City Council Approves $2.3 Million of Park Maintenance Fees to Be Paid From Tree Trust Fund 

Despite objections from the tree community to stop raiding the Tree Trust Fund (TTF) for expenses that don't contribute to replacing trees, Atlanta City Council went ahead and voted 12-3 on May 4, 2020 to approve maintenance Ordinance 20-O-2016 which charged $2.3 million of maintenance fees for the Lake Charlotte forested land purchase to the TTF, even though the maintenance budget includes a number of capital expenses that shouldn't be paid for by the TTF.

20-o-1216 full city council vote

"Section 8" Amendment Added to Ordinance

Before the vote took place, Council member Natalyn Archibong proposed a "Section 8" amendment to the ordinance that read:

"Pursuant to Section 158-66(b)(2) of the City of Atlanta Code of Ordinances, any and all future uses of the Tree Trust Fund for maintenance plans of any new properties must be evaluated on a case by case basis and receive Council authorization prior to use and disbursement of the funds."

Council member Joyce Sheperd felt Archibong's proposed amendment was redundant with what is already stated in Section 7 of the maintenance ordinance which states: "Additional requests for use of funds from the Tree Trust Fund for the maintenance of the property will require authorizing legislation." City of Atlanta lawyer Jonathan Futrell explained that the amendment did not restate Section 7 but reiterated the language that is already in Section 158-66 of the Atlanta Tree Protection Ordinance. Council member Carla Smith said that while she supported Archibong's amendment, she felt this amendment might raise questions as to whether City Council was following appropriate procedures in passing this maintenance ordinance.

"I don't want the public to think that this wasn't already on the books," Smith said.

Even though it was clarified that they were passing an amendment that, in essence, restated the law, City Council voted 15-0 to pass the amendment.

What the City Council Members Said

Against the Maintenance Ordinance:

J.P. Matzigkeit and Dustin Hillis were the only two council members who spoke out against passing the maintenance ordinance. Council member Howard Shook voted against the ordinance but did not participate in the discussion.

"We need more time to have a more wholesome discussion around what really should be included in the maintenance costs," Matzigkeit said, alluding to a paper he said he would be presenting which would limit what could be spent on maintenance from the Tree Trust Fund on future land purchases. Matzigkeit reminded City Council that "the only way this money got into this account to begin with is because people have cut down trees and we need to replace those trees; we need to preserve more trees. We have to be vigilant that the dollars that are in this fund are spent very, very focused to preserve and replenish our trees."

Dustin Hillis said he felt that the discussion on the maintenance ordinance had not included whether we should be funding this maintenance ordinance 100% from the TTF. While Hillis expressed support for the maintenance plan "in principle", he made it clear that "what I wholeheartedly do not support is spending another $2.3 million from the Tree Trust Fund on top of the over half million we've already authorized on the previous legislation for things outside of the acquisition." Also, Hillis noted that a five year maintenance plan paid for by the TTF was "unsustainable financially."

For the Maintenance Ordinance:

Council members Jennifer Ide, Antonio Brown, Michael Julian Bond, and Natalyn Archibong all expressed concern that TTF money was being spent on maintenance items that should not be paid from the TTF, but went ahead and approved the ordinance anyway.

Ide, however, seemed confused about what is actually stated in the Atlanta Tree Protection Ordinance (TPO). She felt that public concern over the Lake Charlotte maintenance ordinance amounted to "conflating what may have happened in the past with our Tree Trust Fund."

"I don't know whether [the Tree Trust Fund] has been used for maintenance in the past or just general Parks' operations when it shouldn't have been," Ide said. But she then tried to make the argument that the TPO allows for all maintenance expenses to be charged to the Tree Trust Fund during land acquisition, especially if the Parks and Recreation Department isn't prepared to pay for it.

"Specifically this legislation not only allows for it," Ide explained, "but it anticipates [her emphasis] that we may use Tree Trust Fund money for initial maintenance for these acquisitions that likely wouldn't go through without having some initial maintenance attached to it, because  -- particularly for this property that is such a large and unique piece of property  -- it's not something that the Parks and Recreation budget could accommodate."

But nothing in the TPO suggests that Ide's claim is remotely true, Section 158-66 of the TPO makes it clear that maintenance dollars allocated to the TTF is for maintenance of "trees and other forest resources", not a porta potty with weekly service for the next five years. Additionally, if Ide believes that the TPO makes an exception for using TTF money for "initial maintenance" of forested land acquisitions, why did she approve a maintenance budget that charges the TTF for Parks' Department expenses for the next five years?

Brown readily acknowledged that the $150K in capital and staffing expenses in the maintenance ordinance "should be incorporated within the specific department budgets so it doesn't take away from replenishing the canopy." And Bond suggested "that at some point someone introduce legislation that just calls for these costs that are in question to be repaid to the Tree Trust Fund over some period of time from the Parks Improvement Fund." (Bond has introduced that legislation since the meeting.)

Archibong said that she confirmed with the City Law Department that it is legal to be using the TTF for maintenance needs, which is true, but apparently the Law Department did not specify that the maintenance expenses paid from the TTF need to be for maintaining trees, not trucks, gators, equipment, phone service, and porta potties. Also, Archibong said she sought more clarification on what was a tree maintenance expense versus a Parks' expense, and could not get a good answer on that.

Archibong said that she learned in conversations with Trees Atlanta and the Conservation Fund that some amenities, like a parking lot, were required for volunteers to park on site, and that not to allow TTF money to be spent to create a parking lot was "short-sighted". Archibong explained that she had been told that these amenities were needed to help recruit community volunteers to maintain the land in the future, so she was now calling these amenities "collateral" to maintenance.

Archibong finally asked why the Department of City Planning has not been engaged in vetting this maintenance ordinance. "I have been struck by the fact that I've spoken with Parks; I've spoken with Law; I've spoken with our outside partners; but I've heard virtually nothing and have seen nothing from our Planning Department, and these funds sit in Planning. To me, that is an omission."

Cleta Winslow, Carla Smith, and Joyce Shepherd expressed no reservations with using TTF money for maintenance expenses not allowed by the TTF. Winslow noted that these expenses needed to be paid by the TTF for the Lake Charlotte acquisition because the property did not have a conservancy to support its maintenance costs, like Piedmont Park does.  Smith was so enamored by the price of the land that it didn't make sense to her to quibble over where the maintenance costs were being allocated.

"Ya'll, this is a steal!" Smith exclaimed, pointing out that the land cost was around $23K an acre. She indicated that TTF money was needed to compensate for the likely shortfall that would occur in the Parks and Recreation budget after it was cut due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Shepherd made an impassioned plea that it was important to purchase and maintain this property, particularly for the economic development for the south side of Atlanta, but she did not address that the maintenance ordinance violates the tree ordinance. She felt that using the TTF money for Parks' expenses was justified because there was no funding anywhere else to cover 216 acres of maintenance.

Did Not Speak:

Council members Andrea Boone, Amir Farokhi, Marcia Overstreet, Andre Dickens, and Matt Westmoreland did not speak during the more than hour-long discussion that took place before the vote. It was a surprise that Westmoreland chose not to speak at all given that he is Chair of the Community Development and Human Services Committee that was responsible for reviewing and passing this ordinance before sending it to City Council.

Where Does This Leave the TTF?

City of Atlanta CFO Roosevelt Council said that at the end of March 2020 there was $11.9 million in TTF. With the passage of both Lake Charlotte ordinances, there is now $4.6 million left in the TTF. However, it is unclear how much of the $11.9 million is actually available and not already allocated to other commitments. Over its year-long TTF investigation, in which over 50 Open Record Requests were submitted, The Tree Next Door (TTND) was unable to obtain exactly how much was in the TTF free and clear, with no encumbrances. Instead, TTND received multiple contradictory and confusing TTF balances, which ranged from $9 to $16 million.

The two ordinances associated with the Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve acquisition have the following costs allocated to the TTF:

The passage of both ordinances have removed $7.6 million from the TTF. While some of these maintenance expenses are spread across the next five years, this maintenance budget allocation means we only have $4.3 left free and clear in the TTF, meaning we have wiped out 64% of our TTF on this ONE land purchase alone. Had we spent only the amount for the land acquisition cost and the vegetation management budget for the first year ($259K), we would have spent $4.9 million on this property, which would be 42% of the TTF.

Either way, the Lake Charlotte purchase is a huge land deal that likely will hinder future forested land purchases, especially if they are shackled with similar exorbitant maintenance costs, many which don't belong in the TTF to begin with. To help prevent that from happening going forward, Matzigkeit and Hillis will be submitting Ordinance 20-O-1337 to the Committee on Community Development and Human Services on May 12, 2020 to limit how much TTF money can be spent on maintenance for future land purchases. Bond will be submitting Ordinance 20-O-1338 to the same Committee, seeking reimbursement of the $625,000 of maintenance fees associated with the land purchase ordinance to be reimbursed to the TTF within three years.

Related Articles:

City Council Committee Votes to Mispend Even MORE Tree Trust Fund Money

Forested Land Purchase Ordinances Include Expenses That Shouldn't Be Paid Out of Tree Trust Fund

City of Atlanta Using Tree Trust Fund as Slush Fund - $3.3 Million Wrongly Spent

 

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