Speaking for the trees

Speaking for the trees

Just in time for the holidays, our front page brings news of a slew of new taxes proposed for The City in 2016.

The idea of more taxes might not warm the cockles of many hearts, but they aim to direct revenue toward many underfunded and needed services and all deserve a close look in the new year. The proposed taxes include a vehicle license fee, a sugary beverage tax, a parcel tax, a hotel tax, increased sales tax and tax on home sales, among others.

One problem in particular is the subject of two competing proposals after years of neglect: care of The City’s street trees.

As of now, supervisors John Avalos and Scott Wiener are drafting separate proposals to require The City to take back the care of street trees from property owners, who tend to resent the added burden, which can be thousands of dollars, and fail to do the work required to ensure safe conditions. Wiener’s proposal would only put street trees back under city ownership if voters approve a parcel tax to fund the expense. Avalos is proposing a charter amendment to prohibit the transfer of street trees and would couple the proposal with a carbon tax.

The City’s 2014 Urban Forestry Plan acknowledges the program or transferring street trees responsibility to property owners is not working. “Widely unpopular with the public, this approach puts trees at further risk for neglect and potential hazards,” the report says.

The report also notes that San Francisco has a smaller urban canopy than most major U.S. cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. That’s an embarrassing distinction for us. San Francisco needs to be a greener city, and one way to start is for The City to take ownership of its street trees, care for them and plant more of them.

Caring for San Francisco’s 105,000 street trees would cost about $20 million annually, according to the Department of Public Works.

For his part, Wiener told the San Francisco Examiner that mandating The City to take back the trees without dedicated funding would “result in continued deterioration of our urban forest.” That’s why he favors a parcel tax in November to pay for tree maintenance and related sidewalk repairs.

The City needs to do much more than just maintain a baseline of services. We need take advantage of this boom time to invest in our infrastructure and grow revenue to take care of our future needs. Many of the proposed taxes for the new year will bring healthy debate over how much. We encourage those discussions, and hope the majority of voters don’t shun all new taxes as an automatic response and give each issue reasoned thought.

Even if new taxes are rejected, though, it’s not an invitation for The City to neglect needed services. As for the trees, new taxes or not, The City must recognize its responsibility — It’s a matter of parity, public safety and sound environmental policy.

As Avalos told the Examiner last month, “We have unprecedented revenue, and we still haven’t figured how to take care of the trees and we are fobbing them off on property owners to take care of.”

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