City of Atlanta Using Tree Trust Fund as Slush Fund

• $3.3 Million Wrongly Spent
• Tree Trust Fund Earned Interest Diverted Elsewhere
• No Oversight and No Accountability

Update 10-3-20:

The City of Atlanta has released their internal audit confirming The Tree Next Door's revelation that the City has misspent millions from the Tree Trust Fund.  Furthermore, the audit uncovered an additional $2 million in illegal tree cutting fees and fines that have gone uncollected.

To see the full report from the City Auditor's Office, click here.

Investigation Highlights

For years there has been considerable speculation about how much money is in the Tree Trust Fund (TTF) and how it is being spent. In March of 2019, with pro bono help from Brian Smooke, an attorney and CPA, and Edgar Acosta, a forensic accountant, The Tree Next Door (TTND) began an investigation into these questions.

Most of the TTF funds come from recompense fees collected from both homeowners and developers who are cutting down more trees than can be replaced on private lots. As outlined in the Atlanta Tree Protection Ordinance (TPO), most of these funds are intended for planting trees and buying forested land. Some exceptions exist, such as expenses of the Tree Conservation Commission and specific salaries in both the Arborist Division and the Parks Department.

After more than 50 Open Records Requests (many which are still unanswered), numerous meetings, and intensive detailed study, we now know that:

  1. Between 2009 and 2019, over $3.3 million went to salaries and benefits for employees the Tree Trust Fund is not intended to cover: $2.4 million misappropriated by the Department of City Planning (DCP) and $900K by the Department of Parks and Recreation (PRC).

  2. Interest earned by assets in the TTF is being paid to a City-wide fund consisting of several other trust funds. Consequently, the TTF has never received its portion of the interest, totaling over $500,000 for the past five years alone.

  3. The current Tree Protection Ordinance allocates approximately 20% of the current annual collected recompense for activities unrelated to tree replanting, leaving 80% to be spent on tree replanting or purchasing forested land. However, only a quarter of the total recompense collected each year is spent on tree replanting, and no forested land has been purchased to date. Over half the collected recompense just sits in the TTF earning roughly $100K of interest each year, which the City uses for discretionary purposes.

This TTND investigation makes it clear that the oversight needed to prevent the TTF from being used as a slush fund must be established and followed rigorously.

Internal Audit Initiated – But is it Enough?

In response to our investigation, Matt Westmoreland, City Council Chair for the Committee on Community Development and Human Services (CD/HS), has initiated an internal audit of the TTF. (Update, this internal audit was completed on October 1, 2020.)  However, this audit is scheduled for completion in August 2020, a month after the final draft of the current Tree Protection Ordinance is due in July. We need an independent, external audit completed before the next draft of the Tree Protection Ordinance is finalized. (Update: no "final" TPO draft has been produced as of 10-3-20.)

Additionally, Councilmember Westmoreland and other City Council members must question the appropriateness of allowing the DCP to rewrite the City’s new tree ordinance. Given that the DCP has diverted millions from the TTF, the DCP should not be writing the new tree ordinance nor directing how the TTF money is spent.

What Can You Do?

Please contact the Mayor and your City Council representatives and insist on:

  1. An external audit to be completed before the rewritten Tree Protection Ordinance is finalized. The audit should document all charges to the TTF which the Tree Next Door could not quantify due to a lack of response to numerous Open Record Requests. (Update: an external audit is no longer necessary based on the findings of the internal audit.)

  2. Repayment to the TTF of the $3.3+ million wrongfully charged to it by the DCP and PRC, with appropriate interest, in addition to all interest earned by the TTF since its inception (> $500K in the last 5 years alone).

  3. Oversight of the TTF to ensure that no unauthorized expenses are allocated to the TTF in the 2021 and all subsequent fiscal budgets. Also, an annual TTF report documenting all fund income and expenses must be published and made available to the public.

  4. A strengthened Tree Protection Ordinance which mandates that most of the recompense collected each year is spent on tree replanting or buying forested land within a specified time period so the money does not languish in the fund while our tree canopy continues to shrink.

  5. Another entity appointed to oversee rewriting the tree ordinance and managing the TTF because the DCP has failed to manage and properly appropriate millions of TTF dollars that were supposed to go into tree replanting.

Our investigative report presents strong, additional evidence for an enhanced Tree Protection Ordinance. Also, City Council must recognize and respond to the need for increased transparency with the TTF management so that the public can be assured that funds in the TTF are being used for their intended purpose.

Investigative Report Documents

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