The Metro Atlanta area has been a hotbed of stadium-related news over the last 18 months. While the Falcons dominated the conversation for most of 2013, the Braves came on strong with its announcement that the team would be moving to Cobb County. The total budget for the stadium is $672 million, of which $300 million will be contributed by Cobb County and the Cumberland Community Improvement District.
Common Cause Georgia does not oppose the Braves moving to Cobb County, or even Cobb County using public funds to build a stadium. What we do oppose is using such a substantial amount of public money without significant public engagement. When a request for a public referendum was rebuffed, Common Cause Georgia called on the Cobb Board of Commissioners (BOC) to publish a communications plan for reporting to citizens on the county’s involvement in the stadium.
To the BOC’s credit, Commission Chairman Tim Lee announced that a communications plan will be unveiled in mid-January 2014. In addition, the Cobb County web site is now populated with FAQs, the Transportation Plan and an economic analysis. At first blush, that seems pretty responsive.
But as sports commentator Lee Corso says, “Not so fast, my friend.” What the county has published so far raises more questions than answers. And for transparency warriors like Common Cause Georgia, that’s not good.
Take the economic study posted on the Cobb County web site, for example. Titled “Summary of the Economic and Fiscal Benefits of a MLB (Major League Baseball) Team and New Ballpark to Cobb County,” this study appears to be the only financial analysis considered by the BOC. That seems to be a reasonable assumption: Cobb County makes no reference to any other quantitative work done or used, and it’s the sole analysis posted on the site.
After reading the study and Cobb’s web site postings, here are just a couple of areas where citizens need some good answers:
The Economic Analysis and Due Diligence. The analysis was prepared by Brailsford & Dunlavey and commissioned by the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, the latter of which openly promoted the stadium project. As an aside, the AJC’s Truth-O-Meter referred to the work as “a flawed study commissioned by stadium boosters.” The analysis does not offer details or explanations behind assumptions used in coming up with the numbers. Not providing the needed rationale for the assumptions is what you would do if you want to avoid difficult questions, and that’s not the best impression to leave.
Did the Cobb BOC have an independent expert not paid for by a booster examine the analysis and opine on the results? Citizens have a right to know if this common-sense due diligence step was taken or not
Fiscal Benefits – Are All Costs Included? The study highlights the ongoing fiscal benefits to Cobb County from the stadium and associated development. But the study itself makes no reference to new capital expenditures or increased spending by the county – only the benefits, not the county’s costs, are included. In the web site FAQS, Cobb states that on an annual basis a “$10 million return from ballpark operations and taxes on an investment of $8.67 million produces a positive projected return on investment of 15%.” But Cobb acknowledges in the FAQs that there will be extra costs beyond the $8.67 million in redirected property taxes – more police, for example — but they haven’t figured out how much yet. Are there more outlays ahead that haven’t been baked into the calculation?
The Proposed Cobb Stadium – Cobb Transportation Plan on the Cobb web site addresses existing public transit and road projects already in process or planned. The Five-Year Cobb Transportation Plan is due to be completed in Spring 2014 and the long-range plan is scheduled for later in the year. Will Cobb County identify incremental expenditures associated with the new stadium and include those in the ROI calculation? That would only be fair: The county would not have made those outlays if the Braves weren’t coming to Cobb.
One of the FAQs says that the return on investment (ROI) using a “conservative calculation” produces “a positive return for the county.” Sure, many projects will look good if you don’t include all the costs. And it’s not helpful to say that there’s a positive return: Cobb didn’t indicate whether the BOC looked at alternative ways to spend the money that could have created more bang for the buck. If all options were considered and the stadium was the best one, that’s fine. Was that what was done?
There are other questions. How will the BOC track and validate hiring numbers and revenues that have been trumpeted in Cobb’s official messages? Being able to measure results is essential for knowing if we’ve succeeded or failed. And why hasn’t a timeline of major milestones and deliverables been published? Hopefully that will be in the Cobb’s communications plan produced in January.
Common Cause Georgia board members who live in Cobb County will continue to talk with the BOC about comprehensive communications with citizens. Again, we don’t oppose the stadium or the use of public funds. Cobb residents need real information and genuine transparency, something they haven’t had so far.
If I were grading the Cobb BOC on transparency, I would be generous (I’m an easy grader) and give it an “Incomplete” at this stage. But in the margin of the report card I’d write, “You clearly did not understand the assignment. Try again from the start.” Or we could stick with a baseball analogy and say they’ve struck out in their first at bat, but it’s still early in the game.