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Council dismisses notion of ‘tree tax’

Despite members’ outcry, parks board gets final say

– City Council members Wednesday cut down a proposal for a “tree tax” – a one-time fee added to property tax bills to help the canopy laid waste by the emerald ash borer.

Legally, the council has no say in the matter, as state law gives authority to parks boards to levy a special assessment – much like a drainage assessment – on properties within their district for street trees. But Parks Director Al Moll told council members the parks board wants their input before deciding the matter Oct. 24, and their input was loud and clear. The fee could be up to $10 a parcel.

“This will ding you,” said Council President Tom Smith, R-1st, his voice rising and his face turning red. “People are not going to like this.”

Smith angrily said it should be Legacy Fund money – money from the lease and sale of the city’s electric utility – that pays for the trees, not a special tax that will result in liens being filed against property if it is not paid.

“This tree problem has been dragging on for three or four years! … We have the money to take care of it! We can’t keep dragging it out anymore!” Smith nearly shouted. “This is going to be very unpopular.”

Parks officials noted repeatedly that the assessment is just one option that is being considered and no decision has been made. If it is approved, the tax would be subject to a remonstrance process in which opponents could force dueling petition drives to decide the matter. It would also be a one-time assessment; if officials wanted it again, they would have to redo the entire process.

“It’s just being discussed,” said Garry Morr, parks associate director of administration. “The parks board said they would like to hear from the council and the mayor.”

The parks department is in the process of removing 4,500 dead and dying ash trees, killed by an invasive insect called the emerald ash borer. The $1.1 million cost of that removal is being paid for by income taxes the state owed the city and paid in a lump sum.

But there are an additional 3,000 ash trees that will need to be removed as well, and those are only street trees; they do not include the thousands of ash trees in city parks.

It also does not include the cost of replacing the trees. Officials estimate about 10,000 trees will need to be replaced over the next five to 10 years.

Moll said replacing the trees is not the biggest issue, as people have shown a willingness to contribute to the effort. A department survey showed 85 percent of respondents want street trees replaced, he said, and donations to replace 1,600 trees have already been received, a number that could grow exponentially with a concerted effort.

But removing the dead, dying and dangerous trees is not only another matter, he said, it’s imperative, and there’s no way to pay for the estimated $1 million cost. A $10-a-parcel assessment would raise about $800,000, Moll said.

A much smaller-ticket item ran into similar opposition: the parks department budget had called for cutting the $10,000 a year the city spends to enable outdoor ice skating on ponds in three parks.

Moll said the move was more about safety than about money, and the fact that in the last three years skating has been allowed only a handful of days, including none at all last year. But council members – who love to talk about saving money – argued so forcefully against the cut that Moll said he’d find a way to keep the practice.

“That would be a major blow to the park system,” Smith said. “It’s beautiful to drive by and see skaters.”

Smith even said he would be glad to help Moll find a way to come up with the money.

“That really bothers me, too,” said John Shoaff, D-at large. “It has the appearance of making the city very unfriendly.”

The department’s $13 million budget for 2013 is essentially the same as this year’s.