Seven to 10 times a day, Jaeson Morrison's phone rings. Someone in Richfield is worried about a tree.

An old elm looks weird. Something horrible is growing on a hackberry. A tree has bugs -- is it emerald ash borer?

So Morrison, a tree inspector who six months from now will probably be driving a snowplow, hops into his Richfield Public Works car -- a converted police black-and-white -- and goes out to take a look.

This year's discovery of emerald ash borer in St. Paul has communities around the Twin Cities scrambling to develop plans for identification and disposal of thousands of infected ash trees. City foresters say they're busier than ever. But demand for tree expertise is coming at the same time cities are cutting budgets.

In many places, including Richfield, the job of city forester has been combined with other duties.

"I believe that cities across the state lack the capacity to respond to emerald ash borer," said Katie Himanga, president of the Minnesota Shade Tree Advisory Committee, which advises the state and Legislature on urban tree issues. "I'm concerned that urban forestry has been so eroded in communities that there might not even be a person to get up to speed on emerald ash borer and get the information out, let alone update city ordinances."

Ken Holman, community forestry coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources, said he thinks the 500 Minnesota cities that have state-certified tree inspectors are holding off on cutting positions because of worry about emerald ash borer. But Craig Johnson, a lobbyist with the League of Minnesota Cities who, like Himanga and Holman, serves on the shade tree committee, isn't sure that's enough to save those jobs.

When budget-pressed cities have to choose between "keeping a half-time police officer or inspecting trees, there's no contest," Johnson said. "The trees can't win."

In Minneapolis, the Park and Recreation Board is responsible for caring for trees in parks as well as 199,000 street trees. Ten of the board's 51 arborist positions are vacant through attrition. Ralph Sievert, director of forestry, said good weather and no storm damage has allowed him to keep 10 tree inspectors combing the city for Dutch elm disease, oak wilt and stressed ashes.

This fall, Sievert said, his department may begin cutting down failing or badly pruned ash trees to get a head start on removal. His department also has identified two areas where hundreds of ash trees could be dumped to be processed into harmless mulch.

"We had the benefit of learning from Dutch elm disease 30 years ago," he said. "We've got a well-organized program and can readily adapt to this."

So far, emerald ash borer has been confirmed only in St. Paul. But in mid-June, near the border of Minnetonka and Plymouth, a resident photographed a bug that experts say looks like an ash borer. Traps were put in the area, which is regularly inspected and remains under surveillance, said Geir Friisoe of the state Department of Agriculture. So far, no borers have been found.

In St. Louis Park, former city forester Jim Vaughan is now city environmental coordinator, working with everything from storm water to wildlife control. A city forestry position has been cut and Vaughan's budget is tighter, but the city hires a tree inspector for the summer. Vaughan helps as he can. The city has 4,000 ash trees on boulevards.

"We're doing more with less," he said. "I think we have a strong program here. ... With emerald ash borer, I think we'll be around awhile."

In Richfield, where the full-time forestry position was cut this year to save money, the City Council decided trees were a priority. Morrison, who already worked for the city, was trained as a tree inspector to fill the job gap. The council rejected a proposal to let diseased elms linger until winter to save money on tree removal.

"When we ask people why they move here, people mention the mature trees," said Council Member Sue Sandahl. "It makes a difference in how your city is viewed. They are a valuable resource."

In Minnetonka, city forester Emily Barbeau is part of a four-person natural resources division. In the summer, the city adds two tree inspectors and a forestry assistant. Barbeau said she gets about 45 tree calls each day. She does not have time to look at trees on private property.

"I could talk to people all day about trees ... but I just don't have time to talk to every resident for 20 minutes," she said.

She directs callers who are worried about the borer to state websites and to other sites to aid with tree identification. Public education is a big part of her job, she said. Early detection of the borer is difficult because adult beetles are rarely seen and borer symptoms -- a thinning tree canopy, perhaps with woodpecker activity as the birds mine the bark for bugs -- are subtle.

Mike Eastling, Richfield's director of public works, said that in 20 years with the city he's never seen so much attention to forestry.

"The forestry function is kind of invisible, and then issues come up," he said. "One thing we got from our City Council is that this is an important function, and even though we couldn't do it in a traditional fashion, we got it done."

Like Minneapolis, Richfield is thinking of removing failing ash trees.

"Maybe if we remove them gradually and get them replaced, we can soften [the effect of the emerald ash borer] over time," he said.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380