City to Consider Special Funding for Trees

July 31, 2014

The Madison City Council will consider a special fee to fund the city’s urban forestry program in place of property taxes. The bulk of the urban forestry program is street trees but also includes trees in parks and other public land. The urban forestry program costs total approximately $4.2 million for 2014. Those costs are expected to rise by at least 40% once the EAB response plan is fully implemented.

The fee idea comes from the council’s Alternative Revenue Work Group, formed in 2013 to seek ideas to fund popular programs as the city struggles under state-imposed property tax limitations.

"Madison is a city that loves its trees,” according to Work Group chair Ald. Mark Clear, District 19. “We understand the importance of caring for our urban forest. EAB represents the biggest threat to our trees in a generation. This alternative source of funding will ensure we are able to preserve, protect and as necessary replace the trees we love so much and that define our city."

EAB was first confirmed in the city in November, 2013. EAB has decimated ash tree populations as it has migrated from the Eastern United States through the Midwest. Approximately 20% of Madison's street trees are ash trees which are vulnerable to the pest.

City Forester Marla Eddy has led the efforts to develop a strategic response to EAB. "EAB poses a threat to 22,000 publicly owned trees as well as thousands more on private property. A dedicated funding stream would allow us to use all the tools we have to preserve heritage trees and begin planting and replenishing the urban forest."

Urban forestry costs are already increasing. In April of 2014, the City allocated an additional $365,000 to treat street trees infested with the invasive insect and another $60,000 to purchase new equipment. This spending is the indicative of the increased costs over the coming years to treat infected trees, remove vulnerable trees, and replace trees.

Interim Parks Superintendent Eric Knepp explained that funding for the urban forest currently comes directly from the city levy, and competes with all other city priorities for funding. "We know that Madisonians appreciate the city trees on a very personal level. Trees help keep homes cool in the summer, create inviting high-value neighborhoods and contribute to a healthier environment. We hope that by establishing a new Urban Forestry Special Charge those services will be protected for Madison's children."

Clear along with workgroup member Ald. Larry Palm, District 12, and Ald. Steve King, District 7, will introduce legislation on August 5 to create the special charge. Still to be decided is how the charge would actually be applied. The Alternative Revenue Work Group recommended apportioning the charge to property owners based on street frontage, which would result in a cost of about $53 per year on an average residential lot. The charge would not be based on number of trees. “We recognize there’s no perfect way to implement this,” according to King. “Street trees benefit everyone, not just folks who have one or two in front of their house.”

Palm highlighted the value of trees to protect health, local natural resources and infrastructure investments. "The forestry study last year found that Madison's street trees reduce air pollution, capture stormwater runoff and remove over 175,000 gallons of pollutants every year. Moreover the trees protect our other infrastructure investments. Street trees help extend the life of expensive asphalt by 40-60% by reducing daily heating and cooling of roads."

Dane County UW-Extension Horticulture Educator Lisa Johnson echoes the importance of providing dedicated funding for Madison’s urban forest. She explains “Trees are extremely important to the environmental and economic health of our city. People care about trees—questions about trees and tree care are rank near the top in numbers of questions answered by our office’s horticulture helpline. Madison’s trees have struggled since the drought of 2012 and the dry fall of 2013, plus the harsh winter of 2013. We are seeing a lot of dieback as a result of those conditions, and we’ve experienced some major storm damage this year as well. The serious challenges we face due to Emerald Ash Borer is going to be costly—this is not a problem you can ignore due to the safety issues for people and property. Its devastating spread across the U.S has shown that. Funding to meet challenges like this and future issues is critical.”

The special charge legislation will be introduced at the August 5th Common Council meeting and referred to several committees before returning to the Council, likely in October.

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