New emails between the mayor’s office and the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) show that Cop City costs to the city increased to $33.5 million and indicate that City Council legislation will be required to approve the funding.
On March 2, APF Vice President of Finance Alecia Grimes emailed an updated Cop City funding schedule to LaChandra Burks, Atlanta’s deputy chief operating officer and member of the mayor’s cabinet. Grimes told Burks that for the Foundation to secure New Market Tax Credits and a bank loan on June 30, 2023, approximately $16.1 million will be required from the city at that date. A second bullet point indicates that an additional approximately $17.3 million will be required a year later.
A spreadsheet attached to the email exchange puts the combined total of the two funding rounds for Phase I at just under $33.5 million, which is a jump over the $32 million projection between Burks and APF that ACPC reported on in March.
The email also notes that the city will need to put up an additional $15 million for Phase II, which is supposed to include a new E911 center, as well as the public parks and greenspace promised to go along with the 85 acres of impermeable land for the training center itself. The $15 million projection for Phase II has remained consistent throughout the development of this project. With the rest of the project already increasing in cost and causing APF to scale down on its plans, it is unlikely that the $15 million projection will hold.
On March 10, Burks emailed Grimes saying, “After speaking with [Atlanta’s Chief Financial Officer Mohamed Balla], he will need some additional information to finalize any legislative action we will need to meet these timelines. I’m connecting you with [CFO Balla] so we can get a meeting scheduled.”
Throughout this time, Mayor Andre Dickens maintained the city would contribute $30 million to Cop City. As recently as April 5 in the Politically Georgia podcast from the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Dickens told AJC reporter Riley Bunch that City Council will authorize $30 million for Cop City and that any cost overruns would be met through what he called “philanthropic dollars” from APF.
It’s unclear if the mayor was aware that the exchanges between a member of his cabinet, APF, and the Finance Department were happening, as Dickens is not copied on any of these emails.
Dickens talks as if the $30+ million funding is a done deal, but no Council legislation has authorized it. Signed in September 2021, the original Council Legislation that authorized the lease of 381 acres of city owned property in the Weelaunee Forest to APF for the construction of a training center did not include with it any commitment to put forth funding for the project. A whereas clause mentions that the city and APF predict the annual operating costs to be around $1.2 million, and that those costs will be offset by the city no longer needing to lease the current facilities, but it does not commit the city to paying that amount.
A press release from then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ office after the lease legislation was signed said, “The full recommended scope of facilities is expected to cost $90 million. The City’s contribution will be through a 30-year $1 million per year lease starting in FY24 or a single contribution through a general obligation bond.” The Bottoms’ administration did not cite any legislation authorizing that financial commitment.
A subsequent Council resolution passed Dec. 6, 2021 did authorize the Chief Financial Officer to identify funding sources for Phase II of the project, but there is no similar legislation that ACPC could identify authorizing funding for Phase I.
It is notable that per the City Charter, the mayor’s office is not allowed to negotiate contracts on behalf of the city without prior authorization. Section 3-104. – Powers and Duties reads: “The mayor shall be the chief executive officer of the city and he or she shall have the power and it shall be his or her duty to: … (10) When authorized by the council, negotiate deeds, bonds, contracts, and other instruments and documents on behalf of the city and execute same after final approval by the council.”
Perhaps Burks and CFO Balla are using the Dec. 6 legislation as authorization to carry out these negotiations with APF. Whether they are truly authorized to do so is up to the Department of Law.
Assuming the mayor or his designees did have authority through some unknown piece of Council legislation to carry on negotiations for a contracted $30 million expenditure to Cop City, the new $33.6 million total would still require additional Council approval. City Charter Section 2-1292 (b) states, “When the cumulative dollar amount for all contract modifications and change orders exceeds ten percent of the total ‘not to exceed’ cost authorized for the contract, all subsequent contract modifications or change orders that involve additional cost to the city shall be approved by the city council and mayor.”
Conversations between city councilors and their constituents indicate that Council believes Cop City is a done deal and all they can do is try to make the facility better, not stop it. In the caption of an April 1 post to his Instagram account, Councilmember Antonio Lewis wrote, “hey, we got here, we saw the book already written and we’re trying to edit some of the chapters in the book.”
However, it is likely that over the course of the next two and a half months, City Council will be required to vote on some legislation authorizing at least the first payment of approximately $16.1 million for Cop City.
There may not be a direct and open debate on Cop City funding, however.
The period between now and June 30 is budget season. It is likely that this expenditure will come in the actual city budget itself. While individual departmental budgets are discussed, debated and amended in the various subcommittees that have oversight on them, the budget itself is voted on as a whole. The budget is a massive document. The fiscal year 2023 budget was 622 pages long, and one of the easiest paths forward outside the public spotlight would be to hide this expenditure in the city budget.
Other questions remain regarding Cop City moving forward.
At this point there is no finalized lease back agreement, meaning the city has no contract to use the facility once built. That lease back agreement will require City Council enter into a contract with APF, but will it also require additional financial outlays beyond the $33.5 million the city is agreeing to put up over the next two years?
Additionally, the lease states that APF is responsible for Cop City utility payments. Georgia Power lighting service agreement options (option 1, option 2) sent between APF and the city, however, show the City of Atlanta as the customer, not APF.
One thing remains clear, while Dickens spent much of the last few months saying his one regret regarding Cop City is that city officials did not do a better job of being transparent with the public, the same behind the scenes dealing that brought this project into fruition continues today.