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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Timothy Pratt in Atlanta

Real cost of ‘Cop City’ under question after Atlanta approves $67m for project

Protesters reacts before the council members voted to approve legislation to fund Cop City in Atlanta, Georgia, on 6 June.
Protesters reacts before the council members voted to approve legislation to fund Cop City in Atlanta, Georgia, on Tuesday. Photograph: Jason Getz/AP

Questions remain about the real cost of the giant police and fire department training center known as “Cop City” after the Atlanta city council’s approval of millions of dollars for the project in a process that opponents have called “anti-democratic”.

The 11-4 vote in favor of giving $67m to the project on Tuesday morning came on the heels of 14 hours of public comment against the idea. It played out as city policies made public participation in the council meeting more difficult, and after several council members decided to reject postponing a decision on the money, apparently because they were tired of facing public questioning.

These were only the latest in a series of developments highlighting the project’s lack of transparency, including the recent revelation that it will cost taxpayers more than twice what the city has said for nearly two years.

Cop City came to global attention after police shot dead Manuel Paez Terán, an environmental protester, in a raid on the forest and its defenders on 18 January – the first incident of its kind in US history. The state says Paez Terán shot first; the case is with a special prosecutor.

Paez Terán, also known as “Tortuguita”, was one of dozens who had occupied a public park in the forest near where the training center is planned, to protest against the project. The so-called “forest defenders” were perhaps the most visible part of a broad-based movement against Cop City that has only grown in the nearly two years since the city council approved it in September 2021.

At the time, Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, announced that the center would cost taxpayers $30m, paid in a one-time sum or in a $1m-a-year “leaseback” arrangement over 30 years.

But on 24 May, the Atlanta Community Press Collective – a project formed as a watchdog over Cop City – reported the city was actually planning on doing both. The city owns land in the forest where the center is planned, including the 171-acre footprint where it will be built. Nonetheless, it will now pay $30m plus $1.2m a year during 30 years to the Atlanta Police Foundation, the organization behind the project – putting the total estimated cost to the city at $67m. It remains unclear what the project’s “second phase” will cost – including a 911 call center and a park – and who will pay for it.

Council member Liliana Bakhtiari – whose district is closest to the South River forest site and was one of four who voted against the funding – said: “We were told the entire time the cost would be $30m … and it was always painted as either/or” – referring to the lump sum and leaseback arrangements.

Bakhtiari said she “came to find out that [the leaseback] was buried in amendments” to the 2021 agreement.

“This is what makes me upset – it didn’t say the real amount, the details involved,” Bakhtiari said.

Meanwhile, Tim Franzen, with the American Friends Service Committee in Atlanta, worked with the city for weeks to ensure the unprecedented number of attendees at a city council meeting could enter the building, bring food and drinks, leave if needed, and sign up for public comment.

Instead, doors to city hall opened two hours later than usual, police didn’t allow food or drink inside the building and kept people waiting outside for hours. The city also only provided one sign-up sheet for hundreds of people, ensuring that some were left out.

“So much about what happened seemed so anti-democratic,” said Franzen, who was later able to resolve most of the issues after meetings with council members.

In the end 357 people signed up to make public comment. Speakers gave first-hand accounts of police brutality, laid out arguments about the forest’s importance to Atlanta amid climate change and expressed alarm over the state’s recent arrests of legal fund organizers. In the pre-dawn hours, several rounds of “Let them speak” chants resulted in dozens more being allowed to address the council.

On Monday night Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr, tweeted: “How can any Atlanta City Council member vote ‘YES’ on Cop City funding and live with their conscience after hearing today’s Public Comments, many of which were passionate, love-centered, powerful, and inspiring?”

Nonetheless, more than nine hours later, shortly after 5am on Tuesday, the council voted down a proposal to send the issue back to committee to get clarity on questions such as cost. Franzen said he heard from several council members that they rejected the measure because they didn’t want to face another record-breaking onslaught of their constituents.

Minutes later, at 5.22, the council voted 11-4 to approve the funding.

Notably, the 14 hours of public comment against the project and an 11-4 vote in favor of it are nearly identical to those of the council meeting when the plan was approved two years ago. At that time, most of 17 hours of recorded public comment opposed the project and the vote in favor was 10-4.

“It’s as if the needle didn’t move with the city council and the mayor since then,” Franzen said. “Even though the needle has moved in a huge way in terms of public opinion. But it’s as if they don’t acknowledge it, or see it.”

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