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Advisors: BeltLine leaders leaving us out of the loop
Atlanta’s BeltLine redevelopment project may be about to short an affordable housing fund by more than $9 million, a citizen oversight group says.
And, members of the citizen advisory committee contend, the BeltLine leadership isn’t sharing information early or often enough for them to know how well the $2.8 billion endeavor is proceeding.
At issue: The non-profit Atlanta BeltLine Inc. (ABI) plans to sell up to $165 million in bonds soon to pay off 2008 bonds, buy land and pursue other projects. City ordinance specifies that 15 percent of all bond proceeds should be set aside for affordable housing, but the BeltLine’s lawyers say that doesn’t apply to the $64 million needed to pay off last year’s bonds. The citizens’ group says the law doesn’t give the BeltLine the leeway to make that call.
If the BeltLine board’s view prevails, affordable housing would get about $9.5 million less from the upcoming bond sale.
The BeltLine’s 2009 bond plan also excludes a $1 million set-aside for public art and earmarks $3.3 million for small business economic incentives — but only if it is “available.” City ordinance requires funding for both programs from each BeltLine bond issue.
The BeltLine envisions development of parks, trails, transit and private projects along a 22-mile network of rail lines encircling the city’s center. City Council created the Tax Allocation District Advisory Committee (TADAC) to keep tabs on BeltLine activity and let the project’s leadership and the City Council know if they’re doing a good job.
TADAC members say they’re not getting enough information to make those judgments. The committee unanimously asked the City Council this month to step in and let it know how much stuff they’re entitled to know. Chairman Eugene Bowens’ cover letter put it this way:
“While we acknowledge improved cooperation and responsiveness from ABI in providing needed information to TADAC, the timeliness and completeness of such information continue to be a major concern. Truly effective community engagement and participation in the BeltLine will not be realized in the absence of full cooperation, transparency and the TADAC’s (i.e., the community’s) access to complete, accurate, and timely information.”
The BeltLine leadership gives TADAC access to information on publicly-funded projects, but nothing on plans that might be funded by foundations, non-profits or other sources. Private sources are envisioned for about $1.1 billion of the BeltLine’s projects.
As it stands, the BeltLine informs the advisory group how it plans to spend its money but not how those decisions are made. The citizens’ group wants to be at the table so it can observe when and how those decisions are made. In its letter to Council, the committee said:
“TADAC has repeatedly requested to be involved early in the process of ABI’s efforts to develop proposed uses of bond proceeds. What we have been provided is a list of proposed uses, without any explanation of what other proposed uses were rejected or intentionally delayed in deference to the proposed uses. … While the proposed uses may be sensible and many might support them, it is impossible to know if these are the best uses for the proposed bonds without consideration of what other options existed and how the trade-offs were made.”
For instance, the committee said, it’s not clear how much money the BeltLine is earmarking to advance transit portions of the project:
“Absent vibrant transit, the BeltLine will be a string of parks and trails but will not satisfy the vision of transit
connecting Atlanta’s neighborhoods and contributing to solving the region’s transportation problems.”
MARTA General Manager Beverly acknowledged last week that funding for BeltLine transit is not going to come from her agency, which is negotiating to oversee the transit portion of the BeltLine. MARTA, she said, has no cash to expand its rail lines.
“Unless there is new funding … we cannot afford one expansion project,” Scott told the Legislature’s MARTA Oversight Committee. “There is absolutely no expansion built into this program.”
Sen. Vincent Fort pointed out that a BeltLine without new transit would be a bit of a shock to Atlantans:
“That’s not how it’s been marketed.”