By Lowell Brown
Denton, TX (September 6, 2010)- Denton city leaders are struggling to find a way to pay the city’s urban forester amid slumping tax revenues and budget cuts. The latest proposal would have Denton Municipal Electric, the city’s electric utility, pay for most of the forester’s salary to reduce the burden on the general fund. Urban forester E.J. Cochrum’s position and salary currently fall under the planning department.
City officials say the idea makes sense because Cochrum already advises DME on issues including tree trimming near utility lines. But some fear the change could lessen the forester’s focus on enforcing the city’s 2004 tree preservation code. Pati Haworth, a tree preservation advocate who is serving on a city panel reviewing the tree code, opposes the change. She served on a committee that reviewed the code in 2005 and 2006 and urged the city to hire an urban forester.
“Enforcement of the tree ordinance is a key responsibly of the urban forester, as the ordinance triggered the call by citizens for creation and funding of the position,” Haworth said. “It’s easy to see the time available for enforcement could easily shrink to little or nothing [under the proposal], an effective backdoor way of removing the few remaining teeth from the tree ordinance.” Not so, said Fred Greene, the assistant city manager over the planning department. “It’s not removing him from his job duties in planning,” Greene said. “It’s just the fact that DME is recognizing that they use him a great deal” and is offering to help pay for the work.
Cochrum, a 2005 graduate of New Mexico State University, worked as a forester for Texas-New Mexico Power Co. before being hired as Denton’s first urban forester in February 2008. He said the proposed change wouldn’t hinder his ability to enforce the tree code. “I don’t think it will affect my job duties at all,” Cochrum said. “I already work with multiple departments” including DME. The proposal is part of City Manager George Campbell’s recommended budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. The City Council will hold a public hearing on the budget Tuesday before voting to adopt it Sept. 21.
The proposal calls for DME, which is funded by ratepayers, to start paying three-fourths of the forester’s salary. The general fund, financed by taxpayers, would pay the rest. The combined cost of the position is about $78,500 a year, including salary and benefits. DME has money in its tree trimming program budget to pay its share, so the change won’t require a rate increase, officials said. The cost allocation is based on an estimate of the division of duties between DME and general fund activities and could change later to reflect Cochrum’s actual workload, Finance Director Bryan Langley said.
“In other words, the allocation of costs to DME may increase or decrease as a result of the services that are used in the future,” Langley said in an e-mail. DME, like other city utilities, already pays a cost-of-service transfer to the general fund each year to reimburse the city for using common services such as legal, payroll and accounting. DME hasn’t paid a cost-of-service transfer related to Cochrum’s position in the past but consistently calls on him for various jobs, including creating tree trimming standards and evaluating the health of trees near power lines for possible removal, said Lisa Lemons, a DME spokeswoman. “It’s a logical fit,” Lemons said of the job funding proposal. “He was already performing a good deal of tasks for us.”
The proposal came after council members rejected an earlier plan to start paying the forester through the tree mitigation fund, which collects money from developers who can’t meet the city’s onsite tree preservation standards. The move would have required an ordinance change, since salaries aren’t an eligible use for tree mitigation funds. “That was not the goal [of the fund],” Mayor Mark Burroughs said during a budget workshop Aug. 5. “There should not be an incentive to have developers cut down the trees so we can pay for our forester.”
Burroughs said in an interview Friday that he would ensure city staff “makes the case” for the latest proposal. “There’s always a concern whenever funding sources [for a city worker] get shifted that their mission gets significantly shifted,” Burroughs said.
Denton Record-Chronicle- City seeks way to pay forester