An illustration of the planned Atlanta public safety training center. (Atlanta Police Foundation)

The Atlanta City Council could vote as soon as June 5 to allocate $30 million for the construction of the public safety training center in the South River Forest.

The council’s Finance/Executive Committee on May 24 approved contributing $30 million toward the facility. Another $1 million was approved to build a gymnasium.

The vote was 5-1. Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari voted against the proposed funding and Councilmember Jason Winston abstained. Voting in favor were Councilmembers Alex Wan, committee chair; Marci Collier Overstreet; Dustin Hillis; Howard Shook; and Matt Westmoreland.

The legislation is expected to come before the full council at its next meeting on June 5.

The $30 million is the city’s portion of a 2021 lease agreement with the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) to build the $90 million public safety training center. The APF is responsible for raising the remaining $60 million.

The committee’s approval of the funding was another disappointment for activists who continue to show up at City Hall and urge the council to stop the project they call “Cop City.”

At the May 15 City Council meeting, hundreds of people spoke for more than seven hours against the training center.

At the Finance/Executive Committee meeting, dozens more reiterated arguments against the project, including that the training center would lead to a more militarized police force. Building the facility on land in the South River Forest would also destroy an important natural area in near majority Black neighborhoods.

The millions of dollars could be better spent addressing the city’s homeless, funding more mental health services, building needed infrastructure and feeding the hungry, they said.

“Let’s be clear, there will be political responsibilities that you all will bear,” said Devin Barrington-Ward. “There will be consequences. And so you all just have to ask the question … what side of history you want to land on.”

Dozens of Atlanta Police Department officers were standing in the City Hall atrium during the meeting. Several rows of seats in the meeting chamber were designated reserved for APD representatives, but were empty. Some speaking out against the training center asked committee members if the police presence was meant to intimidate.

Wan said the reserved seats was not set up by the committee and invited people to sit in them because they were not being used.

Nate Bailey, president of Atlanta Professional Firefighters, was the only person to speak in favor of the training center that would be for the police and fire departments.

“Our citizens and visitors deserve the very best fire department and to be the best we must have a world class training center,” he said. “Right now we have over 200 firefighter vacancies that we can’t fill because we don’t have classroom space. That costs the citizens $12 million in overtime.”

What the $90 million is being used for and questions about Atlanta Police Foundation transparency

The training center is being built on 85 acres of land in the South River Forest near the Old Atlanta Prison Farm. The project includes preserving 265 acres of forest as public greenspace.

Chief Financial Officer Mohamed Balla explained to committee members how the $90 million is being divided up: site improvements will cost about $23.8 million; building construction is $50.2 million; furniture, fixtures and equipment costs are $9.7 million; and soft costs, such as engineering and design, are $6.3 million.

All this money is being managed by the Atlanta Police Foundation and if there are higher costs, those costs will be covered by the APF, Balla said.

Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari cast the lone “no” vote to fund the Atlanta public safety training center at the May 24 Finance/Executive Committee meeting. (Screen capture Channel 26)

The city is the owner of the training center while the APF is a funding mechanism for the project, Balla said.

The APF is raising $33.4 million in donations and this money will be “the catalyst” for the organization to take out a $20.8 million loan and $5 million in New Market Tax Credits, he said.

“The city’s commitment right now is the funding that’s in front of you,” he said of the legislation for the $31 allocation.

The APF does hold the contracts for construction of the facility. So the city’s $31 million would be paid to the APF, who would then pay Brasfield & Gorrie, contractor for the project, Balla said.

Wan and Bakhtiari raised questions about the transparency of the Atlanta Police Foundation, a powerful nonprofit whose board members include some of the city’s top corporate leaders.

“We have relationships with other nonprofit groups, for example the Piedmont Park Conservancy or even the Center for Civil and Human Rights, where the city has invested a significant amount of resources in both time and financial,” Wan said.

“But at the same time, we also have emeritus positions on their boards to make sure that there is transparency, accountability,” he said. “We’re elected here and we are answerable, as you’ve seen today, to the people.”

Bakhtiari, who is outspoken in her opposition to the public safety training center, has pushed for the Atlanta Police Foundation to provide quarterly reports to the City Council. As a nonprofit, the APF is able to skirt the Georgia Open Records Act, she said. Bakhtiari agreed with Wan that a representative from the city needs to be on the APF board to ensure accountability.

Bakhtiari said residents in her district are concerned about APF representatives’ their views on policing because “right now [they] are a lot of corporations that are not accessible to the public,” Bakhtiari said.

Bakhtiari also said for the past few weeks, months and years, the city has “heard a lot of pain” from residents speaking out against the training center.

“Democracy is an incredibly fragile thing and when I hear the community say that they feel helpless, it worries me,” Bakhtiari said. “Because when people feel helpless they take law and order and life into their own hands. And the very thing we claim to want to prevent, we create.”

Resolution asks City Council to support $100 million “transformation” of South River Forest

At the end of the meeting, Bakhtiari introduced a resolution “committing the city of Atlanta to help fulfill a $100 million transformation of the South River Forest.”

The resolution cites the Atlanta Regional Commission’s recent “Explore South River Forest” recommendations to connect over 3,000 acres of disconnected urban forest together. The Atlanta City Design plan approved in 2017 by the City Council included a vision of a 3,500-acre South River Forest conservation corridor.

Councilmembers Jason Dozier and Matt Westmoreland are co-sponsors.

“The significance is walking this in was to show that while we have done less than an admirable job of messaging around the facility and have a lot of constituents that are in pain, the point is to show that the conversation is not done,” Bakhtiari said.

“We have trust we need to earn back and we need to show investment in this community outside of just putting in the facility,” Bakhtiari said. “We also need to use this as an opportunity to jumpstart the visioning that has been proposed for decades.”

The resolution does not say the Atlanta will invest $100 million, but that the city will work with DeKalb County to identify funding sources. It also requests an implementation plan be completed by Dec. 1 to fund reforestation, removal of invasive species, fixing wastewater issues and other efforts to clean the South River.

“Most importantly, this is to continue the conversation and make sure that it does not end on June 5,” Bakhtiari said.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.