Categorized | IN OUR COMMUNITY

City Council restores funds for ash stump removal

Posted on 05 June 2017 by Calvin

Residents of streets where ash trees were removed won’t have to look at stumps too much longer. On a 5-1 vote May 17, the St. Paul City Council approved transferring $450,000 from contingency funds to chip out boulevard stumps and replace trees. That money partially restores emerald ash borer mitigation funding for 2017.

Stump removal will take place in the weeks ahead. Replacement trees will be planted in the fall or next spring in some areas. That’s good news for residents who had trees cut down this spring. Many people were dismayed to learn that funding wasn’t available to remove the stumps and plant new trees. The situation prompted an outpouring of calls, e-mails, and letters to City Hall, as well as protests on social media. One street that was hit hard by removal of trees this spring was Montana Ave. west of Grotto St.

But not every area will get new trees right away. Macalester-Groveland homeowners will have to wait until a street reconstruction project that starts in 2018. The city delays planting new trees if a street is slated to be rebuilt, because construction can damage tree roots.

Department of Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm said the added dollars would help with the city’s program of removing trees and stumps, and then replacing the trees. Tight budgets meant trees were simply cut down this spring. “This (funding) gets us to where we need to be,” he said. “It will get us through 2017.”

Council members Amy Brendmoen, Jane Prince, Dai Thao and Chris Tolbert, sponsored the resolution adding funds back to the forestry program. Thao was absent for the vote; Rebecca Noecker and Dan Bostrom joined the vote in support.

Council President Russ Stark cast the lone vote against the funding shift. While saying he understands the frustrations residents have over losing trees to emerald ash borer, Stark opposes spending the contingency funds. The city is taking $400,000 from the 2016-2017 Long-Range Capital Improvement Budget (CIB) contingency fund, which is used when brick-and-mortar projects go over budget. Another $50,000 is coming from a 2018 Department of Public Works streets program contingency fund.

Spending contingency now means it won’t be available if it is needed later this construction season, Stark said. “We won’t be able to do emergency needs.” Stark also noted that the city had to turn down some small capital projects, which got set aside for the forestry needs.

Other council members said the current situation isn’t acceptable. Brendmoen was dismayed to see block after block where stumps were left sticking up along the street. She compared it to the city starting a street project and then putting down gravel and delaying pavement. “We need to finish the job.”

The city’s CIB Committee recommended approval of the funding May 8.

For 2017 the city had initially set aside an additional $892,424 to deal with emerald ash borer, supplementing almost $1.3 million. But that additional funding and many other budget proposals had to be shelved in the wake of a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling on street right-of-way maintenance assessments.* The ruling meant major changes to how the city pays for street maintenance and forced the council to plug a plus-$30 million budget hole.

Hahm said the city has had to cover the majority of emerald ash borer-related costs itself and has only received a limited amount of state assistance. The League of Minnesota Cities has tried for several years to seek a more comprehensive funding solution from the Minnesota Legislature but haven’t met success.

In 2009 emerald ash borer was found in South St. Anthony Park. That gave St. Paul the dubious distinction of being the first city in the state where the insects were found. Now, more than 95 percent of the city is directly impacted by the insects. Compared to 2015, the city has a 400 percent increase in infested trees.

What’s worrisome is that with emerald ash borer, the insects’ spread and tree loss accelerates ten years after the first insects are found.

The city has treated some trees with insecticides, and issues a permit for homeowners who want to pay to treat their boulevard trees. But the main strategy has been to survey trees and remove those that are infested or are in decline. Unhealthy ash trees can become very brittle, and branches fall, creating safety and property damage issues for the city.

The spread of emerald ash borer has meant that St. Paul has lost 9,149 of its boulevard ash trees, with another 17,909 awaiting removal. About 1,100 of the estimated 5,500 parks ash trees have been removed. It’s not known how many trees on private property have been infested.

(*Editor’s Note: St. Paul maintained that because the city is home to so many government offices, schools, universities, churches, and nonprofits, roughly one-third of the city is off the tax rolls. Unable to levy property taxes on those entities, the city used “fees” to recoup funds for essential services such as snow plowing. The Supreme Court ruled that St. Paul’s “maintenance fee” was really a tax and that it needed to be addressed as such. )