National Legal and Policy Center: Stimulus Program Delivered Free Trees to Rich People…and a Reporter
NLPC has reported regularly on several of the large-ticket boondoggles that have received taxpayer support via President Obama’s “green” stimulus initiatives, but for every Fisker, Nissan Leaf or Ecotality, there are thousands of smaller, equally unworthy beneficiaries that deserve public scorn.
Government watchdogs – both “professional” and amateur – can scour the Recovery.gov Web site and find the waste pretty easily. But KCNC-TV reporter Brian Maass had the stimulus program come to his doorstep. Denver had launched a program, paid for out of the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, to plant about 4,000 trees at private residences (photo courtesy KCNC) – many in high-priced neighborhoods that didn’t need the free shade.
“This fella said, ‘How would you like to have a tree in your yard?’ And I said, ‘Really?,’” said John Backlund, who lives in Denver’s Cherry Creek North neighborhood in a home worth more than $700,000, in a report Maass filed for the local CBS affiliate. “Too good of a deal to say no to. I was happy to get the free tree.”
Maass’s own experience wasn’t that direct. He said last summer he requested and received a tree through a different city program, funded by local property taxes, in which a resident picks up a tree and plants it in front of his home in the right-of-way, usually between the sidewalk and street.
But weeks later Maass said a city parks and recreation department employee came into his yard and started marking where underground utility lines were for the purpose of planting a tree. Maass informed the worker that he already got his tree, but the employee said this tree was under another program and that Maass applied for it – which he could not remember doing!
“They had so many trees to give away,” Maass told NLPC in an email, “I think they borrowed from that other government list figuring if those people were planting trees in the right-of-way, then maybe they also needed a tree in their front yard. They have acknowledged there was some ‘cross pollination’ between those lists.”
So Maass allowed the city employee to proceed, and got his tree planted, but he said as the “process wore on” he investigated further and discovered the trees – and thousands of others – were paid for from the Recovery Act. It may be the easiest reporter’s tip in the history of journalism.
“A CBS4 investigation found that the tree program had no income guidelines,” Maass reported, “so trees ended up being planted at homes in Denver’s Country Club neighborhood, Hilltop, Belcaro and Washington Park neighborhoods — all considered upscale areas of the city.”
The city’s forester confirmed the program is “open to anybody” and about $600,000 was spent to buy and plant the trees. Maass said he was told the way the program stimulates the economy was to use the government funds to create jobs planting trees. The concept is reminiscent of the phony scenario concocted last year by Project Veritas undercover video maker James O’Keefe, who tried to promote a company that just dug holes and filled them back in as one that could be eligible for stimulus money. He was able to gain sympathetic support from New York union bosses who admitted green jobs are “bull****,” but that the make-work is a legitimate use for taxpayer funds.
“I think as long as people are working, that’s not bull,” the union leader said. “You know what I mean? Then you’re doing a service.”
As for the tree program, it was part of a $6.1 million stimulus grant to the City and County of Denver for a myriad of initiatives, in which they were to be “strategically planted…to shade homes.” According to reports compiled at Recovery.gov one of the contractors, T2 Construction, tasked with the “strategic placement” of trees to reduce energy use, was paid $76,044 for the project. The city reported to Recovery.gov that tree planting created .73 “jobs” for the fourth quarter of 2012. Maybe in 10 years the trees will have grown enough to take a couple dollars off residents’ electric bills.
The planting of the trees was not the only make-work under the $6 million grant. There also was (were?) the Denver bureaucrat(s) who did the administrative work to determine that residents like Maass were looking for trees. Because, apparently, no one was demanding any of the 4,000 trees allocated from the stimulus grant, city workers had to go out and find them – as with KCNC interviewee John Backlund. And with others, such as Maass, they likely just pulled from the city’s list of tree requesters from the right-of-way program and then told them they requested the stimulus trees.
“I asked program administrators repeatedly if they could show me or prove to me that I proactively applied,” Maass told NLPC. “They have not provided me that verification. So I am still not 100 percent sure how I ended up on their list.”
Adding insult to injury, according to a Colorado Watchdog report last summer, the Denver Housing Authority has cut down trees to install solar panels for its subsidized housing projects.
So voila! – more fractions of make-work jobs created by President Obama’s green energy stimulus. But there’s more! Besides planting trees (and cutting them down), Denver said the U.S. Department of Energy grant would also pay for initiatives such as: conducting energy audits and “recommissioning” existing City facilities; replacing 2,000 incandescent traffic signal lamps with LEDs; integrating the goals of the program to update the City’s Climate Action Plan; adopting energy efficiency building codes; providing financial incentives to small businesses who implement energy efficiency projects; expanding energy services provided to neighborhoods; and purchasing bicycles and kiosks for seven stations located near light rail stops “to better integrate Denver’s bike share system with public transit.”
Discerning eyes would recognize that most of the above activity is a waste of $6 million, with zero cost-benefit analysis conducted before implementation, and minimal accountability about the performance of such measures afterward. For example, if genuine energy savings are to be realized, then businesses and residents – if they want them bad enough – will pursue them on their own without need of a government incentive. On a policy level, the benefit realized from the implementation of the initiatives for the public is dubious at best.
In fact, on their face, it can be argued that some of the actions are ridiculously wasteful. The replacement and discard of perfectly working traffic signal bulbs with far more expensive LEDs, whose life span is not proven to be significantly superior, is foolish. Add the labor cost to replace all the lamps, and the more worthwhile activities those employees could be doing in their time, and you again come up with a “make-work” result.
The Denver block grant, funded by U.S. taxpayers, is the perfect example of how government’s intervention in private markets promotes waste and inefficiency. You can literally multiply this case by thousands of grants – and billions of dollars – that have been delivered to state and local governments from the stimulus.
Maass, to his credit, wanted no part of the scheme. He said he paid Denver’s government $150 for the tree that they can’t prove he requested.
Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes CarolinaPlottHound.com, an aggregator of North Carolina news.