City officials say they don’t have enough money to adequately care for San Francisco’s thousands of street trees and that local property owners will have to pick up the bill.
The cost-switching plan is part of Mayor Ed Lee’s $6.8 billion budget proposal for the new fiscal year that starts July 1.
Faced with having to close a projected $306 million deficit, the mayor wants to trim $600,000 from the city’s cost for street tree care next year. That would amount to a 27 percent decrease from this year’s budget of $2.2 million.
The mayor’s solution: dump responsibility for 23,715 of the 38,559 street trees under the city’s jurisdiction. That means more property owners will be on the hook for pruning trees, caring for them when they’re sick or damaged, and paying for sidewalk repair caused by root damage – costs that could be substantial.
The proposal comes after then-Mayor Gavin Newsom directed the city in 2005 to plant 25,000 new trees over five years to help beautify the streetscape, remove air pollutants and reduce storm water entering the sewer system.
What the program didn’t include, though, was enough money for long-term maintenance for all the city’s street trees.
This isn’t the first time the city unilaterally decided to have private property owners pay for street tree maintenance. Fifteen years ago, the city relinquished control of tens of thousands of other street trees in residential neighborhoods to cut costs and allow public works crews to focus the remaining resources on the trees that line major streets.
As a result, the city now maintains about one-third of the trees planted along sidewalk curb lines. If the mayor’s plan is approved by the Board of Supervisors, the city-owned stock of those trees would be less than 10 percent. When the planted medians are included, there are an estimated 103,559 street trees in San Francisco.
“We’d really rather not have to do this, but feel it’s the responsible and equitable thing to do, given the state of our resources,” said Ed Reiskin, head of the city’s Department of Public Works. There now are 11 arborists on the city’s street trees crew. Reiskin said triple that number would be needed to keep pace with the recommended practice of pruning trees in a three- to five-year cycle. The city now prunes its trees every 10 to 12 years, unless a particular tree poses an imminent threat to people or property.
Next year’s proposed budget calls for only seven arborists on the street tree maintenance crew.
“We’re really just putting out fires most of the time; we don’t have a lot of time for general maintenance,” said Nili Niu, an arborist with the city for the past three decades. On Thursday, Niu and his partner were working on Hyde Street, pruning ficus trees two to three stories high whose branches were touching the nearby buildings.
Reiskin said the turnover would be phased in over the next seven years or longer. The city won’t give up control over a tree until it has been properly pruned and deemed healthy. Among the dozens of streets that would be affected are portions of Silver Avenue, Union Street, Vermont Street, Diamond Street, Folsom Street, Lake Street, Laguna Street and Moraga Street.
Dan Flanagan, executive director of the nonprofit organization Friends of the Urban Forest, criticized the proposal.
“I think it would be a tragedy, quite frankly,” he said. “The city doesn’t turn over the sewer system; it doesn’t turn over the streets. It shouldn’t turn over trees,” he said.
The city should be putting more money into the street tree program, not less, he said. Reiskin agrees, but the funding crunch dictates otherwise. He suggested that the city should look at forming a landscape assessment district to charge property owners an annual fee for greening initiatives. However, no official moves have been made to put that idea before voters, he said.
In the meantime, he said efforts will be made to work with property owners “and undertake this process as sensitively as possible.”
E-mail Rachel Gordon at email@example.com.