Backroom Deals Increase Public Cost of Cop City
As a proposed funding ordinance for the initial construction plans of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, better known as Cop City, works its way through Atlanta City Council, new information suggests the ordinance could come with a total price tag of $51 million in public funds, instead of the $30 million that city officials promised since 2021.
On May 15, hundreds of people came out to City Hall to speak out against the public funding of Cop City. Nearly 300 people signed up to speak against the proposal, with no public comment in favor of it. Due to the large response, an estimated 100 people were in line, but unable to sign up to speak before the sign-up period ended.
After more than seven hours of public comment against the funding package, District 9 City Council Member Dustin Hillis introduced the ordinance that, if approved, authorizes the allocation of a total of $31 million from the city of Atlanta to the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) for the construction of Cop City. The ordinance is cosponsored by Council Members Byron Amos, Marci Collier Overstreet, Howard Shook, Matt Westmoreland and Mary Norwood.
The ordinance, 23-0-1257, also authorizes the mayor to enter into a lease back agreement with APF. This lease back agreement will allow the Atlanta Police Department and Atlanta Fire Rescue Department to use the facility for training purposes after the initial phase of construction is complete.
As written, the ordinance seems to fall in line with the $30 million public cost of the training center promised in 2021, with just one additional $1 million line item for the construction of a gymnasium. Due to a lack of limitations on the terms of the lease back agreement, however, the actual cost to the public of this ordinance may be over $51 million.
Section nine of the ordinance states, in part, upon adoption, “Mayor [Andre Dickens], Chief Financial Officer [Mohammed Balla] and other appropriate officers… are hereby authorized to… execute and deliver all such documents, certificates or agreements as may be necessary… to consummate the transactions contemplated hereby, including, but not limited to, the lease-back agreement.”
This clause allows Mayor Dickens to sign a lease agreement that includes annual payments to the Atlanta Police Foundation. These annual payments are in addition to the $30 million payment allocated to APF in the FY23 budget by the proposed ordinance and the $1 million payment from the public safety impact fee fund.
The ordinance’s only stipulation on the terms of the leaseback agreement Mayor Dickens would be authorized to make with APF is that it must be approved by the City Attorney.
This functionally creates a blank check for Mayor Dickens to hand to APF through annual lease back payments.
On Sept. 8, 2021, City Council approved the lease of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm to APF for Cop City. The same day, then-Mayor Lance Bottoms issued a press release that included a statement about the allocation of public funds to build Cop City. She said, “the City’s contribution will be through a 30-year $1 million per year lease starting in FY24 or [emphasis added] a single contribution through a general obligation bond.”
Less than two months later, city officials and APF representatives opened conversations about funding Cop City through both an annual lease and a large, single contribution from the city.
On October 31, 2021, Chief Operating Officer for the Bottoms’ Administration Jon Keen, sent an email to Marshall Freeman (APF’s Chief Operating Officer at that time), Dave Wilkinson (APF CEO and President) and LaChandra Burks (Deputy Chief Operating Officer for the Bottoms’ administration).
In the email, Keen discusses the “key points that we would plan to convey as we discuss the [30 million lump sum payment] with Council Members” and includes breakdown of the funding plan for the Training Center: $30 million to be raised from philanthropic funding, $10 million from federal New Market Tax Credits acquired by the APF, a $20 million private construction loan to APF, and $30 million in public funds from the City of Atlanta.
Next to the $20 million loan item, a note states that the loan will be “repaid by a 20-year lease back from the city at $1 million per year.”
In subsequent emails from late 2021, Keen and Freeman tweaked their plans to present the information to City Council. On November 2, 2021, Freeman sent Keen an email saying, “Jon, Dave and I discussed this at length. Please see attached with edits.” The email includes an updated slide deck that shows the $30 million contribution from the City increased to $35 million to fund “Phase II” of construction plans. Phase II of Cop City construction is slated to include public parkland development, the building of a new E911 operations center and additional training facilities for AFRD.
In the final email in the chain, Keen restates the funding plan with the additional $5 million increase in the lump sum payment from the city. Keen concludes the email by stating “To avoid the lease back requirement and to complete all…phases of proposed facilities / improvements, the [lump payment from the city] would have needed to include approximately $50 million in funding for the [the Training Center].”
The result of these conversations with Council members following this email exchange between Keen and Freeman in November 2021 was 21-R-4320, a resolution adopted by City Council in December 2021 that allowed the Atlanta CFO to identify optimal funding sources for the $35 million APF said it needed to add the public parkland, E911 center and fire safety training facilities.
The 2021 resolution made no mention of intent for the $35 million payment to come in addition to yearly lease back agreement payments.
In a March 2023 email to LaChandra Burks APF confirms that it is planning to close on the $20 million loan on or by June 30, 2023 if funding from the City of Atlanta is secured. ACPC has found no public statements regarding the use of public funds to pay back APF’s $20 million loan through a lease back agreement with the city of Atlanta in the two years since 21-R-4320 was passed.
Several City Hall officials confirmed to ACPC that annual lease back payments of $1 million or more are slated to be part of the lease back agreement Mayor Dickens will enter on behalf of the City with APF, if City Council votes to approve the ordinance.
If the lease back agreement follows the form laid out by Keen in 2021, the 20 annual payments from the City of Atlanta will add at least $20 million in public funding for Cop City.
Combined with the $31 million set forth in the proposed 2023 funding ordinance this will bring public funding for the current phase of construction alone to a minimum of $51 million.
In an interview with Riley Bunch (AJC), Dickens stated that the City will contribute $30 million in public funds to build Cop City, noting that the Atlanta Police Foundation will be responsible for fundraising to cover any additional costs. Dickens was likely aware of the additional $20 million written into the leaseback payment plan. Dickens’ Deputy Chief Operating Officer, LaChandra Burks, was party to the 2021 funding conversations between Keen and APF while she was working for the Bottom’s administration. As of 2023, Burks is Mayor Dickens’ point person for liaising between APF and the CFO regarding funding for Cop City.
A 10% elasticity clause in the City of Atlanta Procurement Code and a clever addition to the funding ordinance opens the door to APF to receive another increased sum of money it discussed with city officials behind closed doors.
Including a $1 million gymnasium line item enables the city to provide a total of $34.1 million to the APF, allowing the city to cover the $33.4 million APF told Atlanta Deputy Chief Operating Officer LaChandra Burks the foundation needed for construction costs in March 2023.
APF and the City will likely take advantage of the elasticity clause to ensure the foundation receives the $33.4 million it requested. APF’s finances for the construction of the facility have appeared strained on multiple occasions. Cop City construction plans revealed in the Feb. 8, 2023 construction budget meeting show that APF dropped the emergency vehicle operations course, kennels, and stables out of initial construction plans to reduce the cost of the initial construction of the facility from $90 million to $72.8 million. Later documents obtained through open records requests indicated the infeasibility of APF lowering costs to reach its $72.8 million budget.
No open records documents viewed by ACPC since the funding information emails between APF and Burks in early March indicate that APF reduced its requested amount.
If City Council votes to approve 23-0-1257 and authorize payment to APF to build Cop City, this additional $2.4 million will be available to APF without further oversight and bring the total cost to the public to $53.4 million.
While 21-R-4320 was intended to fund construction of public parkland, the E911 center and fire safety training facilities, funding conversations between city officials and the APF this year have resulted in those funds being reallocated to the initial phase of construction.
The most recent version of Cop City site plans, obtained by ACPC through an attachment to an email received through an open records request, shows plans for public parkland, the E911 center and fire training facilities listed as “future” items and slated for a separate, later phase of construction that will require a new round of funding authorization from City Council. Later phases of construction will come at an additional cost to the public.
The public parkland, frequently touted by Mayor Dickens as a central part of Cop City plans, does not currently have a projected start or completion date, so the true cost may increase. A 2021 training center funding PowerPoint shows the estimated cost of the public parkland improvements to be $13 million. This addition will bring the total cost of the facility to $66.4 million in public funds.
In March 2023, APF emails listed the estimated cost of the proposed E911 center at $15 million, a figure that has remain unchanged since the conversations between Keen and Freeman in late 2021. With two years of higher inflation, $15 million is now a tenuous estimate.
Assuming it holds, it would bring the public’s contribution to Cop City to $81.4 million, more than double the number promised in 2021.
Listed on the current site plans legend under L and slated to replace an additional swath of forested land on the 171-acre site, the 2021 funding PowerPoint estimates the future fire training facilities will cost an additional $4 million.
That would bring the total public funding of Cop City to $85.4 million.
Additionally, the EVOC, stables and kennels that were removed for APF to reach its $72.8 million budget projection for initial construction would still need to be built. There are no available cost projections on these items, but if they require additional public funds, it will likely bring the public financial commitment to well over $90 million.
APF, for its part, has been engaged in a lobbying effort to convince City Council members who may have been on the fence about approving the funding for Cop City.
On May 1, Dave Wilkinson’s Executive Assistant sent out meeting requests on behalf of Wilkinson to Council Members Antonio Lewis, Jason Winston and Marci Collier Overstreet “to discuss [their districts]” over breakfast. The meeting was scheduled to take place at the members-only Commerce Club in the 191 Peachtree Building, where the Atlanta Police Foundation is also headquartered.
Winston and Overstreet are both members of the Finance Executive Committee (FEC), where the funding paper will be debated May 24. Antonio Lewis, who is not on FEC, previously voiced that he would vote against Cop City if he could. Lewis has also spoken out against Stop Cop City activists in recent months, and he may be on the fence regarding his vote for the Cop City funding ordinance.
Council Member Alex Wan, who chairs the FEC, received a slightly different invitation for breakfast at the Silver Skillet diner off 14th Street.
Dustin Hillis, another member of FEC and the Council Member who introduced the ordinance, did not receive an invitation to breakfast with Wilkinson. Hillis did, however, attend the Foundation’s May 20 Blue Jean Ball fundraiser, where his wife Lindsey Hillis purchased a $2,150 sponsorship.
FEC, as the financial oversight arm of City Council, is where questions about the lease back agreement and potential future costs to the city should be asked. It is unusual for either FEC Chair Wan or Vice-Chair Howard Shook to allow legislation to pass through the committee without scrutiny on any potential future financial risks to the city.
It would be an egregious change of pace for FEC to approve this ordinance without clarifying the terms of the lease back agreement. Throughout the Cop City legislative process, the political power wielded by the Atlanta Police Foundation has consistently outweighed any illusions of a democratic process and the overwhelming demands of the public to put an end to the Cop City development.
ACPC emailed every member of City Council and Mayor Andre Dickens’ Press Secretary Michael Smith asking if the city planned on paying yearly payments in the lease back agreement in addition to the $31 million proposed in 23-O-1257.
At the time of publishing, no officials have responded.Wait, before you go…
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