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Fort Wayne park officials consider new fee to help with ash trees

Thursday, September 27, 2012 - 6:25 am

Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation officials may try to collect a special fee from taxpayers to help replace thousands of trees killed by the emerald ash borer.

The parks board is considering whether to assess an annual fee of up to $10 on each property owner – a plan that could generate between $600,000 and $800,000 each year – parks Director Al Moll said. The board could start collecting the fee as early as 2013, but the plan is still in the early discussion phase, Moll said.

“This is just in the concept stage and would be among other options,” Moll said Wednesday in an email. “If it ever was approved, it could take a few years before implemented.”

Moll said a provision in state law appears to allow park boards to assess the fee. Board president Rick Samek, an attorney with Carson Boxberger, did not immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday afternoon.

The money would go toward replacing about 12,000 trees that have been killed by the emerald ash borer in Fort Wayne or removed pre-emptively to keep the pests from spreading.

It also could help pay to remove the 2,500 ash trees that will remain after this year's round of tree removal. Under a contract with Mudrack Tree Experts, the city will pay $1.2 million this year to have about 4,500 ash trees removed, leaving about 2,500.

At the most, the fee would add about $10 to each property owner's tax bill, Moll said. Ideally, the fee could generate at least $600,000 annually for three or four years, taking pressure off an already tight city budget, he said.

Finding a solution to the ash-borer damage has been an ongoing struggle for the city. Last year, City Councilmen John Shoaff, D-at large, and Tom Smith, R-1st, called for the city to use a chunk of its $75 million "Legacy" fund to replace the ash trees.

Smith said Wednesday he has doubts about levying an extra fee on taxpayers to fund the work and would still prefer that the city pay for it with Legacy money.

"Anything that adds onto the taxpayer's cost of living, I'd have to think about that," Smith said. "I don't think I'm in favor of that." Shoaff, a vocal advocate for parks and trees, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

But Moll said the parks department is also looking into other sources of funding – such as grants and nonprofit foundations – to help with the tree work.

“It's an opportunity, but we'll be looking at other opportunities to generate revenue as well,” Moll said.

The parks board could discuss the matter at its next meeting, Oct. 23.