ATLANTA — A deal for hundreds of millions of dollars in public money to draw the Atlanta Braves north of their downtown home is pitting conservative tea party activists against the elected and civic leaders in the staunch Republican county, with opponents saying the use of public money to help a private business is not what American capitalism should be about.
The argument for the deal is simple, says Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee and other supporters. Almost $400 million in county bonds and immediate infrastructure improvements, with debt payments approaching $600 million over 30 years – will generate enough economic activity and, thus, tax revenue to justify the spending.
“This is a home run for Cobb County,” Lee said on the eve of the commission’s 4-1 vote, “and I’m confident the people of Cobb will come to understand that.”
Nonsense, says Atlanta Tea Party Leader Debbie Dooley, whose group has a Cobb chapter.
It's all “appalling hypocrisy” and “arrogance,” Dooley explained, particularly from the four Republican commissioners who pitch their conservative credentials and champion the idea of a free market. Dooley and other tea partiers typically associate active, expensive government with Democrats, but it was the commission’s lone Democrat who cast the only dissenting vote.
Citizens’ groups have blasted both the financing arrangement and the secretive manner in which it came about, with commissioners approving a deal in late November, just weeks after Lee and Braves executives announced a plan they’d hammered out in private.
The coalition members say they’re exploring a range of legal options.
The Braves deal, Dooley said, is elected politicians steering money to favored businesses. “The government is not supposed to pick winners and losers,” she said. “This is anything but free-market.”
Many Cobb business leaders back the plan, and they were vocal at the series of hastily arranged town hall meetings around the county before the commission approved the deal Nov. 26.
Supporters wore T-shirts paid for by Cobb business owners. They read: “Come to Cobb: Home of the Braves.” The spirited residents waved foam tomahawks that have become a staple at Turner Field, the downtown stadium the Braves plan to abandon at the end of the 2016 season.
Atlanta’s Democratic Mayor Kasim Reed, meanwhile, has reacted to the shock of losing the Braves with not-so-veiled barbs at his Republicans neighbors.
“We can’t spend money that liberally in the city of Atlanta,” he said. “We are fiscal conservatives here.”
Reed recently committed at least $200 million in public bonds for a new retractable-roof stadium for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons. But he nonetheless highlights the curious politics at play in the more conservative suburbs.
The Braves deal calls for a $672 million, publicly owned stadium that would open in 2017 about 10 miles northwest of downtown. Separately, the team would finance a commercial development around the ballpark.
By Lee’s explanation, taxpayer’s share is $300 million, though the details are debatable.
Cobb County would spend $24 million on initial infrastructure improvements and sell $276 million in bonds for construction. The county’s annual debt payments would be $17.9 million over 30 years, totaling $537 million. The payment would come from $8.67 million in existing property taxes that now pay off debt for park projects. The rest would come from lodging taxes, a rental car tax and levies on businesses in a special commercial district around the stadium site.
The Braves’ initial contribution would be $280 million. The remaining $92 million would come from debt that the county says belongs to the team, bringing the Braves’ share to $372 million, or 55 percent of the total. But that $92 million would also come from public bonds beyond the county's $276 million, and it would require additional debt payments of $6.1 million. That would be covered partly by the team's $3 million annual stadium rent payment to the county and $1.5 million in money from a corporate sponsor that would pay the team for naming rights for the publicly owned stadium.
Construction estimates do not include maintenance and capital improvements at the stadium. The county has agreed to split those costs over the 30-year agreement, though neither party has released detailed numbers for those expenses.
Dooley says all the variables make clear that the public cost is well beyond the $300 million figure that Lee emphasizes.
The coalition of opponents initially asked commissioners to postpone the Nov. 26 vote for a memorandum of understanding between the county and the team. Pellegrino says the next step is submitting a detailed list of questions that the MOU outline hasn’t yet answered.
There’s also the possibility of legal challenges for various components of the financing deal, including the plan to redirect existing property tax revenues to pay off stadium debt. Then, Dooley says, there’s the task of going after the commissioners’ jobs, first through recall petitions and, if that fails, when they’re up for re-election.
“This is not over,” Dooley said, “not by a long shot.”