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Council right on (no) tree tax

Altoona City Council mustered the right judgment in turning thumbs-down to a proposed 0.15-mill tax increase for tree care.

There was no logical basis for imposing such a tax increase, with the city sitting on what essentially is $11 million of surplus money.

There can be no denying that tree care has a place for action by city leaders, but toying with the idea of a special tax for that mission, all considered, was destined to thrust the council into the crosshairs of justifiable public outrage.

Even a small tax hike needs to be justified before being implemented, and it is difficult to imagine any window of argument in this instance that would have been accepted by the city’s tax-paying public.

Mayor Matt Pacifico ultimately put the matter into the right perspective when he acknowledged that “it was hard to justify a tax increase when we have a surplus,” even though the proposed tax hike would have meant only an extra $15 in the city real estate levy for a property assessed at $100,000.

The surplus to which the mayor referred correctly is a $5 million contingency fund for whatever purpose city leaders deem necessary, such as storm sewer-related costs.

However, the city also has an additional $6 million in surplus money designated in part for vehicle replacements, as necessary, and for a grant-match fund, which laudably would position the city for accepting grant opportunities that would benefit the municipality and its people, going forward.

The point that still needs to be made is that the council should have rejected immediately the prospect of any tax increase — a tax hike that would have generated $280,000 a year — when latest projections estimated a $5.2 million contingency portion of money when this fiscal year ends on Dec. 31 plus an operating surplus of $176,000.

Then there is the issue of who should be responsible for maintenance of trees planted by the city near individual private properties.

The city’s long-held expectation that adjacent property owners would and should shoulder that responsibility has proven to be unrealistic over the years. That was cemented into realization last year by a controversy over whether property owners along Seventh and Eighth streets should pay for tree-trimming or removal to accommodate new, higher Amtran buses.

Property owners don’t routinely maintain a contingency fund of their own to accommodate spur-of-the-moment whims of their governmental entity, and city leaders last year were wrong in promoting the preposterous directive that they issued regarding residents of the two streets in question before later withdrawing it.

It also is important to point out that some of the trees that the city planted several decades ago weren’t ideal for the locations where they were planted. Even worse is that the city didn’t have — and still doesn’t have — an approved, formal, organized plan for addressing tree issues.

City leaders were toying with the idea of grasping for more money without first doing their proverbial homework.

A tree-care fund is a good idea but, considering Altoona’s surplus, that money should come from already available revenue, not by further burdening taxpayers.

By now, most trees have shed their leaves.

It is commendable that Altoona City Council has shed the proposed, unnecessary tree-care-funding plan from what otherwise is its usually sturdy “tree” of judgment.

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