CHICAGO — It now takes city workers a full year to respond to requests for trees to be trimmed, but a near-doubling of crews the city sends out to do the work is expected to shrink that lag time, leaders of the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation told aldermen on Tuesday.
Tree trimming, planting and removal took the spotlight during the Department of Streets and Sanitation budget hearing Tuesday as acting Comm. Cole Stallard, who is expected to be confirmed this month, fielded aldermen’s questions on a range of issues that affect residents daily. The department also oversees street sweeping, garbage pickup and rodent control.
Streets and Sanitation is set to see its budget boosted by $24 million next year, bringing its total spending allocation past $307 million. The department’s Bureau of Forestry is set to see its budget grow, in part to account for 11 new tree-trimming crews, Stallard told aldermen on Tuesday.
The city currently sends out 14 tree-trimming crews per day, and the additional workers are “going to be a substantial help” in getting the department back on track and shrinking the year-long wait time it takes to get a tree trimmed in the city, according to Stallard.
Aldermen repeatedly urged Stallard and Malcolm Whiteside, head of the forestry bureau, to prioritize the tree trimming and removal requests, citing concerns that damaged trees and dangling limbs and branches pose safety hazards.
Stallard told Ald. James Cappleman (46th) that he could “say with confidence” the department will have the 2020 tree trimming backlog done by the end of this year.
“So, we’ll be attacking the 2021 backlog Jan. 1,” Stallard said, adding that the 11 additional crews will help in clearing this year’s buildup of requests.
While the department is working to reduce the amount of time it takes to get trees trimmed, Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) said “it’s still at a level that is unacceptable for folks that…when they get their tax bill in the mail, and they open it up and they see another increase, they look and say, ‘I’m paying for services, but I’m not getting them, at least in a reasonable manner.’”
Taliaferro said he thinks forestry workers are “are doing a fantastic job,” but they need more employees. “And it’s disappointing to see only a $633,000 increase in personnel, and I’m not even sure that’s to hire additional people,” he said.
“I can’t say it enough — forestry, forestry, forestry,” Taliaferro added.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposed 2022 budget book lists an overall drop in the forestry bureau’s full-time equivalent positions next year, but Deputy Comm. Jim Crocker said that is an error.
Crocker told Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) the error stems from “a number of Motor Truck drivers that were moved as part of the budget process incorrectly…so that number will change as part of the final budget process.”
Tunney and several other aldermen suggested changing the way the city responds to tree trimming requests, suggesting going back to the geography-based grid system instead of a complaint-based system.
“Why don’t we get back to the grid in terms of tree trimming?” Tunney said to applause in the chamber. “Constituent request isn’t the best way to address and manage the system of…100,000 trees that we have.”
Near the end of the three-hour hearing, Whiteside told Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) the bureau would need 30 crews dedicated to tree trimming in order to properly staff a grid-based system.
Lightfoot’s Chicago Recovery Plan sets aside $46 million in federal American Rescue Plan dollars for city workers to add 15,000 trees annually and create jobs for tree planting and maintenance.
Whiteside has told aldermen during the past year that forestry workers are removing trees faster than they can be planted, due in-part to a lack in funding and a shortage of employees.
Stallard on Tuesday told aldermen his department was still in discussions with city budget officials about Lightfoot’s “very robust” plan to plant 75,000 trees over the next five years “because we see that there’s maybe some additional need out there.”
Some conservationists have raised concerns over who would plant the trees and who would be responsible for maintaining them.
Responding to advocates who urged city leaders during Tuesday’s public comment period to include $2.7 million in next year’s budget to inoculate trees against Emerald Ash Borer parasites, , Whiteside said he “applaud[s] the organizations that are trying to save” the ash trees but their cost estimates are “really misleading” and don’t include consideration like personnel and equipment costs.
Additionally, Whiteside said the trees have already been pumped with chemicals to stave off the need to remove all remaining ash trees at once. “There’s enough chemicals in those trees to last for another 10 years,” as the city works to replace them, Whiteside said.
The city once had 96,000 ash trees and in 2008 began pumping chemicals into the infested trees as a way to buy time before they would need to be removed. The treatment was not intended to save the trees indefinitely, according to Whiteside.
Whiteside said his department plans to remove the remaining trees during the next 10 years.
Garbage carts and a dismal recycling rate
While Stallard only took over as acting commissioner in July, he said on Tuesday the “number one thing” he has heard on aldermen’s agenda has been replacing trash carts.
Stallard told aldermen that for the first time in three or four years, the department’s cart program is fully funded “to become current” this year, meaning the department won’t have to borrow from next year’s budget to fund carts for this year.
The additional $918,000 in funding means “the carts are on the way, we’re taking deliveries,” Stallard said.
“We’re using other resources to help us get these carts out,” Stallard said. “We’re fully funded for this year, and we got additional funding for next year.”
But while the fully funded cart program was good news, Deputy Comm. Chris Sauve told aldermen the city’s recycling rate remains flat between 8 percent and 9 percent.
The city over the past year saw “an uptick in the amount of recycling tonnage,” which “surpassed 86,000 tons,” Sauve said. But the diversion rate, or the amount of material that is recycled or composted, which was a hot topic during last year’s budget hearing, remains the same, according to Sauve.
Streets and Sanitation staffing
Some aldermen, including Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th) pressed Stallard on how he plans to organize staffing in his department after he is confirmed later this month.
Stallard said aldermen will have to wait until his confirmation hearing for that information.
But the streets and sanitation department, like many other city departments, is aging, and Stallard said he is hoping to help guide the next generation of leadership just as those prior had done for him.
Responding to a question from Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th), Stallard said 54 percent of the department’s workers are 50 years or older, adding that the department’s “main person that gives us the weather” during snow season has “been around for 51 years on this job.”
COVID-19 has also taken a hit on the department’s more than 2,000 workers, as Stallard told alderman that 426 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic last year. Those cases have touched a total 974 workers who at the beginning of the pandemic were required to quarantine for 10-14 days upon contact.
Stallard said the department has seen six employee deaths due to COVID-19.
“If you do the calculation of those hours…the effect it had on our department was approximately 28 people a day” out in the department, Stallard said.