Inspector general takes a whack at tree trimming

Joe Ferguson says Chicago is trimming fewer trees more sporadically and at a higher cost because city crews rely on 311 requests, instead of a grid system.

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Downed tree along Northwest Highway in Chicago’s Edison Park neighborhood.

One reason to trim trees regularly is to keep them from interfering with power lines if the trees fall down in a storm, which is what happened to this tree in Edison Park.

Sun-Times file photo

Chicago is trimming fewer trees at a higher cost because city crews rely on 311 requests, instead of proactively using a grid system to trim trees on a regular basis, Inspector General Joe Ferguson has concluded.

Ten years ago, a consultant hired by the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation concluded that switching to a grid system — already used for garbage collection and graffiti removal — could reduce travel times by 35 percent, cut costs by 60 percent and increase the daily productivity of tree trimming crews by a whopping 147 percent.

That would reduce a “significant backlog” that has forced parts of the city to wait 10 years for tree trimming services.

On Wednesday, Ferguson chided the Department of Streets and Sanitation for ignoring the Monitor Group’s “overwhelming findings in favor of a grid-based approach” and continuing to trim trees only in response to 311 requests.

The inspector general called Streets and Sanitation Commissioner John Tully’s promise to develop an “inventory of the city’s tree canopy” a “step in the right direction.”

Inspector General Joe Ferguson

Inspector General Joe Ferguson says a grid system for tree trimming would save the city money.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

But Ferguson said it is “only a starting point for an urgently-needed, generational re-assessment of the management of the city’s dwindling urban forest.” He noted Chicago’s tree canopy is “substantially smaller” than other major cities.

“Since DSS crews must travel throughout the city to handle individual 311 requests, they spend more time traveling and fewer city trees are trimmed. In addition, since some area residents do not regularly call 311 to request tree trims, many city trees have not been trimmed in over ten years,” Ferguson wrote in a letter to Tully.

Ferguson strongly urged Tully to switch to a grid system; the “benefits of more horticulturally-precise and cost-effective tree trimming are substantial,” he wrote, and go beyond cost.

“A thriving and healthy urban forest is critical to mitigating ever-mounting climate change concerns like the urban heat island effect and excessive storm water runoff,” the inspector general wrote, pointing to “stark differences” between neighborhoods that “generally correlate with tree canopy percentages.”

“Chicago’s communities and individuals particularly stand to benefit from a more efficient and equitable city service, with obvious environmental health benefits, including cleaner air, natural cooling, and reduction of stress in children. Strategic, rather than reactive, tree care also prevents property damage, utility interruptions, and street closures.”

In a statement, Tully acknowledged that tree trimming is a “vital service for city residents” and said Streets and Sanitation is “continuously exploring new operational efficiencies to improve service delivery.”

“DSS currently uses a blitz model for tree trimming which focuses resources in targeted areas allowing DSS crews to maximize productivity while minimizing travel time between jobs,” the commissioner was quoted as saying.

He also pointed to a “tree trimming apprenticeship to aid workforce development and increase efficiency.”

“In 2020, DSS also plans to develop a comprehensive tree inventory, which does not currently exist, to inform daily operations and improve response to weather-related events,” the commissioner said.

Ferguson’s advisory includes an analysis of response times to tree trimming requests; it shows a disparity between wards.

From Jan. 1, 2016, through Dec. 18, 2018, tree-trimming requests in the Southwest Side’s 23rd Ward took 63.5 days to complete. In the North Side’s 46th Ward, the average response time was 151.4 days.

“Transitioning to a grid-based approach would reduce these inequities because all of the city’s trees would be trimmed on an ongoing, cyclical basis,” Ferguson wrote.

In 2011, the city made dramatic cuts in forestry and rodent control services as it struggled to keep the streets clean and pick up garbage amid a two-year hiring freeze and chronic absenteeism.

One year later, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel cut a deal with organized labor that, he claimed, could save $30 million over six years and speed response times to service requests.

It allowed newly-hired Streets and Sanitation employees to be paid at an hourly rate of $20 — $13 lower than the old rate — and be cross-trained in other jobs so they can be moved freely among those jobs based on the city’s needs.

For those new hires, the probationary period was four years, not six months. And instead of pre-negotiated pay hikes, they got raises based on hours worked.

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