By Maggie Lee
Atlanta tree advocates say the city spent $3.4 million in the last decade on salaries that should have been spent on planting trees and buying forested land.
The figure comes from a report put together for The Tree Next Door, an Atlanta advocacy group, and it draws on legal and accounting experts and data obtained from the city via open record requests.
The group commissioned the report because they say the public figures on the city’s tree trust fund have long been unclear. Money goes into the fund from developers and residents who cut down trees. And except for some allowed overhead on things like salaries and education, the cash should come out on seedlings and forested land.
Tree spending has come up at the public meetings that have been going on about rewriting the city’s tree ordinance — and possibly hiking the price of cutting down Atlanta trees.
“And the questions came not only from activists, but also from developers,” said Stephanie Coffin, a founder of The Tree Next Door.
The city’s tree trust fund comes to about $14 million.
The city can spend up to $445,000 of that on salaries in the departments of planning and parks per year, according to The Tree Next Door’s reading of city ordinance. But they say they’ve found more like $800,000 on salary spending in recent years and varying amounts before that.
The Tree Next Door wants the millions they say were wrongly spent on salaries to go back into the tree trust fund.
“Both of these departments [planning and parks] were using the tree trust fund kind of like a slush fund and basically raiding the funds for their own purposes,” Coffin said.
City Planning Commissioner Tim Keane said earlier this month that he hadn’t seen The Trees Next Door’s report, but that he is working with auditors from the city who are doing their own investigation.
“I think it’s good,” Keane said. City auditors “should look at it and see over that 10-year period, what are the facts? It’s something we’re participating in and happy to do that.”
City Auditor Amanda Noble said her office began the audit at the request of a city council committee and that they are aware of The Tree Next Door’s report.
The city audit will look at how much money should have been collected by the fund, how much money was actually collected, how the money was spent and whether the spending was consistent with city code.
Noble called The Tree Next Door’s findings “relevant” to those last two points and said her office will follow up.
Noble hopes the audit will be issued in August.
However if — and it’s a big if — the city finishes its tree ordinance rewrite by July, an August audit would be too late to influence the new law.
TTND is calling for a finished audit before the new Tree Protection Ordinance is finalized.
They’re also calling for the city to keep a lid on salary spending in the upcoming year’s budget. A budget still has to be drafted and passed each year, even as the COVID-19 crisis demands all the time, energy and money that the city can give it. This fiscal year ends on June 30.
This year, the fund will spend about $3.1million to $3.2 million on operating expenses, Keane said. About $2 million of that is for tree planting.
In a one-off transaction, the fund will go down by about $5 million soon, as the city finalizes buying 216 acres of forest in southeast Atlanta known as Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve.
And Keane also said a couple of other large acquisitions are under consideration for the next two years that would further spend down the money saved up in the fund.