Money doesn't grow on trees, even in Palo Alto, which has plenty of both.
Money does, however, help determine how well the trees grow. And with budget challenges looming on the horizon, city officials are wondering if it's possible to save the former without imperiling the latter.
Specifically, the city is looking at whether it would make sense to trim its lush and beloved canopy less often, a proposal that City Manager James Keene made in May and that the council considered last week. The plan, which was first pitched to the council's Finance Committee in June, called for trimming trees every 15 years instead of every seven years, as is the current practice.
Keene's proposal was prompted, in some part, by the growing costs of keeping the city's roughly 43,100 trees trimmed and properly maintained. Earlier this year, after going out to bid, the city received proposals from only two contractors. It ultimately chose West Coast Arborist, the company that has been taking care of tree maintenance in Palo Alto since 2013 and that offered a bid of $4.7 million (the other bid was a comparatively whopping $13.5 million).
According to the city's Public Works department, even the lower bid showed higher costs than before, partly because of an increased scope of services and partly because of factors beyond the city's control.
Recently, the city has spent about $450,000 a year to trim about 5,050 trees, mostly those along the city's streets. Under the new contract, the cost will be $1.23 million per year for about 6,150 trees, which include those throughout city parks, open spaces, golf courses, and other areas that traditionally were pruned on a "reactionary basis," according to Public Works.
Officials decided to expand the contract work last year as they formulated the city's new Urban Forest Master Plan.
The added annual costs also reflect other factors, such as the effects of the drought on trees and changes in labor agreements and prevailing wage requirements, according to the Public Works report.
Despite increasing costs of trimming trees, the council's Finance Committee, which vetted the proposed budget this spring, wasn't ready to drastically reduce the service's frequency. It rejected staff's recommendation of a 15-year cycle and proposed a 10-year cycle instead.
The council then followed the committee's lead and signed on for a 10-year cycle, even after Urban Forester Walter Passmore acknowledged that even shifting to every 10 years would likely increase the amount of deadwood and create a greater potential for falling limbs, potentially increasing the city's liability.
Yet Passmore also noted that a 10-year cycle is still within the industry's recommended range and that even with the change, Palo Alto would still be doing well when compared with neighboring jurisdictions.
"I don't think most people are going to notice a significant difference between a seven-year and a 10-year cycle," Passmore told the council on June 13, shortly before the council decided to adopt the new schedule, which trims the West Coast Arborist contract from $4.7 million to $3.6 million over the three-year period.
But council members have continued to have reservations about the shift. According to a June 28 memo from Public Works, the council expressed concerns that switching from a seven- to a 10-year trimming cycle "could result in excessive trimming of individual trees that would be detrimental to their health."
The cycle doesn't just determine how often the trees are trimmed; it also determines how much they are trimmed. A 15-year cycle requires about 15 percent of the live canopy to be removed. In a 10-year cycle, it is 12.5 percent, while in a seven-year cycle it is 8.75 percent, according to Public Works.
But Keene, in advocating for less frequent tree trimming, noted that the city can always go back and revise the agreement to speed up the cycle if the impact is worse than intended.
Councilwoman Holman didn't buy this argument.
"If we lose trees because we're not adequately maintaining them, how do we go back and restore those trees? It's not possible," Holman said at the June 13 meeting.
While the council rejected at that time a proposal from Holman to retain the seven-year cycle, last week it reconsidered its vote. In its final decision before heading off on a six-week break, the council decided on June 28 to stick with a seven-year cycle -- at least for now. The council also agreed that later in the year, when the city considers updates to the Urban Forest Master Plan, it will take a closer look at the issue and consider various alternatives for maintaining the city's canopy.
The decision means that the city will now increase its contract with West Coast Arborist from the $3.6 to $4.7 million over three years, with the additional money coming from the city's Budget Stabilization Reserve. Ultimately, the city could move to a different tree-trimming cycle or come up with an alternate scheme for maintaining trees (Holman suggested exploring the prospect of different contractors providing different types of tree services). But last week, Vice Mayor Greg Scharff spoke for the council majority when he called for retaining the status quo in the near term, even if it means spending more money.
"I think we should stay on the seven-year cycle," Scharff said. "We don't want to damage the canopy while we think about this."