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Dead ash trees are cleared near the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. A $10 “tree tax” is being considered to offset the cost of cleanup and new plantings.

‘Tree tax’ talk takes root

The possibility that the parks board could levy a $10 assessment on city landowners to pay for removing and replacing ash trees received much criticism at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

The idea was first raised publicly just last week at a sparsely attended meeting of the four-member Board of Parks and Recreation. City Council President Tom Smith expressed opposition to the “tree tax” as the council reviewed the parks department budget.

Here are the answers to some questions regarding the possible assessment:

Q. Is this assessment really an additional property tax?

A. Though the fee would technically be an assessment, its description as a “tree tax” is accurate. It would be collected on property tax bills. Just like assessments for sidewalks, landowners who fail to pay would be subject to a lien and even foreclosure.

Q. Does the City Council or the mayor have the power to reject it?

A. Not directly. State law gives the parks board exclusive power to levy the assessment.

But given that the council is now reviewing the city budget, it would have leverage in how it deals with the parks budget.

And though Mayor Tom Henry also lacks direct authority to reject the assessment, he does appoint the four parks board members.

Q. Does the public have any say?

A. Yes. If the parks board adopts a resolution in favor of the assessment, it must later hold a public hearing. And the assessment could be subject to a citizens’ remonstrance.

Q. How long would the assessment last?

A. The board can only vote to approve a single, one-time assessment. But it could do so year after year. Parks Director Al Moll – who emphasizes that no decision has been made – said the board is tentatively looking at a three-year time span.

Q. Who would pay the tree tax?

A. This is where it could get tricky.

Under state law, the assessments could only be made on “the owners of lots and parcels of land bordering on the public ways.” City officials would have to determine which properties abut a street and which do not. What about properties next to streets but without room for trees? What if there is no tree in front of your home?

“There’s a possibility you would never get a tree for your assessment,” Moll acknowledged.

Q. When would the assessment take place?

A. This is also more complicated than it sounds.

State law dictates that the assessment can only be collected after the work is completed. But if work begins, say, in the northeast quadrant, it isn’t clear whether landowners throughout the city would have to pay the assessment the first year, or only the owners of property where work was completed.

Q. Why is this assessment being considered?

A. Moll said that both Henry and the council have asked for ways to finance the cost of removing up to 12,000 dead and dying ash trees and replacing at least those along streets. The assessment, which parks officials believe would raise up to $800,000 a year, is one option.

Smith believes the city should tap into the Legacy Fund financed by the lease and sale of City Light to remove and replace the trees.

Q. What happens next?

A. The parks board is scheduled to discuss the issue at its Oct. 25 meeting.