The City of Atlanta Robbed the Tree Trust Fund of Millions for Years

written by Gloria Tatum……………………

The Department of City Planning raided the Tree Trust Fund of $2.4 million for salaries and benefits that should have been paid out of the general fund. 

 The Department of Parks and Recreation impermissibly charged the Tree Trust Fund with more than $900,000 of salaries and benefits that should have been paid out of the general fund.

The total overcharge of salaries and benefits for fiscal years 2009 to 2019 from both City Planning and Parks and Recreation exceeds $3,300,000. 

It was only through an investigation instigated by the Tree Next Door, an organization to protect Atlanta’s Tree Canopy, that the public learned of the shameful misappropriation of Tree Trust Fund (TTP) money.  

Atlanta’s Tree Protection Ordinance (TPO) was intended to protect trees but over the years it has become a “pay to play” game for developers.   They simply pay a fine into the fund to clear cut acres of healthy trees to build townhomes and mansions.   They even cut down a 300-year-old grove of trees where a champion white oak lived.   In Atlanta, no tree is protected from development.

“Developers were taking down so many trees but no one knows how much money was in the tree fund, there were no records and no audits,”  Stephanie Coffin with the Tree Next Door told the Streets of Atlanta.

What the Tree Protection Ordinance Permits

The Atlanta Tree Protection Ordinance (TPO) (158-66) only permits the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) to take from the TTF $275,000 per year to pay for a senior arborist and a 3 person tree trimming crew.

The Department of City Planning (DCP) was allowed to take from the TTF $170.000 per year to pay for a Tree Commission Administrative Analyst and two arborists. 

Both DCP and PRC have repeatedly violated Section 158-66 of the Atlanta TPO by charging the TTF in excess of their legally permitted amounts.  Salaries and benefits of employees who should have been charged to the general fund have been charged instead to the TTF for years, according to the investigation.

Tree advocates call for transparency, accountability, and enhanced oversight of the TTF to stop the misuse of those funds.

 “We would like to have the $3.3 million that we have identified as being misappropriated from the TTF –  we would like the city to return that money,” deLille Anthony, a member of the Tree Next Door, told Streets of Atlanta.  

They also want repayment to TTF its shares of the interest earned by Trust Fund 7701 from City of Atlanta’s Cash Pool and accounting of the City’s spending of 7701 funds.

Why Tree Are Important

Trees are frontline soldiers in the fight against climate change.  They absorb and store carbon dioxide  (CO2), release oxygen to clean the air to help people breathe, prevent flooding, lower summer daytime temperatures, reduce noise, protection from UV radiation, improve the aesthetics in a city, and are wildlife habitats for birds and other animals. 

In this age of climate change that is producing more and more natural disasters and pandemics that destroys property and kills people, politicians need to wake up to the dangers of climate change and understand what is important – it’s not quick profits for developers or more townhomes, it’s trees.   

So far COVID has killed over 250,000 people worldwide but that is less than the annual death toll due to climate change,  as reported in https://beyondnuclearinternational.org/2020/05/03/heres-who-im-cheering-for/

“We are ignoring natural climate solutions……Protection of forests and tree planting has mind-blowing potential to tackle the climate crisis,” Greta Thunberg, a Swedish environmental activist, said in the Guardian newspaper.

Without trees, “cities will become warmer, more polluted and generally more unhealthy for inhabitants,” David Nowak, a senior US Forest Service scientist said in a CNN report.

This is why it is important not to misuse the Tree Trust Fund  (TTF)  that was legally designated for planting trees and buying forested land.

The Strange 2014 Journal Reclassification Entries

 On June 24, 2008, an ordinance 08–0993 authorized the Department of Planning to borrow from the TTF up to $700,000 per year for two years, FY2009 and 2010, to pay for salaries for 9 specific job positions.  According to the terms of Ordinance 08-0-0993, any funds borrowed from the TTF were required to be repaid with 3 percent interest by June 30, 2013.   

In 2010, 8 of the 9 jobs were transferred back to the Department of Planning’s general fund pursuant to Ordinance 09-O-1005.

The Department of Planning was authorized to charge the TTF with 9 job positions in 2009 and 1 job position in 2010.  So, the maximum the Department of Planning could charge the TTF for those two years was less than $800K  – not $1.3 Million.

Something transpired in 2014 which caused the Department of Planning to determine that certain employees being charged to the general fund should be charged to the TTF.

The reclassification resulted in charging the TTF in 2014 with approximately $1.3 million in aggregate salaries and benefits of the Department of Planning employees for the years 2009 to 2013.  These salaries and benefits had been previously charged to the general fund.

“The 2009 loan cannot be relied upon by the Department of Planning as the basis for the reclassification journal entries because the 2009 loan was required to be repaid by June 30, 2013, which preceded the date of the 2014 reclassification journal entries,” attorney Brian Smooke said in an email to the Streets of Atlanta.  

Tree Protection Ordinance Rewrites

  “There has been a demand for a rewrite of the TPO for a long time.  One rewrite came out in 2014 but the environmental community did not know it was coming out but developers did and packed the meeting and intimidated everyone and it just died,” Coffin said and added  “today, we continued on with the old 2002 tree law.” 

Another push for a new tree protection law was in 2016.  Commissioner Tim Keane with Atlanta City Planning hired Urban Ecology to rewrite the tree law but the group changed their mind so often on what they wanted until nothing got done.    

“There have been many efforts to rewire the tree ordinance but nothing ever comes of it except a total waste of time and money.  It’s been endless talk for years with no action,” Coffin said.

 “Now the latest rewrite will be written by City Planning, the people who robbed the TTF, which is like having the fox guard the henhouse,”Coffin said.  

The Misappropriation of TTF Continues

Despite the recently released evidence that the Parks Department still owes the TTF $900,000 in misappropriated salary expense for the past ten years, they have gone back to the trough for more money.  

The City of Atlanta agreed to purchase Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve, a 216 forested acre property in southeast Atlanta, from the Conservation Fund. This $4.7 million purchase of forest land is authorized in the Tree Protection Ordinance (TPO).

 But attached to the land purchase agreement is an additional $625K for site security and stabilization costs and another $2.3 million for park maintenance and these amounts are definitely not authorized by the TPO.

“We support the purchase of the land but not this ridiculous maintenance agreement that is raiding the TTF again.  The TTF does not authorize the buying of electronic gates, security systems, salaries of park employees, building a road, equipment, a truck, a John Deere Gator, a parking lot, and porta-potties.  These are things that really need to be paid for by the Parks Department,” deLille Anthony tells the Streets of Atlanta.  

The robbing of the TTF for non-approved purposes must stop, if we are ever to have the money to buy more forested land in the future, the Tree Next Door website predicts.

4 thoughts on “The City of Atlanta Robbed the Tree Trust Fund of Millions for Years

  1. Wow! This is great Gloria. I am sending this around many places. This is a terrific overview. Thanks so much for doing this. I hope you get some feedback. I will save you some mushrooms if you eat them! Stephanie

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