The Atlanta City Council’s controversial legislation funding a new public safety training center repeats errors about green space, leaves unanswered questions about the center’s features, and has elements that may run afoul of two state laws — one on spending and another attempting to limit the facility’s size.
Key City officials did not respond to questions about any of those issues, including the City press office; District 9 Councilmember Dustin Hillis, who chairs the Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee; and District 2 Councilmember Amir Farokhi, who introduced several amendments aimed at appeasing opponents of the controversial plan.
Public spending remains at the center of the controversy, as unvetted official claims that taxpayers would fund only $30 million of a supposed $90 million budget have already proven untrue.
The council drew fury with its June 6 approval of up to $67 million in various forms of public funding, but as the Atlanta Community Press Collective has reported, there are signs that more public funds will be sought, and nothing is stopping that from happening.
Some elements of the plan remain secret or unexplained, including budgets. That includes funding for a fully functional fire station whose plan was first revealed by SaportaReport. There are also promises of publicly accessible green space both in and around the training center site, whose funding and operations remain unclear.
The green space remains another core problem. The council’s spending ordinance repeats a calculation of it that is incorrect and impossible. Taking language from the council-approved 2021 lease agreement with the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) for the site, the new ordinance says the training center is to be approximately 85 acres and to preserve another 265 acres as green space.
However, as SaportaReport previously revealed, that green space isn’t feasible — the entire leased site is only 296.024 acres. To meet the 265-acre requirement, APF and the City appear to be counting other nearby properties that are not part of the lease. This means it is impossible to know what specific property the council, City and APF are talking about, let alone what its operating and maintenance budget would be.
As part of seeming concessions to the Defend the Atlanta Forest protests, the new ordinance contains language promising to permanently limit the training center’s size. It says that “development on site will always be limited to the 85 acres assigned for development and will never encroach on the 265 acres dedicated to preserved and publicly accessible greenspace.”
Aside from the fundamental math problem with the green space — and the fact that the training center is already approved for nearly 87 acres — that provision may be unenforceable. State law prohibits city councils from making decisions that “bind” or prevent new and contrary decision-making by itself or future councils. For example, a future Atlanta City Council might decide that the City needs a bigger public safety training center or want to create some other development next to it.
The state law against “binding” contains several exceptions, but it was not immediately clear if or how any would apply. Among the questions unanswered by City officials is what advice, if any, the City Department of Law provided to the council about the attempt to limit the training center’s size. Rusi Patel, an attorney who serves as general counsel to the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA), said more information would be needed for a legal interpretation.
“We would not be able to speak to this particular action because we do not know how they are planning on structuring this purported restriction,” said Patel. He said it is “correct that there is a general rule and there are exceptions, but we are not in a position to know what exceptions may or may not apply in this scenario.”
Another potential legal issue relates to the use of $1 million in development impact fees to pay for a training center gym — one of the funding sources approved in the ordinance. Impact fees are collected from developers of large projects and are spent on infrastructure improvements. The issue is that impact fees generally must be spent within a government’s jurisdiction, while the training center is in the unusual situation of being a property owned by the City but sitting outside its borders in unincorporated DeKalb County.
The state law that authorizes impact fees says they can be expended only “in the service area for which the development impact fee was imposed…” The City of Atlanta’s impact fee ordinance defines the “service area” for public safety uses “to be the entire territory included within the corporate limits of the city.”
Both of those definitions also rely on definitions in the City’s Comprehensive Development Plan and the City’s 2021 impact fee study, which likewise define public safety service areas as “citywide.” The impact fee study does include a public safety training center as a possible recipient without specifying a location. But maps used in the study to illustrate fee collection and service areas show only land that is incorporated as part of the City, not other City-owned land.
So how can the City spend impact fees on a training center outside its city limits?
“You raise interesting and important questions,” said Julian C. Juergensmeyer, a professor emeritus at the Georgia State University College of Law who played a role in developing early impact fee regulations and wrote two books on the subject. However, he declined to comment on the training center situation because he served as a consultant on the City’s impact fee programs.
Patel, the attorney at GMA, said the plain language of the law and local ordinance could be affected by other rules and cases, depending on specifics. “So, again, while there is a general rule, there are also exceptions, and we are not in a position to know what exceptions might apply in this particular scenario,” he said.
Patel noted that state regulations on impact fees use a “service area” definition that “does seem to leave local discretion to some extent.” Again, though, the Atlanta ordinance defines that as within corporate limits.
He also noted that the state law on impact fees allows different governments to enter into agreements for the mutual collection and expenditure of impact fees. A 2002 Georgia Court of Appeals case related to Cherokee County’s impact fees and, among other issues, confirmed the County could not collect fees in incorporated areas but could enter into intergovernmental agreements about them. The training center ordinance did not refer to any agreement with DeKalb County. Nor does a “memorandum of understanding” between the City and the County signed privately earlier this year by Mayor Andre Dickens and County CEO Michael Thurmond as part of an attempt to soften the impact of the training center’s initial permit being issued.
As with the issue of the state law against “binding” future councils, City officials did not respond to questions about what advice the Department of Law may have given regarding impact fees.
Yet another unanswered question in the new ordinance is where police facilities involving helicopters and explosives will go. Both of those were controversial potential uses of the training center, and explosives testing or disposal has occurred at existing police facilities near the site.
In late 2021, APF and the Atlanta Police Department announced that the explosives facility would move elsewhere but have never responded to questions about where the new location will be. That could be yet another cost as well. The new ordinance only “recommits” the City to prohibiting explosives and “helicopter activities” at the new training center site.