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City will step up care of street trees
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City street trees will be pruned on a five-year cycle following a Monday night City Council decision not to thrown maintenance responsibilities into the lap of homeowners.

Monday's Study Session before the council concluded years of talk about how to deal with the backlog of tree maintenance requests.

Jeremy Damas, the city's Deputy Public Works Director, said the council has the option of turning over pruning and/or tree removal responsibilities to property owners to save $100,000 annually. He cited the city of Turlock as one local city that took that action. But the Ceres City Council decided to add $25,000 to the annual $100,000 street tree budget as well as spend $46,000 annually over three next years to either prune or remove and replace some of the "high-risk" trees that threaten to topple and damage property or take lives.

Until now, the city has only pruned trees as requested by homeowners or on an as-needed basis. But because the city has capped tree care at $100,000 annually - which comes out of the general fund - it has been unable to keep up with demand.

"Our current budget, which has been in place for the last couple of years of, about $100,000, is clearly not adequate," said City Manager Toby Wells.

On average, the city receives 184 requests per year for tree trimming, 209 requests for removal and 45 requests for re-plantings.

"Obviously not all these requests are getting met," said Damas.

Wells asked if the council wanted to continue maintaining street trees or turn it over to the homeowner who would be responsible for the upkeep and any damage to concrete sidewalks or curbs. In the past the city council has said it doesn't want to do that.

The city and its street maintenance contractor, West Coast Arborist, used its Arbor Access computer program to inventory 11,509 trees as official city street trees. The process has identified 2,800 vacant spots where trees should be. The city estimates that the trees have a value of $24.5 million based on height and species for insurance purposes.

Damas said the company and the city have identified 192 trees as "high risk." A total of 69 are dead and 31 that are poorly structured and could topple. He suggested the council allocate $140,000 as a one-time cost to remedy those older trees so they don't cause damage or greater costs later. Remedies include removal and replacement. That aggressive remedy push would bring the city in line to catch up and maintain a regular pruning schedule to stay ahead.

Damas said he is concerned about the possibility of a wet winter brought on by El Nino that may cause many of the high-risk trees to topple over, damaging property.

The council, led by Mayor Chris Vierra, agreed to spread that attention on high-risk trees and costs over the next three years.

Damas said the city's mostly young trees will get more expensive in time.

The new computer program and inventory process has defined which trees are city street trees and which were planted by homeowners. Confusion has resulted about some trees because in some cases the city planted trees in the public utility easement but outside of the planting easement. Wells said the Arbor Access program allows a city worker to use a hand-held device to stand by any tree to ascertain if the city is responsible for its care.

The city asked West Coast Arborist to put together a plan to prune street trees - the majority of which are Chinese pistaches and ash trees -- on an every five years basis. That cost comes to $138,000 over the five years. Damas said the plan would allow the city to stay on top of tree maintenance.

Monday's decision now prompts the city to retool its city ordinance to reflect actual practices.

One such change would strike the current rule that forbids homeowners from hiring out the care of the street tree in their yard. Damas said he welcomes residents hiring the work if they don't wish to wait for the city to do so. He added that some residents have been waiting for three years for tree care.

A tree would not be pruned if not in the five-year cycle unless it threatens public safety or property.

Damas also won approval from the council to add $25,000 to take care of unique situations or emergencies as the city plays catch up.