Georgia Supreme Court to hear arguments in challenge to financing for new Braves stadium

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ATLANTA — The Georgia Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Tuesday in an appeal of a lower court ruling on financing for the new Braves baseball stadium in Cobb County.

Three Cobb County residents opposed the authorization of the bonds, arguing the bonds required taxpayer approval. A Cobb County Superior Court judge in July validated the bonds, ruling that no public referendum was necessary.

The three residents — attorney T. Tucker Hobgood, Larry Savage and Richard Pellegrino — have appealed the judge's ruling to the Supreme Court.

The new stadium, which is to be built near the interchange of interstates 285 and 75 is to be a public-private partnership with an estimated cost of $622 million. The Cobb County Board of Commissioners in May approved the issuance of up to $397 million in bonds by the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority to fund the public share of building the new stadium.

The three residents argue that the judge's ruling validating the bonds was incorrect. Included in their arguments are claims that the agreement between the county and the authority is not a valid intergovernmental agreement, that the project improperly uses public tax revenue for a private facility and that the bonds can't be approved without a referendum.

"The power of local government bodies to bind their constituents to long-term debt without 'the assent of a majority of qualified voters' for a non-public project like this professional baseball stadium is at the heart of this case," Hobgood and another attorney wrote in a brief. "There are not only statutory prohibitions against 'any county, municipality, or political subdivision' incurring debt, bonded or not, without an election, but also a constitutional one."

Lawyers for the county and the authority argue that the judge was correct in validating the bonds because they "are secured by a pledge of payments under a valid intergovernmental contract, and neither the bonds nor the intergovernmental agreement payments constitute debt for purposes of the debt clause."

The lawyers for the county and authority also argue that the bonds and payment obligations in the agreement do not involve the use of public money to improve private property.

The Braves announced in November 2013 that they would be leaving Turner Field, near downtown Atlanta, for a new stadium to be built in Cobb County once their current lease expires. The team plans to begin playing in the new stadium for the 2017 season.

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