Elm removal cost has city leaders gulping

Keeping up with Dutch Elm disease will cost $2.6 million - does anybody have the cash?

Dutch Elm disease's resurgence in Minneapolis is a crisis, say members of a city Tree Advisory Committee.

Now the question is: does the cash-strapped city, the cash-strapped Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board or some other entity have the millions of dollars a year needed to save the canopy?

The Tree Committee issued an emergency report to the Park Board Jan. 4. Its top priority is removing diseased elms on public land within 20 days, said Chair Margaret "Peggy" Booth.

Ralph Sievert, head of Park Board forestry, said it now takes park crews two to three months on average to remove diseased trees from public land. It would cost an extra $2.6 million a year to meet the 20-day removal timeframe, he said.

Mayor R.T. Rybak met privately with Tree Committee members Jan. 10, and said when he heard the $2.6 million figure "it made me gulp."

The $2.6 million would increase the $8.6 million 2005 forestry budget by 30 percent, according to committee materials. It would represent more than a 5 percent increase in Park Board's General Fund spending.

The Park Board estimated the city had approximately 68,710 elms in 2003, with 60 percent on public land.

Between 1991 and 2001, city elm losses on public and private land never topped 3,078 trees, Park Board data said. In 2004 - the third-worst year on record - the city lost approximately 9,600 elms.

Tree experts site multiple factors for the increase, from weather factors and delays in removing diseased trees to public complacency.

The new money - if it could be found - would pay for 28 new forestry employees, bringing the total to approximately 121, according to the Tree Advisory Committee's report. It also would pay for five additional aerial-lift bucket trucks, bringing the Park Board's total to 12, as well as brush chippers, chipper trucks and personnel vans.

The Park Board created the 11-member Tree Advisory Committee in 2004 at the urging of Commissioner John Erwin.

Booth told the Park Board delaying tree removal would substantially increase the disease's spread and the future costs.

Erwin suggested the committee report back after talking to city leaders to see what if any financial help might be available.

Lorrie Stromme, a Tree Committee member and aide to Council President Paul Ostrow, said the committee would report to the Council's Transportation and Public Works Committee Feb. 1. The tree group is also looking for other sources of money, including grants, she said.

Said Rybak, "I want them to go back and check the figures and the way dollars are spent. No matter what comes out, we know we have a very expensive and very serious challenge."

The Park Board had to find the bulk of the money, Rybak said, noting trees were a Park Board responsibility.

Rybak lobbied the City Council to add $200,000 to the city's 2004 bonding so the Park Board could plant more trees. He hasn't ruled out putting more money in future capital budgets. Trees are essential to the city's character, he said.

(Tree planting money would not help the Park Board hire staff and buy equipment to removed diseased trees.)

Rybak recommended the Park Board make trees its No. 1 borrowing request at the Legislature.

Parks Superintendent Jon Gurban said the Park Board is still working on its legislative agenda and would vote on in Jan. 19, after the Journal's deadline.

The printed agenda for the Jan. 19 legislative and intergovernmental affairs committee listed five borrowing priorities, none of them concerning Dutch elm disease. They were: Lake of the Isles reconstruction ($5 million); Upper River Marina ($3 million); East Phillips Cultural Arts Center ($3.5 million); J.D. rivers Urban Agriculture Awareness Center ($2.5 million) and planning and design for the Grand Rounds Missing Link ($250,000).

Park Board Commissioner Walt Dziedzic, chair of the Board's Legislative and Intergovernmental Committee, said Dutch Elm disease "is part of the urban forest agenda, and I am sure it will rank very high."

Rybak said he promised the Tree Committee members he would help raise private dollars to address the problem. He would meet with the U.S. Forestry Service to explore federal funds during his upcoming trip to Washington, D.C. for a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting.

The Tree Committee also recommended enforcing removal of diseased elms on private property in a 20-day period, though some Park Board Commissioners said the area did not have enough private contractors to keep up with demand.

Commissioner Annie Young said the Board could have used more of its surplus reserve to address Dutch Elm disease, instead of spending it to pay off the mortgage on the new headquarters building.

Michael Schmidt, head of Park Board operations and maintenance, said the $2.6 million would not be a one-time fix, but an ongoing expense.