Atlanta BeltLine and APS should unify, not divide, our city – for all our sakes

By Guest Columnist CEASAR MITCHELL, president of the Atlanta City Council

Update and a note to readers: Since this guest column was first published, Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell on Monday, Jan. 5 worked with council members and the Mayor’s office to modify his recommendation to set aside reserve funds for Beltline payments. Council Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong introduced an ordinance to address the ongoing APS BeltLine dispute. The ordinance calls for an appropriation of funds of up to $13.5 million dollars coming from selling city real estate and other funds identified by the Chief Financial Officer.  The decision to not specifically list the city reserve as the funding source came after conversations with members of the city council and the administration. The goal of the legislation remains the same:  to stress the equal importance of the Beltline and APS, as well as to move towards a resolution of this issue.

Nearly 10 years ago, when I was a primary sponsor of the BeltLine legislation, I believed in its power to unify and transform the Atlanta community and improve our quality of life.

Around the same time, I launched the College Prep Series, an educational initiative to help local high school students and their parents prepare for the journey to college.

Promoting both community development and education are important to me, as an Atlanta native, and to so many others citizens, because it is undeniable that world-class cities must excel simultaneously in both of these areas.

ceasar mitchell

Ceasar Mitchell

This inescapable fact brings me to the current state of affairs between the City of Atlanta and Atlanta Public Schools concerning the Atlanta BeltLine project.

The road leading to the current impasse between our two governmental bodies is a long and winding one. It is highlighted by a Georgia Supreme Court challenge, a state constitutional amendment and a very deep economic recession.

However, the path forward is a straightforward one where political and civic jostling is set aside and the unifying spirit of partnership symbolized by the BeltLine, and ultimately required to save our youth, is affirmatively embraced. It is in that spirit of coming together that I will aggressively do everything in my power as president of the Atlanta City Council to resolve the contractual dispute for the sake of Atlanta’s children and our intown neighborhoods.

For starters, I will ask the Atlanta City Council to set aside $13.7 million dollars from our $137 million city reserves for the purpose of paying the past due amount owed to APS under the current agreement.

When coupled with the more than $25 million lump sum previously paid by the city to APS in connection with the Supreme Court ruling, sequestering roughly 10 percent of the city’s reserve represents a significant commitment on the part of the city.

But this show of good faith is only part of the solution. Thus, I humbly caution my committed friends at APS, who are working very hard to improve educational outcomes and transform our school system, not to misinterpret this good faith attempt to drive home a resolution as a capitulation on a number very critical issues.

It is undisputed that the city has an obligation to make good on the past due payments based on the current agreement. This obligation should be honored. By the same token, it is apparent that the economics that existed when the initial contract was struck no longer exist or at a minimum, will not exist for some time.

Moreover, the subsequent amendments to the agreement only kicked the can down the road to preserve the relationship, and as a result, were a stop-gap at best. A sustainable resolution to the current problem is much deeper than two annual installment payments.

Additionally, the future implications of a strong City of Atlanta – APS relationship are far broader than the BeltLine.

As such, I will also propose that the payment of this amount be preconditioned on the execution of a refashioned agreement between the parties within 60 days coupled with a commitment by Atlanta BeltLine Inc. to repay the city reserves over a reasonable period of time.

Finally, as an added incentive for both parties, if a mutually-acceptable, long-term resolution is not reached within 60 days, I will work with the School Board Chair Courtney English to reconvene our two bodies to urge a sustainable legislative solution.

It is high time to put this unfortunate distraction to rest. Our collective energies are better spent focused on other pressing issues such as student performance, college and career readiness, community development, youth safety and fiscal collaboration.

Last year, when I brought the City Council and Atlanta Board of Education together in an effort to elevate the issue, I had no idea that many months later we would still be languishing in the hazy maze of discord.

As a consequence, an unfortunate signal has been sent to taxpayers that the persons entrusted with the power to right track this issue lack either the motivation or the intent to find common ground.

Even more grave, supporters of the BeltLine have been pitted against supporters of our schools, and parents like myself who believe in the promise of the BeltLine have been put in the untenable position of being forced to choose. Most disheartening is that our youth are stuck in the middle scratching their heads and asking what in the world are the adults doing.

Two weeks ago, I watched the entire Atlanta community come together as Benjamin E. Mays High School played for the High School 5A state football championship – the first time for an APS school in nearly 25 years.

This high school championship experience, though we fell short on the field, was a victory for the players, school, families and our city.

It was also a crucial reminder for the Atlanta community that we are stronger when we come together and rally around a common goal. To paraphrase a well-known slogan, the BeltLine and our city’s youth should be where Atlanta’s government, business and neighborhoods rally together. The two should never ever be pitted against one another.

It is time to be our best selves and resolve this issue.

Onward, Upward, Together Atlanta!

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

61 replies
  1. Grayson Daughters says:

    Yeah, how exciting to hear yet more nonsensical spin by yet another city politician as they toss around the words “world class.” When we’re anything but. Just do what the court says, stop trying to spin bullsh*t into gold (not working), and continue robbing Peter Beltline to pay back Paul Reserves.Report

    Reply
  2. SpaceyG says:

    How exciting to hear yet more nonsensical spin by yet another city politician as they toss around the words “world class.” When we’re anything but. Just do what the court says, stop trying to spin bullsh*t into gold (not working), and continue robbing Peter Beltline to pay back Paul Reserves.Report

    Reply
  3. JSVH says:

    Good article. APS is asking for more money than the Beltline has.
    If this were the private world we would just let APS take the Beltline to bankruptcy court and get pennies on the dollar or negotiate reduced payment like other institutions that made bad property valuations before the housing crash.
    Here is hoping we can bring everybody to the table for a reasonable discussion for the benefit of the city as a whole!Report

    Reply
  4. JulianBene says:

    Do we believe that the Beltline is a top strategic initiative for the city? There are plenty of reasons to think so, revolving around its attraction for Millennials, the way it has already spurred many hundreds of quality jobs at Ponce City Market, the city’s need for more park and recreational space, new urbanism and so on.  The Beltline may be the best thing the city has going. If so, requiring the Beltline to find $13.7mm – it is already drastically under-funded – is hardly desirable.  Time to get our resource priorities straight?Report

    Reply
  5. James R. Oxendine says:

    An outstanding proposal, one that has the requisite equity for all parties at interest as well as providing a substantive platform for the continued progress of this notable community/public/private partnership.Report

    Reply
  6. Burroughston Broch says:

    I don’t buy what Mr. Mitchell is trying to sell.
    City of Atlanta taxpayers are left at risk while one unit of local government reneges on another unit of local government. This matter should be clearly resolved in the courts, and then followed by criminal prosecutions of those responsible.Report

    Reply
  7. Burroughston Broch says:

    JSVH  And then you will be happy to repeat this sorry saga again, with different players? And then again?
    City officials seem to operate on the assumption that an ounce of forgiveness is worth a pound of permission from the voters, and get forgiven time and again. It’s time to end this behavior.Report

    Reply
  8. Burroughston Broch says:

    JulianBene  It was time to get resource priorities straight BEFORE spending $ millions the City doesn’t have. Regardless of how many slices you cut in the pie, the pie is only so big.Report

    Reply
  9. Burroughston Broch says:

    James R. Oxendine  And covers up the pile of dog mess in the corner that every politician has been trying to ignore and avoid responsibility for.Report

    Reply
  10. Atlgal says:

    Mr Broch – you do get the fact that this is not a criminal issue AND court cases are paid for by taxes payors? Let’s resolve this like adults. That said, this is not the only way this issue might get resolved. Watch for what happens with City’s negotiations with Dekalb about several school properties should Druid Hills be brought into Atlanta.Report

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  11. JulianBene says:

    Burroughston Broch JulianBene Wrong. The problem is precisely that the original, pre-Great Recession resource plan turned out to be way optimistic.   The question now is how much to fund the Beltline, including meeting reasonable obligations to APS.  That should mean looking at how we’re using all our resources.Report

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  12. Burroughston Broch says:

    Atlgal  So you advocate sweeping this mess under the rug to reduce taxpayer costs, as has been done so many times? How much would have been saved if the BeltLine had been funded properly? How much have the taxpayers already paid for lawyers on both sides?
    If an elected official does not uphold his/her oath of office, they should be held accountable.Report

    Reply
  13. Burroughston Broch says:

    JulianBene Burroughston Broch  The plan stunk in 2008 (when it was already obvious the economy was going off the tracks) and it stinks today. Perhaps the responsible answer is to pay back the APS from BeltLine funds, and slow the BeltLine buildout accordingly. There’s no reason the taxpayers should pay twice.Report

    Reply
  14. Tracie Annette Sanchez says:

    As the organizer of the state trail summit, I’d like to know the background of this funding model idea so as to guide others correctly in other communities.Report

    Reply
  15. MSR says:

    As a Millenial who chose to move back to Atlanta after living in three other major US cities and growing up in the burbs, the Beltline must be a priority for the entire city. I chose to purchase a house here and deny job offers elsewhere – what all our elected officials and business leaders want for my generation to do – in large part because I believe the BeltLine is finally changing our city for the better. All of the older folks grumbling about process or questioning the value of this development represent the kind of thinking that has held Atlanta back in the past. I want to live in the capital city of the South. Do you?Report

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  16. JSVH says:

    Burroughston Broch JSVH Not sure what you are advocating for. The Beltline TAD was not setup to fund APS. There is not enough money to pay APS even if the Beltline was scrapped entirely. If the Betline TAD was never setup APS would be getting less money than this. Deals setup based on bad pre-housing-crash valuations need to renegotiated or expect to receive pennies on the dollar on some bankruptcy-style resolution. If APS really needs more money then they should raise their tax rates.Report

    Reply
  17. NativeAtlantan says:

    The Beltline is an excellent idea and I totally support it. Having said that, city of Atlanta and APS agreed to this approach contractually. If revenues had increased as Atlanta had anticipated, APS would have gotten the bad end of the deal. Revenues went down so APS got the better end. They have been quite patient and empathetic, allowing payments to be late. Revenues are back up to levels when the deal was done, but Atlanta still wants to renegotiate a lower rate!  New urbanism will keep happening; the Beltline will happen even if it needs to take a bit longer. You simply cannot say the same thing about education – one bad year for a student will result in a a lifetime of disadvantage.Report

    Reply
  18. JulianBene says:

    APS vs Beltline is a false choice.  The city spends money on projects with little or no public benefit.  It is not beyond the wit of our leaders to put that money on the table in order to resolve this impasse without slowing the Beltline’s development.Report

    Reply
  19. Burroughston Broch says:

    JSVH Burroughston Broch  I am not certain you understand the situation. APS was used as a vehicle to fund BeltLine – a portion of the school taxes collected went to BeltLine instead of APS. BeltLine is to make annual payments to APS, but has reneged.
    I am advocating for three points, (1) BeltLine pays APS in arrears and then in full per the agreement between them, (2) this cockamamie funding scheme between two units of local government never be repeated, and (3) public officials responsible be held accountable in the courts.Report

    Reply
  20. Burroughston Broch says:

    @MSR  Are you advocating throwing the APS under the bus because the BeltLine has mismanaged funds and has refused to repay APS? What is more important to you – quicker BeltLine completion or less funding of APS?Report

    Reply
  21. Guest says:

    The APS participation in this TAD is fundamentally conditioned upon these PILOT payments. If the City elects to breach this agreement in a manner which is so very clearly in bad faith, then APS should excercise its right under common law to rescind the agreement in its entirety and thereby cease all further participation in this TAD. 
    The City does not have a legal leg to stand on.Report

    Reply
  22. JSVH says:

    Burroughston Broch JSVH A TAD (Tax Allocation District) freezes property tax collections and diverts the increase in collection from rising values to the project that will increase tax values once the TAD expires.  But APS still wanted money today so they agreed to take a fixed amount each year in return for agreeing to the Beltline TAD. But the money to APS was set at a fixed amount before the housing crash. APS is asking for more money than the Beltline is collecting from the TAD. So step one of your suggestion is not possible.Report

    Reply
  23. Burroughston Broch says:

    JulianBene  The taxpayers paid APS taxes that went to BeltLine. BeltLine reneged on repaying APS per their agreement. You want the City (which owns and controls BeltLine) to take other City funds and repay APS on BeltLine’s behalf. The taxpayers will end up paying additional taxes to replenish the City’s coffers. Why should the taxpayers pay twice because of BeltLine mismanagement?Report

    Reply
  24. Burroughston Broch says:

    JSVH Burroughston Broch  APS was guaranteed a repayment schedule per the BeltLine agreement. The agreement is valid. It is not APS’ fault that BeltLine’s founders made a poor financial decision and didn’t manage their risk. They should be held accountable.
    At present, APS is not being paid and is bearing the cost of BeltLine mismanagement.Report

    Reply
  25. JSVH says:

    Burroughston Broch JSVH Agreed that is was a poor call by those that originally agreed to it. But as with many mortgages and other agreements made pre-housing-crash, its terms are just straight numerically impossible to be kept. APS has the same choice as many banks, see the deal (Beltline TAD) dissolved and they will collect less money or renegotiate.Report

    Reply
  26. Guest says:

    JSVH 
    Get your facts straight.
    The current, annual tax increment contribution from APS to the BeltLine TAD exceeds the City’s current, annual $6.75 million PILOT payment obligation back to APS – in other words, the BeltLine TAD has more than sufficient tax increment revenue from APS to make the PILOT payments back to APS.  The City has simply decided to fund the bloated bureaucracy of ABI, instead of meeting its contractual obligations to APS.Report

    Reply
  27. Guest says:

    The current, annual tax increment contribution from APS to the BeltLine
    TAD exceeds the City’s current, annual $6.75 million PILOT payment
    obligation back to APS – in other words, the BeltLine TAD has more than
    sufficient tax increment revenue from APS to make the PILOT payments
    back to APS.  The City has simply decided to fund the bloated
    bureaucracy of ABI, instead of meeting its contractual obligations to
    APS.Report

    Reply
  28. JSVH says:

    @Guest What is your source? When you want to talk about bloated consider this: The $6.75 million is barely more than 1 percent of the school system’s $600 million budget. By comparison, it’s nearly one-third of Atlanta Beltline Inc.’s $22 million annual budget (which is largely comprised of earmarked grants that cannot got to APS).Report

    Reply
  29. Guest says:

    JSVH 
    My source is the Tax Commissioner of Fulton County, Arthur Ferdinand, who collects the APS BeltLine TAD increment and sends it to the City/ADA.Report

    Reply
  30. JulianBene says:

    Burroughston Broch JulianBene The taxpayer would not pay twice.  Do you of all people pretend that all other city project spending has high public returns?  There’s spending that could be put on the table with no impact on the pubiic. 
    And alleging mismanagement is far from the same as demonstrating it.  The PILOT contract itself was an act of stupidity, but are the aspirations of younger residents for a more vibrant city to be put on hold because of mistakes of two administrations ago?Report

    Reply
  31. atlman says:

    People who oppose the Beltline either:
    A) do not want the city to become “gentrified” with too many white, high income voters who will elect leaders that will provide them adequate services instead of social welfare to the indigent population. That is why “APS advocates” are using an alleged funding crisis to cause the Beltline progress to grind to a halt
    B) despise the fact that a majority black city exists to elect a majority black government which in turn hires mostly blacks to staff high level, high paying positions. 
    So, the project is squeezed by the far left and the segregationist right. It is amazing that it has made as much progress as it has. Sadly, the only thing that will cause the Beltline to be properly funded would be Atlanta electing a white mayor. That would end B) even though all evidence points to the fact that a white mayor would run Atlanta in much the same way that Kasim Reed has.Report

    Reply
  32. atlman says:

    JSVH Burroughston Broch
    The same place that he gets everything else: his obsession with the fact that a black run city results in black people having more money and power than he does.Report

    Reply
  33. Burroughston Broch says:

    JSVH Burroughston Broch  My estimate of total cost, including vacations, holidays, taxes, insurance, pension, fringe benefits, etc. It includes all costs, not just payroll.Report

    Reply
  34. Burroughston Broch says:

    @atlman JSVH Burroughston Broch  atlman, where I was raised we called people like you trifling fools. Nobody is talking about race here except you. You want to throw down the race card every time anyone expresses an opinion not complimentary to the City of Atlanta. Play your game if you wish, but you are exposed for the charlatan you are. I wager you also call anyone who criticizes President Obama racist.
    The Beltline staff is multiracial, if you take time to look. Greed and stupidity know no color.
    I have plenty of money and can retire comfortably whenever I wish, so I envy no one’s wealth. I never wanted political power, so I don’t envy others having it.Report

    Reply
  35. JWK says:

    Let’s be clear, the residents and businesses along the Beltline will avail themselves of APS services very little. Most are millennials who have not yet had children and others are retirees who have paid their debt to public education. Cesar Mitchell is correct in trying to fashion a negotiated settlement…this is not a zero sum game. There will be plenty of sales tax revenue and property taxes paid along the Beltline IN TIME. Anyone with an opinion who has commented below and questioned “ABI bloated bureaucracy” needs to wake up and smell the coffee. Gentrification in the City of Atlanta has taken off since 1990. My guess is that 60% of property taxes has gone to APS and what have we gotten to show for it??? Can you rightfully say that service has gotten better?Report

    Reply
  36. Living the Dream says:

    Caesar, please, in writing, explain the origin and the re-payment (to APS) of the $25 million.  Wasn’t that money illegally withheld from APS during the period that the Superior Court declared using education dollars for the TAD unconstitutional (2005-2009)?  And that is the money that was paid back?
    If I buy a car from GMC and finance it through them… I’m obligated to repay the debt due to the contract….  Regardless of any personal opinions about the financier. 
    If the city wants to reopen negotiations with the investors, then they should reopen it with ALL investors… not just the largest investor.
    I feel that there remains good reason to disallow APS from investing in this (and probably any other) TAD.  Thus, the city, through their breach of contract, should simply let APS out of the contract, pay them the limited debt owed to date, and go develop the Beltline on their own.Report

    Reply
  37. JWK says:

    And if APS has extra cash “lying around” that they can finance any projects for the City of Atlanta, I would recommend that the citizen’s question the existing millage rate.Report

    Reply
  38. JSVH says:

    JWK APS is receiving more money from this deal than if the TAD never existed. So actually the Beltline is financing APS in this case. Also note that the APS mil rate (which it has full, independent control over) is much higher than the entire City of Atlanta’s mil rate.Report

    Reply
  39. JSVH says:

    Burroughston Broch That is your opinion. The court’s opinion is the only one that matters on the subject. Would you rather APS and CoA spend your tax dollars on lawyers to duke this out in court or come together on an agreement on which pocket the tax dollars come from as Mr Mitchell suggests?Report

    Reply
  40. Guest says:

    JSVH 
    Again, get your facts straight. APS
    is not “receiving more money from this deal than if the Beltline TAD never
    existed.”

    The
    current, annual tax increment contribution from APS to the BeltLine
    TAD exceeds the City’s current, annual $6.75 million PILOT payment
    obligation back to APS – in other words, the BeltLine TAD has more than
    sufficient tax increment revenue from APS to make the PILOT payments
    back to APS.
    According to your flawed understanding, the City should be seeking to simply terminate the APS financial participation in the BeltLine TAD.  The City is not seeking that, because, again,  the current, annual  APS contribution exceeds the City’s current, annual PILOT obligation. I am certain APS would leap at the opportunity to simply walk away from its BeltLine TAD financial participation altogether, if the City proposed same.

    Mr. Mitchell, why don’t you simply put forth a resolution calling for the complete termination of the APS financial participation in the BeltLine TAD?  This matter will then be resolved very quickly.Report

    Reply
  41. Guest says:

    JulianBene 
    You doubt the existence of mismanagement at ABI? 
    You remember the so-called “partnership” with Ben Raney and the Barry Real Estate Companies, and the Wayne Mason fiasco?
    You remember when:  Terry Montague was fired?  Brian Leary was fired?  Richard Lutch was fired?  
    All three were fired for mismanagement, yet they are only the tip of the ongoing ABI iceberg FUBAR.Report

    Reply
  42. JulianBene says:

    @Guest JulianBene Yes, I do challenge your facile attack on Beltline management.  Your examples are all from prior executive teams, so they’re irrelevant to current management.  Above all, you fail to acknowledge the incredibly positive impact of the Beltline trails so far. The financial support of big philanthropists and the Feds suggests they don’t share your jaundiced opinion. 
    I agree that giving Wayne Mason a $40mm profit now many years ago was disgraceful.  However, that was not Belltine management’s decision. The then Mayor, council and APS board rep ran the boards that OK’d that deal and they were none of them shy people.
    Without getting into name-calling with the handful of Beltline haters on here, APS occupies a rather large glasshouse from which it’s absurd to be throwing stones about mismanagement.Report

    Reply
  43. JWK says:

    As stated at the ribbon cutting event for the StreetCar, Mayor Kasim Reed just happened to mention 400 million in investment along the StreetCar and Beltline (soon to be StreetCar) route. I am not even sure that includes Ponce City Market since it is coming on line very shortly. Has anyone driven down North Ave. lately?
    APS is and may never be the “driver” behind 400 mil in investment in this City. In fact, in most discussions I would bet they are a roadblock.Report

    Reply
  44. SaportaReport says:

    UPDATE and a note to readers: Since this guest column was first published, Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell on Monday, Jan. 5 worked with council members and the Mayor’s office to modify his recommendation to set aside reserve funds for Beltline payments. -Updates can be found in the original columnReport

    Reply
  45. Please says:

    Burroughston Broch Such trolling. Recognizing the BeltLine as an important asset worthy of the city’s investment is in no way “throwing APS under the bus,” certainly not when the council has begun fashioning an offer APS is likely to take.Report

    Reply
  46. Equitable says:

    @atlman Really, do you have to devolve to a third grade race “analysis” to explain what’s going on here? Please take some time to re-read history and re-assess your understanding. You clearly haven’t been paying attention in class!Report

    Reply
  47. SaportaReport says:

    Thanks for the feedback Susanne Pesterfield. We are monitoring the conversation & we will continue to update the column as new comments are made.Report

    Reply

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