The public cost of Atlanta’s proposed police and fire training center will be more than double the $31 million that Mayor Andre Dickens administration has repeatedly said would be the tab to taxpayers.
Dickens and other city officials have said that taxpayers would fund about one-third of the $90 million complex. But city officials on Friday confirmed that there is a provision in the city’s lease with the Atlanta Police Foundation that will add about $36 million to the public cost.
At issue is a “lease back” provision that requires the city to pay $1.2 million a year for use of the facility over 30 years. That is in addition to the $31 million city taxpayers are contributing toward construction.
The original press release, from Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms administration in 2021, said the city would pay either $30 million or agree to the lease back. The legislation approved by Atlanta City Council has the city responsible for both.
The Atlanta Community Press Collective first reported the additional cost on Wednesday. Administration officials did not respond at that time to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution seeking clarification.
Chata Spikes, a former Atlanta Police spokeswoman who recently joined the mayor’s communications team, called the lease payments “budget neutral” because it is money the city already earmarks to have police and firefighters trained.
“The City currently pays other entities to use facilities that are not designed for public safety training,” Spikes said in a statement to the AJC. “The Atlanta Public Safety Training Center will provide an opportunity for AFRD and APD to conduct joint training, an Emergency Vehicle Operations Course, adequate classrooms and community access to include quality greenspace.
“At the conclusion of the lease payments, the City of Atlanta will own the facilities.
Officials in the mayor’s office did not respond to questions Friday afternoon, but a source in City Hall said the deal has been misrepresented to the public.
Atlanta is working with the Atlanta Police Foundation to build an 85-arce complex for the city’s police and firefighters. The foundation — one of the most powerful public safety nonprofits in the nation — is leading the construction and has repeatedly told the public it will raise the remaining two-thirds of the total cost.
Dickens also previously told the AJC in March the police foundation would be expected to cover any cost overruns incurred from the project.
Regardless, Atlanta Fire Chief Roderick Smith sought to assure the press on Friday that the city is being transparent. But he did not address the question of additional cost to taxpayers.
“We are not hiding anything as it relates to the financing of the project, the project that is going on, and the need that exists in public safety,” Smith said.
During the Atlanta City Council’s Finance and Executive Committee meeting on Wednesday, several councilmembers OK’d legislation to use $30 million in general fund dollars from last year’s budget to build the center. They also approved the lease-back terms and an additional $1 million in public safety impact fees to build a gymnasium at the site.
But Council member Liliana Bakhtiari voted against the legislation. She said she doesn’t believe the full scope of the financial agreement was accurately presented.
”It’s not going to just be $31 million, right? It’s also going to be the lease back dollars, so my concern is that dollars will be taken from elsewhere to do other aspects of this project nothing as big as what we’re seeing,” she said. “...There’s still additional questions to be answered.”
Council members have faced intense scrutiny from groups opposed to the facility. It will be located on the site of Atlanta’s old prison farm in unincorporated DeKalb County off Key Road. The May 15 City Council meeting drew nearly 300 public commenters who pleaded with council to oppose the project. The public comment lasted more than 7 hours.
Afterward, councilman Dustin Hillis, chairman of the Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee, introduced the ordinance outlining the city’s contribution to the center.
DaVinci Development, the project management company hired by the police foundation for the center’s construction, said a soft opening of the facility is scheduled for the end of 2024. Schierbaum has also said his department will move in by the end of next year.
On Friday, members of the Atlanta Police Department, city officials and others involved in the project gave a media tour of the site, showing some of the areas where pre-construction has already taken place.