Atlanta City Council members Andre Dickens, left, and Felicia Moore discuss the city’s debt to the Atlanta Public Schools at the Buckhead Council of Neighborhood’s meeting.
Atlanta City Council members Andre Dickens, left, and Felicia Moore discuss the city’s debt to the Atlanta Public Schools at the Buckhead Council of Neighborhood’s meeting.

The Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods (BCN) voted last night, Jan. 8, to send a letter to Mayor Kasim Reed and Atlanta Public Schools (APS) urging them to resolve the ongoing dispute over debt owed to the Atlanta BeltLine.

The cash-strapped Beltline owes APS $13.5 million and Reed is currently leading negotiations with the system for repayment. APS has threatened to file suit against the city over the issue.

The multibillion dollar BeltLine project is primarily funded by a Tax Allocation District, or TAD, which uses a portion of property tax revenue that would otherwise be allocated to APS and Fulton County.

In return for reallocation of tax revenues for BeltLine development, the city agreed to make $162 million in fixed payments from the Beltline TAD to the school district in exchange for using a portion of property tax revenue for Beltline development.

Due to sluggish economic growth over the last several years, the Beltline is currently behind on a $6.75 million payment that was due in January 2014, and is set to owe an additional $6.75 million this month. Though the Beltline is operated by the nonprofit Atlanta Beltline Inc., the city manages the Beltline TAD.

Councilmember Andre Dickens told the BCN the original agreement between the city and APS was flawed due to the projected $3 billion expected in economic growth along the BeltLine that tanked once the global recession set in. Dickens, who also sits on the BeltLine board, said the agreement needed to be renegotiated to reflect the change in economic growth.

“APS students would have benefited from that $6.75 million owed last year,” Dickens said candidly. “There has been a standoff in negotiations but now parents have started calling, writing letters and putting pressure on the city to resolve this.”

An ordinance driven by City Council President Ceasar Mitchell directing the city’s chief financial officer to create an account to be funded by sales of city real estate assets and other funds to pay the debt was introduced at the Jan. 5 council meeting. That move has drawn the ire of the mayor, who charged that Mitchell is interfering in negotiations.

Councilmember Felicia Moore, who was also in attendance at the BCN meeting, said she understood parents’ frustration with the ongoing issue and spoke of her own.

“The mayor is negotiating, but we have no idea what is happening in those meetings,” Moore said, and cast doubt on whether the ordinance to pay the debit would get any traction.

“We would need a supermajority of the council – 10 council members – to vote in favor of the ordinance to overcome the mayor’s veto,” Moore said. “Most of the council does what the mayor wants, so I don’t think we’d get it.”

Councilmember Yolanda Adrean said the council was in the dark concerning all the facts about negotiations and even the original agreement made with APS. “We don’t have all the facts and cannot get them. We’ve been requesting information for months.”

BCN Chairman Tom Tidwell said he would draft the letter on behalf of the organization. “It’s this kind of disfunction that gives Atlanta a bad name,” he said.

The text of the letter is below:
Dear Mayor Reed and Board Chairman English,

I am writing on behalf of The Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods (BCN) to encourage each of you to resolve the current dispute over the Beltline payments as soon as possible. BCN represents 26 neighborhood associations encompassing most of Buckhead’s 80,000+ residents. We recognize the importance of a strong public school system as well as the economic vitality being created by the Beltline.

This dispute has been unfairly framed as a choice between students or economic development. This is a false choice, it is not a zero-sum game where one party wins at the expense of the other. The reality is that a strong vibrant city needs a strong vibrant public educational system, and a strong vibrant public educational system helps sustain and build a strong vibrant city. Both APS and the Beltline are critical to the continued growth and well-being of our city.

This can and should be a win-win situation for everyone involved, and the City of Atlanta and its residents need the two of you to find a way to make it happen and resolve this dispute as quickly as possible. There is a compromise to be had that benefits both parties, and it is incumbent upon each of you, as the elected leaders, to find that compromise.

At a time when the economy is starting to improve, we should be sending a positive message to our current citizens and our potential future citizens that Atlanta is the place to be. Two of Atlanta’s strongest selling points are a public educational system that is on the rise and a vibrant intown development around the Beltline.

APS is beginning to recover from a devastating cheating scandal. They hired a dynamic superintendent who is working hard to turn APS around and get it moving in a positive direction. We are concerned that this dispute will hamper those efforts.

We are also concerned that this dispute could disparage an urban redevelopment project that has distinguished itself on a national scale. If this dispute escalates into a national story, it could have negative and embarrassing consequences for Atlanta’s national image. The CEO in Dallas and the convention planner in Seattle don’t care whose fault it is or who’s right or wrong.

All they remember is that Atlanta is still dysfunctional, and maybe its not the place they want to relocate their company or plan their next convention. We simply cannot allow this to happen. Atlanta needs your focused attention.

We call upon both of you to set aside a significant block of time (perhaps 4 hours) in the very near future to meet in person and work this out. You are both smart and experienced leaders, and the issues are not that complicated. However, nothing can be resolved unless and until you are talking to each other.

There are so many more pressing issues facing the City and APS that neither of you should allow this dispute to distract you from performing the duties you were elected to do. It is time to set aside legal arguments about who may be right or wrong. It is time to set aside public accusations and reprisals, posturing and political maneuvering. These accomplish nothing. They do not advance the ball towards a resolution. To the contrary, they may push the parties apart.

The only thing that matters to our members, and probably most of Atlanta’s citizens, is that you resolve this matter as quickly as possible. If we can be of any assistance, please do not hesitate to call on us.

Thomas G. Tidwell
Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

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