funding to the construction and operation of the facility.
What at one time looked like an easy majority vote for passage of the funding plan is no longer so clear — council sources expect at least four no votes, while others are reconsidering their positions. Members of the administration, however, met one-on-one with council members to discuss the financing plan last week, and several said they emerged satisfied with the city’s financial role in the deal.
The plan includes a funding provision that had never been publicly discussed until it surfaced last month.
After years of officials solely referencing a one-time payment as the city’s contribution, the funding legislation includes annual “lease-back” payments to the Atlanta Police Foundation.
It is unclear if officials with Dickens administration and the police foundation intentionally misled residents or inadvertently choose poor messaging. But regardless, the effect is the same — the public has just learned that it will carry the bulk of funding of a controversial project that has been debated and discussed for years.
A Dickens administration spokesman last week likened the payments to a mortgage, for a $20 million construction loan taken out by the police foundation. In the hours of public debate over the facility, the public was never told that city taxpayers would be responsible for repaying that loan.
“Neither the price tag for the center nor the City of Atlanta’s portion of the cost has doubled or ballooned,” the mayor’s office said Friday.
But the annual payments fundamentally change the cost equation. Instead of equal one-third splits between the city, the police foundation and private donations, taxpayers are now responsible for carrying aroundtwo-thirds of the project, including the majority of the foundation’s share.
The charitable arm of Cox Enterprises, the owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has contributed to the project, as have other local foundations and corporations.
“For nearly two years, the city has basically told one story, one narrative: that this would cost $30 million of taxpayer money and that $60 million would be donated by corporations,” said Kamau Franklin, of Community Movement Builders. “This is the narrative that they told us over and over and over again.”
Atlanta Police Foundation officials declined to answer questions from the AJC, referring them to the mayor’s office. The mayor’s office also declined to answer the questions and instead issued a press release Friday afternoon.
Monday’s vote is the culmination of a years-long fight between supporters and opponents that has included protests, vandalism, and violence that, in one case, left a protester dead and a Georgia State Patrol trooper wounded.
It will also mark a milestone in the protracted battle that has now left two mayoral administrations at crosshairs with environmental and social justice activists over the future of the site, which is home to one of the region’s largest urban forests.
City officials argue that the annual payment is less than the city is paying right now — around $1.4 million — to lease inadequate facilities to train police and firefighters. The mayor’s office refers to the lease back as a “budget neutral” line item.
But opponents argue that there was never a public disclosure that taxpayers would have to continue making annual lease paymentseven after the city built its own facility. The increased costs were first reported by the Atlanta Community Press Collective, a journalism nonprofit.
Credit: Riley Bunchemail@example.com
Credit: Riley Bunchfirstname.lastname@example.org
Negotiating behind the scenes
Behind the scenes, city officials had begun negotiating additional public assistance for the facility at least a month before the Atlanta City Council agreed to lease the land to the foundation.
The first public reference to a $1.2 million annual cost came on Aug. 16, 2021, when Councilmember Matt Westmoreland offered a series of changes to the legislation. One of them made the argument that has now become a city talking point:
“An assessment by the (Atlanta Police Foundation) and the city determined the annual cost to operate and maintain the campus will be roughly $1.2 million, which will be at least partially offset by the reduction in current cost to maintain two leases for training areas.”
The amendment passed with no discussion. And legally, it didn’t actually do anything. Tucked in the preamble to the ordinance, it didn’t say who would pay those costs.
Around that time, another reference appeared. A line added to the ground lease established for the first time that the foundation would enter a separate “lease-back” agreement with the city.
It would turn out to be a significant change.
How the ground lease agreement changed
The final version of the ground lease saw some additions and removals from when an early draft was presented to the City Council in June 2021.
Lessee shall upon completion of the Facility Improvements in accordance with the terms of this Lease, turn over occupancy and operation of the completed Public Safety Training Center to the City of Atlanta. and execute a lease back agreement or other applicable agreement with the City
The foundation was always expected to pay the city a nominal $10 annual fee to lease the land. But an earlier draft of the ground lease from June 2021 required the foundation to transfer the training center itself to the city’s control after 30 years, no financial strings attached.
The final ground lease, passed in September 2021, still had no mention of any payments from the city. And it, too, was never discussed. City officials said they were still negotiating the document when the Finance Committee asked for a copy of the lease on Aug. 11, 2021.
“We’re willing to be partners but we’re not silent partners,” Councilmember Howard Shook said at the time. “And I think liberties are being taken with us.”
When the deal was approved a month later, then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced in a news release that nothing had changed: The city would contribute no more than $30 million to the project, either through an annual lease or through a single up-front payment. Not both.
Three months later in December, the City Council agreed to pay up-front, authorizing up to $35 million for construction costs.
New details provided in the Friday press release confirmed that private donors would contribute $30 million, while taxpayers, not the foundation, will be responsible for the bulk of the nonprofit’s $30 million share.
In a statement, city officials said the foundation will use the city’s lease payments to cover the debt on a $20 million construction loan. The foundation will also contribute some funding vianew market tax credits, a lending program subsidized by the federal government.
The foundation will spend some of the city’s payments on “operations and maintenance,” the city said previously. That, too, appears to contradict what the public was told in 2021. The ground lease says the foundation is responsible for all capital repairs and replacements over the 30-year agreement.
The foundation and city officials continued to repeat the misleading promise long after it wasn’t true. The city did not correct the record until it disclosed more financial details last month.
In an opinion piece that ran May 17, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens again spotlighted the city’s $31 million contributionand again omitted details of the lease-back agreement.
A Q&A featured on the foundation’s training center website describes the arrangement differently. The foundation, it says, would raise $60 million to pay for two-thirds of the construction, while the city “would provide an estimated $1 million annual payment over a 30-year period.”
It’s dated September 2022, some 10 months after the City Council had approved the up-front contribution. But there’s no mention of those dollars in the document.
Some new council members say they were unaware of the full scope of the city’s financial agreement until just a few days before the Finance and Executive Committee took up the funding bill for the first time in May.
Council member Liliana Bakhtiari, the most vocal opponent of the training center on council, said she was made aware of the lease-back provision the week before during a meeting with Dickens’ administration.
She said the deal has been mischaracterized to the public and pointed to messaging on both the APF and city websites.
“The entire time it’s been told: ‘We’re spending 30 million, we’re spending 30 million, we’re spending 30 million,’” she said. “And now ... it’s actually going to be more than double what has been said.”
Credit: John Spink
Credit: John Spink
‘The power of the people’
Nearly 300 people signed up to speak to City Council members on May 15 when the funding legislation was expected to be introduced. Testimony lasted more than 7 hours.
“They saw the power of the people on May 15,” said Shaheen Rana, a DeKalb County resident and a longtime ‘Stop Cop City’ organizer.
Training center opponents are calling for another “mass mobilization” to speak against the project Monday. Rana said the recent arrests of training center opponents has only fueled opponents.
“This movement is huge and that is just going to make us more determined to show up,” she said.
Bakhtiari said she anticipates public comment to run into the night and the full council meeting to carry over into the next day.
Devin Franklin with the Southern Center for Human Rights is a familiar face in both committee rooms and the chamber at City Hall where he testifies frequently on issues like the Fulton County lease of Atlanta’s detention facility and the planned training center.
“It’s okay to pause and revisit everything,” he said and would make the appeal to council members to take a step back from the funding proposal.
“(We know) this is not a community-centered effort and that there is something that is a greater motivation for proceeding with this project as is, rather than actually engaging the people,” Franklin said.
How we got the story
Last month, Atlanta city officials confirmed that city taxpayers would contribute far more than previously known to the public safety training center. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke with council members, city officials and reviewed public documents, old meeting footage and public statements to show how the funding deal up for a vote Monday differs substantially from what had been pitched to the general public over the past two years.
AJC.com will have your complete coverage Monday on the pivotal vote to fund the proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. Find live updates as the City Council meets at 1 p.m., including reports on the scene at City Hall.