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City Schools of Decatur asked to pay $120,000 under city’s tree ordinance


City Schools of Decatur asked to pay $120,000 under city’s tree ordinance

The front steps of Decatur High School. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt
The front steps of Decatur High School. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

The front steps of Decatur High School. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

This story has been updated. 

Removing trees to make way for expansion at Decatur’s middle and high schools has a price and the school system would rather not pay it.

Decatur School Board members were obviously annoyed when Jeff Prine, president of ASCENSION Program Management, CSD’s consultant on the expansion projects, gave his report during their July 14 meeting. Prine reported that the city is requesting $120,000 for its tree bank as compensation for removal of the trees.

“It’s a tenuous process at times to get through permits,” Prine said. “At the high school we’ve been able to submit for our land disturbance permit. We’ve run into the issues with the city with tree recompense.”

The tree bank is established by the city’s tree ordinance, which the City Commission overhauled a year ago. The city is facing increased pressure from residents over rapid development, which has resulted in the removal of trees to make way for bigger homes.

Prine said there are three or four trees in front of the gym at Renfroe Middle School that would have to be removed. The trees are located along the sidewalk adjacent to the front-street parking.

“(At) DHS (there) are several trees in between the lower parking lot and the stadium entrance,” Prine said.

Superintendent Phyllis Edwards said it will not be possible logistically to replant the trees once they’re gone.

“Clearly, we have to make room for the buildings,” Edwards said. “We can’t replant the trees because we’d be planting trees in all the greenspace areas we have. We need fields, we need play space.”

Edwards and the School Board planned to ask its attorney, Bob Wilson, whether it would be possible to obtain a waiver from the city. Wilson’s firm, Wilson Morton & Downs, also represents the city of Decatur. School Board member Annie Caiola said making the school system pay into the tree bank would be unfair to the taxpayers. At the moment, the School Board is asking taxpayers to consider raising their own taxes by 8 percent to pay for a $75 million bond issue for school construction. The board will get its answer on Nov. 3. Total property values in the city have increased by 20 percent over last year.

“We are a public school system who funds education with public tax dollars, so if we have to pay into this tree bank, we are effectively digging into the pockets of our taxpayers to have to do that, and the timing of this is concerning in light of the fact … we just heard from our seniors and community, with what they’re facing with tax assessments,” she said. “We’re going to try to lower the millage rate as much as we possibly can. But $120,000 is not something I think we had budgeted for and it ultimately hits the taxpayers. So that will have to be considered when we talk about the millage rate.”

“I just strongly encourage you guys to work as much as you can with your counterparts with the city and hopefully obtain a waiver on it, because I just hate to have that hit our taxpayers right now, especially when we’re trying to do as much as we can to alleviate that tax burden.”

So will the city reconsider?

City spokesperson Casie Yoder said via email, “It is my understanding that there have been discussions with the CSD School Board about flexibility with the tree bank payment.”

Yoder also included this link to the city’s tree ordinance.

The dispute over the tree bank comes as the School Board and the city are working to mend fences after years of tensions between the two government entities. While the School Board is independently elected, the city still has power to greatly influence its decisions. The City Commission has to approve setting a bond referendum. The city can also hold up the school system’s plans via the permitting process and regulatory process.

In August 2013, Mayor Jim Baskett established a “blue ribbon committee” to study the school system’s enrollment growth after commissioners declined to put a bond referendum on the ballot that year.

Commissioners agreed to put a bond on the ballot this year after joint meetings between the two government bodies.  In 2014, the City Commission was asked to sign off on the school system’s plans to borrow money using Certificates of Participation to begin construction at the high school and middle school. CSD used three of its elementary schools as collateral to borrow about $18 million. Decatur reluctantly agreed to give up its interest in the properties. When the city transferred property to the school system in 2011, it stipulated ownership would revert back to the city if CSD stopped using the properties as schools.

Recently, the city dedicated its Beacon Municipal Center, a shared office space that holds CSD’s central offices and Decatur’s Police Department and municipal court.

While the two entities share a common interest, they aren’t always on the same page.

This year the city began making payments to the school system after mistakenly withholding alcohol taxes, and will give CSD nearly $300,000 in Fiscal Year 2016. There are no plans for the city to pay back the monies withheld in prior years.