Lake Charlotte Land Purchase

Lake Charlotte Purchase Ordinance Missing Required Affidavits

The land purchase ordinance for the Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve, adopted by Atlanta City Council on April 20, 2020 and approved by the Mayor Bottoms on April 24, 2020, is notably missing “Exhibit C” which includes the required affidavits from the commissioners of the Department of City Planning and the Department of Parks and Recreation. These affidavits, as required by Section 158-66(b)(3) of the Tree Protection Ordinance, affirm that a jointly developed written list of factors and a process for evaluating parcels that may be suitable for acquisition as forested property were followed in the selection of the Lake Charlotte property. Without these attached affidavits, the land purchase ordinance is out of compliance with the Tree Protection Ordinance.

The final stamped ordinance fails to include these required affidavits. The Tree Next Door submitted an Open Records Request on May 8, 2020 requesting these affidavits and received them on May 22, 2020 as a separate file from the land purchase ordinance.

Related Articles:

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

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

 

Thursday, 07 May 2020 07:18

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 $4.3 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

 

   

Lake Charlotte Land Purchase

Friday, 01 May 2020 10:18

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

it stinks quote

Just one week after a Tree Next Door investigation revealed that the Tree Trust Fund (TTF) has been used as a slush fund to pay for over $3.3 million of unauthorized salary expenses, the Community Development and Human Services (CD/HS) Committee voted Tuesday (April 28, 2020) to spend up to another $2.3 million of TTF money on salary and other expenses clearly NOT allowed by the TTF.

How did this happen? It stinks as bad as the porta potty that the Tree Trust Fund (TTF) money will be paying for instead of replanting trees.

Despite objections raised by members of three different Atlanta based tree advocacy groups -- The Tree Next Door, City in the Forest, and the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods Tree Canopy Committee -- the CD/HS Committee simply ignored the fact that were voting to misappropriate money from the TTF for expenses that should be coming out of the Parks' Department. Already, the CD/HS Committee had approved a land purchase ordinance which had been padded with an additional $625K in "site security and stabilization costs" to be fully funded by the TTF. (This land purchase ordinance passed in Full City Council April 20, 2020.) Tree advocates were asking the CD/HS Committee not to authorize an additional $2.3 million to be misappropriated from the TTF in a second maintenance ordinance which accompanied the land purchase ordinance, but had been sent back to the CD/HS Committee for further review after several Councilmembers questioned why certain items in the maintenance ordinance were being funded by the TTF. This robbing of the TTF for non-approved purposes must end if we are ever to have the money to buy more forested land in the future.

In Tuesday’s meeting, Doug Voss, Director of Parks, presented to the Committee a revised five-year maintenance plan budget for the Lake Charlotte property purchase that added the salaries of two more employees, in addition to the maintenance manager, to be paid for by the TTF.  His budget also specified a F-250 truck ($38,600), a John Deere Gator ($19,950), and a portable toilet with weekly service for the next five years ($10,892)  -- all to be paid for with TTF dollars. These are items that clearly should be paid for by the Department of Parks and Recreation, but Councilmembers Joyce Shepherd and Carla Smith expressed their enthusiastic support for using the Tree Trust Fund money for these items instead, seeming not to understand that the Tree Trust Fund is not an auxiliary Parks' Department budget.  

5-year budget
                                                                      5-Year Maintenance Budget
                                                                           (Click chart to enlarge)

Councilmember Natalyn Archibong was the only Committee member who even considered that it was a violation of the Tree Protection Ordinance to be approving these Parks' Department maintenance items to be paid out of the TTF.  She asked the Committee to “parse out” what is truly tree maintenance and what is “squarely in the wheelhouse of Parks”. Archibong also noted the huge maintenance expense that has been tied to the purchase of the Lake Charlotte property (a total of $2.9 million of maintenance for a property that cost $4.7 million), and noted that if we have these kind of maintenance expenses tied to future forested land purchases, we are going to soon have a “train wreck”. There is not enough money in the TTF to support maintenance budgets that are nearly two-thirds of the amount it costs just to buy the land.

train wreck

Archibong said she did not like seeing the TTF depleted so quickly on this one land purchase. She asked the Committee to please “refine” the maintenance ordinance to make sure there were dollars left in the TTF for further land acquisitions.

Unfortunately, Archibong’s comments fell on deaf ears. The Committee members did not seem to hear or want to address the appropriateness of spending money from the TTF on items not allowed by the Tree Protection Ordinance. Nor did they want to ask questions about how the maintenance budget estimates were derived and if there might be more cost-effective measures to maintaining the property. Rather, they seemed overly eager to pass the ordinance without the appropriate due diligence. They reframed the question they were voting on from “Should we be spending money from the TTF on these items?” to “Do we need a 5-year maintenance plan?” Since the land purchase requires a maintenance plan, no one was going to vote “no” on needing a maintenance plan, which would make them appear opposed to buying the land. As it was, even Archibong abstained from voting rather than voting “no”.

the vote

This vote is disconcerting because the CD/HS Committee has responsibility for ensuring that the City is spending money from the TTF appropriately. When The Tree Next Door has just identified over $3.3 million in misappropriated funds from the TTF, it is stunning, really, to see the CD/HS turn around and vote for even more millions to be misappropriated from the same fund.   If we are to maintain our tree canopy, we cannot allow the one and only City fund we have to replant trees to be raided by the Parks Department. The TTF money is intended to replace the trees that were cut down, not to pay for Parks Department staff and their trucks, equipment, and porta potties.  

           porta-potty-sitting-outdoor-setting-edge-meadow-front-trees-wildlife-area-45068183

What can you do?

Please contact all the City Council representatives before the Full City Council votes THIS MONDAY, May 4 at 1 pm to tell them to not approve this maintenance ordinance as it is currently written and to send it back to the CD/HS Committee to get the full review it should have gotten in last Tuesday's meeting.  In addition to emailing and calling your City Council members individually, please call 404-330-6001 by 12 noon on Monday, May 4, to leave a voicemail that will be played during the public comments section of the City Council meeting.

In your communication please reference Ordinance 20-O-1216 which will remove an additional $2.3 million from the TTF over the next five years to pay for maintenance needs for the Lake Charlotte land purchase  -- in addition to the $625K in maintenance costs that City Council has already approved in conjunction with this land purchase.  Tell your City Council representatives to:

  • Say NO to depleting our TTF on maintenance costs which will prevent future forested land purchases.

       - and -

  • Say YES to buying the Lake Charlotte property (which they already have voted to purchase).

  • Say YES to a maintenance ordinance for Lake Charlotte which appropriately allocates its funding sources.
  • Say YES to using the TTF for its intended purpose: to replace our City's lost tree canopy!
   

Lake Charlotte Land Purchase

Tuesday, 28 April 2020 10:04

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

The City of Atlanta recently agreed to purchase from the Conservation Fund a 216 forested acre property in southeast Atlanta, called the Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve. This $4.7 million land purchase is being made using Tree Trust Fund (TTF) money as authorized in a 2016 amendment to Section 158-66 the Tree Protection Ordinance. This will be the first forested land purchase made by the City using TTF funds.

On April 20, 2020, two ordinances which had previously passed unanimously in the Committee on Community Development and Human Services (CD/HS) were included as part of the consent agenda to be voted on by the Full City Council. These ordinances are:

All expenses in both ordinances are to be paid from the TTF.  Section 158-66 of the Tree Protection Ordinance stipulates that a property maintenance plan must be attached to any TTF land purchase ordinance and the maintenance plan must identify the source of funding for the estimated annual maintenance cost since not all maintenance costs will or should come from the TTF.

Shortly before the April 20th Council vote, The Tree Next Door (TTND) discovered expenses in both the land purchase and maintenance ordinances that should not be paid from the TTF because they have nothing to do with the maintenance of trees. The TTF was never intended to be used to provide security, or to develop park land, or to hire staff to manage park maintenance, but that is exactly what is included in these two ordinances.

In response to concerns aired by TTND, City Council voted to pass the land purchase ordinance but to send the maintenance purchase order back to the CD/HS Committee for further review. Although TTND fully supports using TTF funds to purchase the forest at Lake Charlotte, we are concerned that the land purchase ordinance passed on April 20th includes the following "site security and stabilization costs" which should not be paid for using TTF money:

  • $220,240 - fencing
  • $122,425 - a gravel road that is over three-quarters of a mile in length
  • $59,000 - demolition and clean-up
  • $50,000 - signage
  • $22,500 - parking lot with 30 spaces
  • $22,000 - electronic gate
  • $8,000 - vehicular access control

All the above items, except for signage, are cited as being needed for “safety” reasons. While it is important to keep residents safe on City property, the TTF was never intended to pay for security issues, just tree maintenance. Additionally, as we drill down into the documentation for some of the estimates for the above items, we find issues with how these estimates were derived that need further explanation.

The maintenance ordinance that was sent back to the CD/HS Committee proposes nearly $2.3 million for maintenance of Lake Charlotte to be paid over five years, including such expenses as:

  • $550,000 for an on-site manager

    While there may need to be on-site manager to supervise work crews for invasive removal, is the supervision of invasive removal truly a full-time job for 5 years? Furthermore, the job description associated with this on-site manager is for a “Parks District Maintenance Supervisor”, which is for a buildings maintenance supervisor not a vegetative or tree maintenance supervisor.

  • $700,000 for trail development and maintenance

    TTND recommends that the Department of Parks and Recreation finances the $700,000 for trail development and maintenance trails through another means.  Park trails are for recreational purposes and should not be fianced by the TTF.

  • $1,000,000 for vegetation management, i. e. invasive removal.

    TTND fully support invasive removal from the forest as a TTF expense; however, even the amount of one million dollars is difficult to verify from the supporting documentation. Trees Atlanta and The Conservation Fund prepared a report entitled "Lake Charlotte Vegetation Analysis and Management", but pages 28-31 of this report are missing from the exhibit. The missing section includes part of the actual cost estimate for vegetation management.

TTND hopes that the CD/HS Committee will take the time to thoroughly vet the expenses coming out of the TTF in the maintenance ordinance before sending it back to the Full City Council for a vote. And, if and when additional legislation is presented for the purchase of forested property, we hope the entire project is thoroughly vetted to avoid the misallocation of TTF money and to improve the transparency of supporting documents.

The purpose of the TTF is to protect and maintain the tree canopy, not to provide safety and recreation for the city. These goals may overlap, but the intended purpose of the budgeted items should determine where the funding comes from. We hope that as the CD/HS Committee and City Council make future decisions regarding the TTF, they will keep in mind the intent and purpose of the TTF to prevent future misallocations.

   
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