Atlanta is known as “the city in the forest,” but it may not be in a forest much longer if the city does not do a better job of enforcing the tree ordinance, especially all the illegal tree removals.
All the information discovered about the misuse of the Tree Trust Fund (TTF) started over a year ago with an investigation instigated by The Tree Next Door(TTND). The investigation was precipitated because Tim Keane, Commissioner of the Department of City Planning, would not give tree advocates a straight answer on how much money was in the Tree Trust Fund.
The investigation discovered that the Department of City Planning raided the TTF by $2.4 million dollars and the Department of Parks and Recreation overspent by $900,000.00 thousand. The total overcharge of salaries and benefits for fiscal years 2009 to 2019 from Planning and Parks totaled $3,300,000.00 dollars and were charged to the TTF that should have been charged to the General Fund.
It was only through this investigation that the public learned of the shameful misappropriation of the TTF money.
Tree advocates want that $ 3.3 million dollar owed to the TTF paid back.
“I think the lessons of overspending will be learned quicker if the Planning and Parks Department makes an effort to return the money by asking for legislation to replace the money that was taken illegally from the Tree Trust Fund,” Stephanie Coffin, a member of The Tree Next Door, testified before Community Development & Human Services Committee (CD/HSC).
After the investigation, next came an internal audit initiated by Atlanta City Council that was released on October 1, 2020. It confirmed what the investigation found, plus additional information.
The most shocking new discoveries from the internal audit are that the city lost $2.1 million dollars in uncollected fees and fines for illegal tree removal and two extra arborist’s salaries from the Parks Department were added in 2014 to the TTF that on one knew about.
Over Two Million Dollars Not Collected From Illegal Tree Cutting
The audit found that City Planning failed to collect over $2 million in illegal tree cutting fees and fines from the fiscal years 2009 to 2019. This represents over 75% of the total uncollected revenues, according to the audit.
When a homeowner or tree company wants to take down a tree, first you get a permit, next pay a fee that goes to the TTF to plant more trees, and then you get a Certificate of Occupancy (CO). This is the way the process should work but often trees are taken down without a permit.
If the fees and fines for illegal tree cutting are not associated with a permit, the city has little ability to collect. After two years the department no longer attempts to collect unpaid fees and fines, which results in lost revenue to prevent tree loss.
“This leaves enforcement of illegal tree removals on private or public property dependent on the arborists being willing to issue citations and follow up in Municipal Court,” Tom Coffin, a retired Senior Arborist, said in an email.
“I can testify from experience that such enforcement is a very effective way to get the attention of homeowners, building contractors, tree removal companies and anyone else contemplating or performing illegal tree removals – and the word gets around in a hurry. Without such enforcement, however, which has been lacking since 2008, anarchy reigns. This the audit clearly shows,” Coffin said.
“When the city does not ticket tree companies, homeowners, and contractors it creates a lawless situation that allows people to cut down trees illegally and this is a huge loss for the city in term of recompense,” Stephanie Coffin tells the Streets of Atlanta and adds that on “On Saturday and Sunday, it is open season on trees because arborists are not around.”
The Arborists are not doing a good job of handing out tickets for violations. Maybe an enforcement arm of the Arborist Department is needed to stop all this illegal activity.
The 4th Quarter Report on tree removal trends shows that COVID-19 has had a significant impact on tree cutting and replanting, as reported on The Tree Next Door website. https://www.treenextdoor.org
Another problem besides the lack of enforcement is the lack of meaningful penalties in the Tree Ordinance to deter illegal tree cutting.
The 2013 Reclassification Added Two Arborist Salaries to the TTF
In 2013 there was a major upgrade of salaries, positions, and changes made by an 87-page city ordinance (13-0-0646) that eliminated some jobs, created others and moved salaries from one department to another department which has caused confusion in some areas ever since.
The 2013 legislation moved two arborist salaries from the Parks Department to the TTF account starting in January 2014. Since 2014, the TTF has been paying for 7 salaries moved to the TTF plus 2 arborist salaries moved from Parks.
“Apparently there was no discussion [of the two Arborist salaries] by the Tree Commission Committee (TCC) like the addition of seven other salaries, so it [2 arborists] was really a back door deal. Further, this change is not even included in the current law,” S. Coffin said.
The Audit Verified What the Investigation Found
The money misspent from the TTF is supposed to be used for tree replanting but instead went to pay for unauthorized salaries and benefits.
The City Planning Department is responsible for the financial management of the Tree Trust Fund and so far has not done a good job of managing the fund.
The audit shows that City Planning overspent almost $2.5 million on salaries, benefits, and operational expenses from the TTF between the fiscal year 2009 and 2019.
The Tree Protection Ordinance (TPO) authorized City Planning to spend $170,000 on salaries and benefits each fiscal year. They overspent from 2009 to 2019 by $2.2 million dollars from the TTF
The TPO also authorizes City Planning to spend $50,000 each year for operational expenses but overspent by $239,000 from 2009 to 2019
Both City Planning and Parks and Recreation spent money from the Tree Trust Fund that should have come out of the General Fund.
City Planning lacks budgetary controls to prevent overspending, which reduces funds available to mitigate tree loss, according to the audit’s findings.
“The TTF has been a money pot for both Planning and Parks in violation of the law and in an attempt to thwart the Tree Commission Committee,” S. Coffin said.
The Confusing Journal Entries from 2009 to 2014
At a Community Development/Human Service Committee (CDHS) meeting, Commissioner Keane said, “The audit was from 2009 to 2019 and 80% of the overspending happened in 2014 – that’s $1.8 million of the $2.2 of the overspending on salaries.”
After talking with several tree advocates, and other informed sources regarding the confusion of journal entries in 2009 to 2014, this is my current understanding of what happened.
In 2008 City Ordinance 08-0-0993 authorized the Department of Planning to borrow from the TTF a maximum of $700,000 per year for 2009 and 2010 to pay for salaries and benefits associated with nine specific job positions. But in 2010, eight of those nine jobs were transferred back to the Department of Planning.
In 2009, those employees meant to charge the TTF with approximately $700,000. Instead, they wrongly charged their time to the general fund instead of the TTF.
Because of this error, the Department of Planning did not actually borrow money from the TTF in 2009. It is believed that money [$700,000] was borrowed in 2014 when they made the journal entry.
In 2014, someone discovered that certain time entries that employees entered and charged against the general fund from 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 were erroneous and should have been charged to the TTF. It is believed these employees entered their time into the wrong accounting string.
So in 2014, reclassification of certain employees’ time was moved from the general fund and charged to the TTF, and that was the reason given for why salaries and benefits were so high in 2014.
Even the City Auditor, Amanda Noble, seemed to be confused about what happened because she called 2014, “An unexplained anomaly.“
The cyberattack in 2018 was not helpful and may have destroyed documents necessary to fill in any gaps. We may never know, all we need to know, about why salaries were moved from the general fund to the Tree Trust Fund. Hopefully, going forward there will be more transparency and better accounting.
Another problem the city audit found was that Planning was unable to reconcile the systems used to manage the TTF – the Accela, and Oracle accounts because the accounting strings did not match.
Two accounts associated with the Tree Trust Fund are Education Outreach and Tree Protection accounts.
The Education Outreach account receives 5% of the revenues that the Tree Protection account collects or $100,000, whichever is greater. But no one knows how much money is in the Educational Outreach account.
Rewrite of the Tree Ordinance and Repayment of What is Owed to the TTF
There have been many attempts at a rewrite of the Tree Ordinance to make it more transparent and protect the tree canopy.
The Tree Next Door has been supportive of the last two tree ordinance rewrites which never became a reality. We have wondered what is the point of crafting a new ordinance if it will go as unenforced as our current ordinance, as stated on the TTND website.
The struggle for a new enforceable tree ordinance will continue, as will trying to get the money owed to the TTF repaid.
by Gloria Tatum