EU funds

Unforested canopy trail: the mayor demands an apology and threatens legal action

Nyírmártonfalva mayor Mihály Filemon may boast a treetop walkway in his backyard, but he is still unhappy – if not downright morose.

The source of his dejection is an Atlatszo story that reported that the Fidesz mayor has built a treetop walkway with a HUF 60 million (cca 160 thousand EUR) EU grant, but had cut down the forest during the construction, so the poorly constructed facility now stands in the middle of a desert.

But Filemon objects. He objects to Atlatszo’s report that he built a 50-metre treetop walkway with the EU funds – he claims that he has not yet received a single forint of the HUF 60 million EU grant, nor has he received nearly half a billion forints in afforestation grants in 2022. He also objects to the treetop walkway’s length – which is apparently 80 metres long instead of the reported 50.

Atlatszo tried to reach out to the mayor several times as the story unfolded, but the requests were ignored. In turn, we obtained and quoted the contested data from public records.

So, the mayor is unhappy, and has requested corrections through his legal representative – but Atlatszo will not be making the corrections.

The forest was cut to the ground during the construction of the EU-funded treetop walkway in Nyírmártonfalva – English

The mayor of Nyírmártonfalva won a gross 64 million HUF (approximately 166 thousand EUR) EU funding for the project aimed at building an 50-metre-long canopy walkway. Unfortunately, the forest was cut to the ground during the construction of the treetop walkway, which now stands in a desert.

The mayor’s quibble

Atlatszo reported the construction of a treetop walkway and a forest rest area in collaboration with independent MP Ákos Hadházy. According to the public procurement notice, the project was completed in December 2022. The notice also stated: „Compensation will be provided by the Managing Authority of the Rural Development Programme’s VP4-8.5.2-17 development of public welfare functions of forest ecosystems project.”

The project was built on the mayor’s private property after he won the HUF 60 million grant as a private citizen. In a bizarre twist, the forest was cut down during construction, which has left the walkway standing alone in the middle of a wasteland.

We received a request for corrections last week – but Atlatszo tried to contact Filemon multiple times before publication. The mayor did not respond to our emails and refused to appear in our video. We also contacted the mayor’s office and his guest house – subsidised by HUF 50 million EU money – to no avail.

Completely and utterly ghosted – until after the article appeared, when the mayor emerged to request the following corrections:

  • As the subsidy for the walkway has not yet been paid, the walkway was not built with EU money.
  • The near-half billion HUF funding for afforestation listed on the EU’s grant website is incorrect.
  • The bizarre monument was planned to be 80 metres long, not the reported 50 metres.

But Atlatszo is insistent: when we reported that the mayor received EU funding for the treetop walkway, we reported the truth. Filemon applied for the EU funding, won it, and built his promenade-in-the-skies – whether payment arrives before or after is pretty much irrelevant.

Ex-post financing is a form of payment for costs incurred in EU projects, where the grant is paid by transfer following the submission and acceptance of a payment request and after physical and financial completion is verified. This defeats Filemon’s argument, which fundamentally is that we cannot report that the walkway received EU funding until said EU funding lands in his account.

Filemon explains

Although the mayor did not speak to Atlatszo directly, he made several comments to other platforms regarding the walkway extravaganza.

„That the forest has reached the end of its life is one thing, because the forest that has just been cut down will be replaced by a new forest. Back in 2017, I submitted my application to support the creation of the forest walkway. If the forest walkway had been built then, we could have enjoyed the view of the canopy from above for years to come,” he explained to Cívishír.

„However, I only received the grant in 2021, and if you compare the construction prices, the 2017 prices are not even close to the 2021-22 prices. We are not profiteering, we put money into this. The public funding we received had to be supplemented with our own resources, as the tender is post-financed,” he said.

He told ATV News: “When the tender was announced, the forest was still there. I repeat, the forest is not a condition for the investment, and there is no requirement on how high the forest should be.

„We submitted the application at the end of 2017, beginning of 2018, and unfortunately it took four years to evaluate it, while the forest grew. When we received the grant award documents, we started to implement the investment, but by then, the forest was four years older. We had to finance the investment from something – because the forest had reached cutting age, we cut it down and put the money in this investment.”

In the call for tender, it is stated that the grant applicant is obliged to maintain the public welfare facilities for five years after the completion of the project. The grant can cover up to 80 per cent of the total costs – which would be HUF 64 million in this case, with the project costing a total of HUF 80 million.

The notice specified: „The project is eligible only if it is located in a forest area registered in the National Forest Inventory or if it is carried out on land directly used for forestry activities as defined in Article 13(1)(a)-(d), (f), (g), (h)(i) of the National Forest Inventory.”

The Forest Map classifies Filemon’s forest as a public clearcut forest – which means that most of the standing trees are logged at the same time, and few trees remain post-harvest – a questionable location for a treetop walkway. And although the tender does not specify the mandatory height of the forest in centimetres, it does state that the aid is „for investment to increase the resilience and environmental value of forest ecosystems”.

This sounds promising, albeit difficult now that there is no forest left on the mayor’s land.

Momentum MEP Anna Donáth and independent MP Ákos Hadházy announced that they will be taking their concerns about the walkway to the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF).

Three little builders travelled to Brussels (and then deleted their joint selfie)

As we reported in our previous story, two other Fidesz politicians have also built treetop walkways in the area. László Tasó, a member of the regional parliament, and Sándor Tasi, a Fidesz deputy chairman of the county council, have also applied for EU funding for their projects.

László Tasó hastily posted a 39-second image video of his completed treetop walkway following our visit. Our article also provoked Tasó into a Brussels- and Soros-bashing rant on his social media page.

„I could file a criminal complaint against the Member of Parliament Ákos H. – whose behaviour gives the impression of a man deranged – for defamation and slander, as well as for the attack campaign launched by artificially generated pseudo-profiles on portals operated by local and national civil networks of the Soros empire,” wrote Tasó, whose longwindedness was no doubt aggravated by the many perceived injustices.

„However, the outcome of judicial practice in my experience is that, as a public figure, you have to put up with these demonstrably false and defamatory allegations,” he continued. „I will therefore spend the considerable legal fees on beautifying the hiking trail with forest flowers and shrubs,” he promised.

Despite the gargantuan forest flower-cum-shrubbery beautification palooza ahead of him, Tasó made time for a trip to Brussels with Tasi and Filemont, where they took a group selfie with the caption

“In only a few days, we’ll get the EU funding (as well)”.

The post was spotted by Ákos Hadházy, which made Tasó uncomfortable enough to delete the picture. But he did not delete the group photos, which show the entire walkway-erecting funky bunch.

A walkway to see from, but no lights to see with

While canopy walkways are springing up willy-nilly, the village of Nyírmártonfalva does not have enough money for street lighting.

Since 2022, as an emergency measure with view to the war in Ukraine, the government has given municipal councils the discretion to decide the duration and extent of street lighting. Because Mihály Filemon’s municipality is not in good financial standing – in fact, it’s in a pretty poor one – the idea of saving by turning off night-time street lighting was brought up at the March council meeting.

And although the proposal was tabled and the decision postponed by the mayor, it’s possibility in the first place illustrates clearly the municipality’s fiscal realities. According to the minutes of the board meeting, the proposed four-hour switch-off time would save the municipality HUF 5 million in one year. With the same equation, the EU grant of HUF 60 million for a treetop walkway on the edge of the village would allow Nyírmártonfalva to be lit for 12 years overnight.

Translated by Vanda Mayer. The original, Hungarian version of this story was written by Szilvia Zsilák and can be found here