By Maggie Lee
(This story was updated Nov. 15 to reflect updates the city made to its October audit. Auditors now say $2.9 million was spent in the wrong categories, not $2.5 million. Copies of both audits are below.)
When someone lawfully chops down a healthy Atlanta tree, they pay some cash into a city trust fund for planting more trees. But auditors say that over 11 years, some $2.9 million of that money wrongfully went to benefits, overhead and salaries instead of saplings and land.
The city’s Planning and Parks and Recreation departments regularly blew past what they’re allowed to spend on salaries and other overhead annually from the Tree Trust Fund, according to a new report from the city of Atlanta Auditor’s Office covering the 11 years that ended in June 2019. The audit also notes that the city openly tapped the trust fund in two years just after the Great Recession.
The audit is not far off the findings of The Tree Next Door, an advocacy group that got its own specialists to analyze 11 years of Tree Trust Fund spending, but who had to wrangle sometimes confusing records from the city and interpret law on the fund themselves. Their April 2020 report came up with a figure of more like $3.4 million in misspending over the decade.
According to the city audit, the planning department “lacks budgetary controls to prevent overspending, which reduced funds available to mitigate tree loss.
And besides that, there’s an unknown amount of fines and fees that are never collected from illegal tree-chopping that’s never found out.
Over the last 11 years, the Trust Fund received about $22 million. Besides the capped overhead, fund money is supposed to be set aside for planting new trees or buying wooded land.
The Department of City Planning basically agreed with all the auditors’ recommendations, and told auditors that fixes are already underway, like sticking to salary limits.
In a letter to the city auditor in an initial review of her office’s work, Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane wrote that the audit was helpful in detecting specific deficiencies in the fund administration. And he acknowledged the overspending on salaries. But the overspend didn’t limit the city’s ability to mitigate canopy loss, he wrote.
“These expenditures have helped to enhance protective measures since all the spending that has occurred was in furtherance of protecting trees and administering the city’s Tree Protection Ordinance,” he wrote.
The cause for some of the overspend before his time is still unclear, he wrote. But some of it was clear and needful, Keane wrote, like spending on new vehicles.
That being said, the rules are probably about to change too. For years, tree advocates have been waiting to see a new tree ordinance, and have been making their own proposals. Part of the idea is to make it easier for developers to work with the city to preserve valuable trees — but also to make it more costly to disregard the canopy, all while making sure Atlanta remains a city in the trees.
Atlanta City Council members requested this audit in part to help inform a new law. The audit will officially be handed over to Council on Oct. 5; a committee presentation will be scheduled in the coming weeks.
Performance Audit Tree Trust Fund — corrected November 2020