Three months before the first pitch at SunTrust Park, the Atlanta Braves’ front office is claiming Cobb County taxpayers owe $14 million for roads, walkways and other pedestrian improvements at the team’s new stadium.
The Braves have already paid most of those expenses, and team officials say the county is contractually obligated to reimburse them. The county says it has already paid that — and much more.
The dispute has been on-going since December, with origins that date to the earliest agreements forged by the county and team in 2013 and 2014. Those contracts require that $14 million in public funds be spent on transportation improvements, and are vague as to the exact projects covered by the money.
Cobb transportation director Jim Wilgus wrote in a Dec. 2 memo to County Manager David Hankerson that taxpayers have already spent $69.5 million on nine road projects for the stadium and privately owned, mixed-use development.
“We feel this satisfies Cobb County’s transportation improvement contribution,” Wilgus wrote in the memo.
The Braves think otherwise.
On Sept. 28, the team provided the county a list of five projects amounting to just over $14 million, for which it is seeking reimbursement.
The Braves’ list includes $5.8 million for public roads inside the mixed-use development; $5.7 million for elevated walkways over two outside roads; and $2.2 million for pedestrian improvements between the ballpark and satellite parking lots.
The Braves also want $500,000 for traffic signals and a truck staging lane on Circle 75 Parkway. It appears all but the traffic signals, at a cost of $490,000, have already been financed by the team and are under construction.
Derek Schiller, the Braves’ president of business, said last week that the $69.5 million in projects on the county’s list shouldn’t count toward the $14 million public commitment because they were “already established and in-process before the Braves even completed their deal with Cobb County.”
“As it relates to the $14 million … it’s important to note all of that was part of the original agreement we had with Cobb County, so it was all contemplated in the original formation of the deal, and it’s something Cobb County and the Braves have been working closely on since Day 1,” Schiller said. “So there is no disagreement on any of these issues.”
Cobb Commission Chairman Mike Boyce, who took over for Tim Lee in January, said he has invited the Braves to a public discussion of the issue Tuesday. The county attorney and city manager will also participate.
“I have four different versions of what that $14 million is for,” Boyce said. “ I need to bring everybody to the table so we can come to a consensus. We need to get this put to bed quickly because the Braves open up in less than 90 days.”
Steve Labovitz, an attorney who negotiated the Philips Arena deal on behalf of the city of Atlanta and represented San Diego during its negotiations for a new Padres’ baseball stadium, said the issue should have been settled long ago.
“It is very unusual for the Braves to take these expenses that have already been incurred and call up the county and tell them: ‘You’re responsible for it,’” Labovitz said. “One would think, as this road was being built, the Braves would have said: ‘Hey, let’s use the money for this.’”
Two agreements spell out obligation
Wilgus’ memo does list projects that were planned before the stadium deal, such as the $26 million Windy Hill Road diverging diamond interchange at I-75.
But it also lists at least four projects conceived after the Braves announcement, and in response to the state-mandated traffic study that found sold-out games will add 20,000 cars to surrounding streets.
Those projects total $17 million:
$9.8 million for a realignment of Interstate North Parkway at Interstate North Circle, to shift commuter traffic away from SunTrust Park.
$6.7 million combined for improved east- and west-bound I-285 ramps at Cobb Parkway.
$613,000 for intersection improvements at Cobb and Windy Ridge parkways.
And if the projects on the Braves’ list were contemplated in the early days of the deal, they were never codified in writing.
Two contracts between the county and the Braves address the $14 million obligation.
The preliminary Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), finalized in November 2013, says terms of the county’s transportation improvement contribution are “generally described” in an exhibit attached to the document. That exhibit lists eight “concept” projects, one of which is the $12 million pedestrian bridge the county is building over I-285, connecting the stadium to the Cobb Galleria.
The Development Agreement, approved by the county commission in May 2014, includes a section on transportation improvements that says the county will complete the same projects listed in the MOU, “and/or such other projects as the parties may agree upon from time to time, subject to funding availability.”
Neither document specifically mentions roads inside the development, elevated walkways, traffic signals or truck staging lanes.
Wilgus’ memo quotes heavily from the Development Agreement. He says the department used that agreement and traffic studies as its guide in prioritizing projects to help alleviate the increased traffic caused by the stadium.
The memo also says developers are typically responsible for roads and other infrastructure improvements inside big developments like the stadium and mixed-use district.
“We feel it is clear from the definition (in the Development Agreement) that any projects completed under the transportation improvement contribution would be constructed by Cobb DOT,” the memo says.
Some projects left off county’s list
While the pedestrian bridge is mentioned in both the MOU and the Development Agreement, it isn’t on Wilgus’ list of projects for which taxpayers should receive credit.
The bridge project was announced one day after the Braves move became public, and is considered critical for pedestrian safety — both for fans going to the stadium and patrons of the Braves’ entertainment district. Most of that construction is being funded by other sources, although the county did spend nearly $1 million on design and engineering.
Another project mentioned in both contracts but not on Wilgus’ list is the people-moving circulator that will traverse around the stadium. The county spent $700,000 on the purchase of six buses, with the Federal Transit Authority covering the remaining $2.7 million.
The Cobb County Attorney’s Office said the bridge and circulator are part of the on-going negotiations with the Braves.
Commissioner Bob Ott told the AJC last week that there is no conflict between the county and the Braves over the $14 million, and said the projects listed in the Wilgus’ memo are “just a list of projects going on in the area.”
“This is not an additional $14 million,” Ott said, referring to the possibility of the county paying for projects on the Braves’ list.
Ott did not respond to follow-up questions as to why he thinks there is no dispute over the money, or why the road projects conceived after the stadium deal shouldn’t count toward the county’s commitment.
It is unclear how the county would pay for the Braves’ projects, although the vast majority of Cobb’s transportation funding comes from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. Wilgus called the SPLOST “Cobb County DOT’s only funding mechanism.”
That concerns Tom Cheek, a software salesman who is active in county political issues.
Cheek has filed a lawsuit against the county over its use of $56,000 in SPLOST funds for the pedestrian bridge. Cheek contends the spending is improper because it was not included in a list of SPLOST-funded projects approved by voters. There is a hearing on the lawsuit in Cobb Superior Court next month.
None of the projects for which the Braves are seeking reimbursement were on the SPLOST list approved by voters, either.
“It’s not a concern that SPLOST may be used, as of right now it’s the only funding source for these types of projects,” Cheek said. “This is just, again, a result of the speed with which the stadium project was pushed through.
“This is something that should have very clearly been negotiated before approval.”
Lee, commission chairman who forced the stadium vote just two weeks after the deal was announced, did not return messages left by the AJC on his cell phone. Hankerson, the county manager, said through a spokeswoman that he hopes to have the issue resolved by the end of February.
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