St. Paul’s urban forest will take a beating next year, when the city plans to chop down 3,000 ash trees without planting anything in their place.
After more than a decade of scrambling to keep up with the invasive emerald ash borer, the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department is expecting to fall further behind in 2021 as it trims spending to help fill a nearly $20 million citywide budget shortfall.
In a budget presentation to the City Council on Wednesday, Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm called the lack of resources for tree planting in 2021 “a pretty dramatic change.”
“It is not ideal,” he said.
St. Paul has removed nearly 16,000 ash trees from its right of way since emerald ash borer was discovered in 2009 — the first documented infestation in the state. Today, more than 11,000 ash trees remain; to cut them down, grind up their stumps and plant new trees would cost nearly $20 million, or about half the department’s total budget.
Heading into 2021, the plan is to cut down 3,000 trees a year over three years, plus another 2,300 in 2024. Planting will begin again in 2022, with 630 trees.
For years, the parks department has relied on one-time funding sources to carry out its emerald ash borer work. City Council members have said the capital city shouldn’t have to fight the infestation alone, and on Wednesday they reiterated the call for regional, state and federal help.
Council Member Jane Prince asked whether there might also be grant money the city could tap into, or if individual homeowners might be able to chip in.
“I do think this is just a terrible problem that is really impacting our city’s quality of life,” she said.
Last week, council members capped the 2021 property tax levy increase at 0%, in keeping with Mayor Melvin Carter’s budget proposal. Because the city won’t collect any more property tax revenue than in 2020, departments are planning to delay projects and cut back services.
Parks and Recreation trimmed $2.7 million from its 2020 budget and is planning to cut about $1 million in 2021. The department has proposed shortening the hours of rec centers, cutting aquatics programs and deferring facilities maintenance.
Forestry Services, which has already suspended much of its non-emerald ash borer work, is anticipating a $650,000 funding reduction in 2021. Tree trimming, stump removal and planting will remain on the back burner so forestry can continue removing infested ash trees, which present a safety risk.
It costs about $1,000 to remove a stump and plant a new tree, according to the parks department. There are about 12,000 vacant spots on city streets that are waiting for trees, plus about 2,000 non-ash tree stumps.
Council President Amy Brendmoen likened the growing backlog — and the reliance on one-time solutions from which it stems — to others the city is facing, including a crumbling street network and aging buildings. The city needs more local government aid from the state, she said, not higher property taxes.
“It seems that every year I’ve been here, we’ve had to solve our budgets with one-time fixes,” Brendmoen said. “We just simply don’t have the amount of resources that we need.”