AJC WATCHDOG BRAVES MOVE

Memo: Stadium safety to be costly

Expenses for more emergency services expected to increase.

By Dan Klepal dan.klepal@ajc.com

The Atlanta Braves’ move to Cobb County will cost taxpayers there millions of dollars in upgrades to police, fire and emergency dispatch operations, according to a Jan. 3 memorandum written by the county’s public safety director, who has since resigned.

The expenses, which had never been acknowledged by the county’s political leadership, are laid out in a 10-page assessment written just three days before Jack Forsythe quit. In both that document and his resignation letter, Forsythe says Cobb’s biggest public safety challenge is fixing the police department’s chronically low staffing and inability to retain officers.

Other public safety needs identified by Forsythe in his assessment, done in anticipation of the Braves’ move, include a $4 million firehouse in the Cumberland area, $2 million worth

of enhanced emergency communication equipment at the ballpark and an undetermined number of new patrol cars at about $60,000 each.

Obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through the state’s Open Records Act, the document to County Manager David Hankerson makes clear that there will be more expenses to come as the county gets closer to opening the stadium.

“Other needs and requests will no doubt be identified as (the county) progresses,” the memo says.

Hankerson requested the assessment Nov. 14, the same day Commission Chairman Tim Lee announced that the county would contribute $300 million toward the stadium — an amount that swells to $537 million when 30 years of interest is tacked on. Taxpayers also must pay $35 million for 30 years of capital maintenance.

Asked in November about additional public safety costs that might come with the stadium, Lee responded that the Braves pay for most of the security on game days. He also said the county would have patrols around the stadium “like we do for every other development.” But there was no mention of the type of expenses identified by Forsythe, which could affect the county’s capital and operations budgets.

Critics of the deal complain that the commission should have taken more time to hear residents’ concerns about traffic congestion, public financing and associated costs such as those outlined by Forsythe.

Lance Lamberton, chairman of the Cobb Taxpayers Association, said he doesn’t think the quick vote was an accident.

“It’s really outrageous,” Lamberton said. “And it was also very deliberate. It was done to rush the deal through before we could ask questions about things like the issues Jack Forsythe is bringing up. What are the real costs? They avoided talking about them to make it more palatable.”

In a combative interview last week, Lee denied that he intentionally downplayed the ancillary costs and insinuated that Forsythe’s resignation discredits his evaluation of the public safety needs.

“You know that Jack Forsythe quit, right?” Lee said. “He quit. He is no longer here.

“We have plans to meet with the Atlanta Braves at the appropriate time. When those conversations happen, we will identify the needs and we will identify the solutions and we will implement those solutions.”

When pressed on specific items mentioned in the memo, Lee said: “I can’t speak to a list of proposed solutions when there have not been any issues identified.”

Two days later, Lee released a statement through a spokesman that says the county expects to generate $1.7 million a year in new property tax revenues from the Braves’ mixed-use development.

But that number assumes the team invests $400 million and does not seek property tax abatements.

“When adding a regional attraction, like a stadium, it is clearly expected there will be a need for increased public safety for 81 home games,” the statement says. “There is another 284 days each year that the entire county will benefit from this enhanced public safety presence.”

Forsythe started as the county’s top public safety official in January 2013 and said in an interview last week that he spent the first six months of his time in Cobb reviewing operations, staffing, specialty units and productivity in the county’s police, fire and emergency dispatch operations.

Soon after that review, and months before the Braves deal was announced, he began pressing Hankerson about the need for more officers, improved benefits, new facilities and better equipment, according to documents reviewed by the newspaper.

Forsythe resigned in frustration Jan. 6, writing that Hanker-son stonewalled his request for the management study: “Short of some catastrophic event, you ... will continue to deny or take no immediate action.” Hanker-son has denied stonewalling Forsythe.

In his assessment memo, Forsythe says the Braves relocation makes hiring new officers more critical than ever, and said benefits need to be enhanced starting this year.

“If retention issues are not corrected now, (we) will not have time to hire and train (officers) to fill current vacancies ... much less hire additional personnel that will no doubt be needed to handle the Braves,” the memo says.

Commissioner Lisa Cupid said any additional pressure on the county’s budget comes at a particularly bad time, as the county is still recovering from the recession. It was just two years ago that Lee led the charge for a 16 percent property tax rate hike to balance a $30 million budget deficit.

The commission slightly reduced taxes last year, and has committed to bringing rates down to 2010 levels over time.

Commissioners last week unanimously approved Fire Chief Sam Heaton as Forsythe’s replacement. Hankerson said in an interview last week that he has asked Heaton to review the Forsythe memo and come up with a plan to address public safety needs in relation to the Braves stadium.

Hankerson has acknowledged that he thinks there will be a need for more police officers because of the ballpark and development, and said in the interview that the fire station in Cumberland “will be moved up to a higher priority” because of the Braves.

“I’ve asked the public safety director and (Police Chief John) Hauser to evaluate everything Forsythe has given me and come forward with recommendations,” Hankerson said.

In Atlanta, the Braves pay most of the cost for game-day security, handling events with their own staff and by hiring off-duty police officers, said Carlos Campos, a spokesman for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. He did not know the city’s costs in terms of additional patrols on game days.

Mike Plant, the Braves executive vice president of business operations, said the team provides about 10 security personnel for every on-duty Atlanta police officer assigned to the area around Turner Field on game days. Plant said he thinks Forsythe’s evaluation is premature, calling it “a little bit negligent to create an environment three years in advance of us playing our first game (by saying) we need more security up here because of the Braves.”

J.C. Bradbury, a Kennesaw State University economist who has studied the financial impact of stadiums, said he won’t be surprised to hear additional costs of the ballpark trickle out over time.

“Of course, these costs are always there,” Bradbury said. “They’re never going to state openly all of the costs. Some of that is political and some of that is just the nature of the budget. They went out of their way to say there would be huge economic benefits with nothing to back that up. This is at the other end of the that.”