Palo Alto opts to trim trees, not budget

City veers away from earlier decision to care for canopy less often

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."

Related content:

Tree disparity grows between north and south Palo Alto

Tree experts weigh in on saving trees while remaining water-conscious

Palo Alto trees dying in greater numbers


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16 people like this
Posted by ProtectTheTrees
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 8, 2016 at 11:22 am

I am not (necessarily) against lengthening the maintenance cycle on our trees.
However, I want to EMPHATICALLY state that Palo Alto's green canopy is VITAL to the well-being of the town and its citizens. Almost everything else can be sacrificed in order to maintain the health and quantity of our trees. It takes decades to replace an urban forest, not to mention the capital costs. If you have never lived in a town w/o trees it is stark, not to mention much hotter.

22 people like this
Posted by Agreed
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 8, 2016 at 11:39 am

I lived in a flat, treeless neighborhood for seven years. The austerity of it, combined with the excesses of concrete and asphalt, made for a very barren, cold and depressing landscape. It felt opressive, and the residential neighborhoods had no shade. Very young trees were planted, but many died during the 10 year drought. Those that survived due to hand watering are still too small and sparse to provide relief from the sun or to break up the severe austerity of the landscape!

11 people like this
Posted by maggie
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 8, 2016 at 11:50 am

maggie is a registered user.

The Palo Alto tree canopy is a huge part of sustaining our quality of life. One thing that has bugged me for years is that as a homeowner I can't remove my street tree and replace it, but commercial construction remove all street trees, many of which are mature with lovely green canopies that have taken 15+ years to extend their canopy, and replant with with young trees. I won't say replace because it will take 10-15 years to begin to replace the existing canopy. A shady canopy also encourages walking in the summer heat.

10 people like this
Posted by Midtown and Old Palo Alto homeowner
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 8, 2016 at 11:52 am

Waiting 15 years for tree maintenance is too long, especially for aging catalpas and sycamores, for example. Lovely, healthy street trees add to the quality of life for residents as well as enhancing home values. 20+ years ago I obtained a permit from the city to arrange trimming, spraying and deep fertilization by licensed professionals for the city trees adjacent to our home, at our cost. We regularly bring in an arborist in any case to care for our own several trees. The cycle for trimming the street trees depends on when the city also brings in its crews, but the annual spraying and deep fertilization has really made a positive difference for "our" trees, compared with our neighbors'.

17 people like this
Posted by Smart Tree Care
a resident of another community
on Jul 8, 2016 at 12:03 pm

If the current generation of mature trees had been properly cared for when they were young and relatively cheap to maintain, current costs would be drastically cheaper, result in lower percentages of canopy loss per trimming, and the trees might be able to handle a 10 year cycle.

The city should invest in proactively structurally pruning young trees (at minimal per year cost if they renegotiate based on tree size) and on a dynamic schedule based on the tree's age and growth rate. Savings will take a few years (or decades) to be actualized, but they will be significant and will drastically lower liability associated with neglected tree care.

4 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 8, 2016 at 12:42 pm

Would like some thought to be put in to "updating" our tress. Palo alto has tons of magnolias which require a good amount of water I believe. Would be nice to replace them with more drought friendly choices.

22 people like this
Posted by Angry
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 8, 2016 at 1:41 pm

For two-and-a-half years, we begged the city arborist to trim a huge branch off of one of the city-owned sycamores in front of our house. The limb was brittle and protruded way out into the space above the street.

Time after time, the arborist replied that he had come out and looked at the tree, that it was healthy and the branch in question did not require trimming.

Like and behold, what we had been fearing finally happened: a guest parked in front of our house had costly damage to their car when the limb in question let out an audible crack and fell on the trunk lid!

Our guest filed a claim with the city, and, in spite of the fact that we had warned the arborist that this might happen over such a long period of time, and he refused to remedy the situation, our guest's claim was DENIED!

His insurance company got in on the claim against the city, and appealed the denial. The city denied it again. The insurance company used one of their lawyers to file a lawsuit. It has yet to go to court!

8 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 8, 2016 at 2:58 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

"I lived in a flat, treeless neighborhood for seven years. The austerity of it, combined with the excesses of concrete and asphalt, made for a very barren, cold and depressing landscape."

Unfortunately, there are plenty of Palo Alto residents, and those wishing to become Palo Alto residents who clamor for a massive development drive that will turn this town into the barren, cold, depressing urban asphalt jungle you describe

8 people like this
Posted by tree lover
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 8, 2016 at 4:28 pm

I love the trees in Palo Alto . If we pay so much to have the street trees trimmed every year, why can't it be done better? The trees look hacked not trimmed.

12 people like this
Posted by Five Coats
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 8, 2016 at 5:26 pm

Pay the price and keep the trees maintained. A more expensive option down the road will occur when major work is needed. Penny wise and pound foolish to delay maintenance

15 people like this
Posted by disgusted
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 8, 2016 at 10:21 pm

Care for our wonderful trees and get rid of the City Manager... or at least pay him less. He hasn't a clue as to the needs or priorities of most Palo Alto residents.

9 people like this
Posted by Klattuu
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 9, 2016 at 1:01 pm

It's no wonder City Manager Keene would recommend the lowest bid as his management staff is nearing retirement age and more money in the budget means more to pay for his management buddies retirements. One only has to ask what Keene has contributed to making Palo Alto a better place to live instead of the continuous reductions in city services he has implemented. It is time to reevaluate his salary and benefit package and those he has hired on as management staff. Future reductions in city services are in jeopardy if we continue with Keene and his management staff.

10 people like this
Posted by Don't Do It Yourself
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2016 at 12:54 pm

A friend who lives off of Greer got sick and tired of waiting for the city to trim the two trees in front of their house. They live in a home that has a small garage, so one of their cars is always parked on the street in front of their house, and some of the limbs were drooping. Not only that, both trees had limbs entangled in the overhead electrical and telephone wires.

After being told by the city that the limbs looked healthy and there would be no trimming for at least a few years yet, our friend finally took matters into his own hands and paid a professional to trim the trees. Winter was coming, and he was worried that the wind would cause the limbs to damage or knock out the phone and electricity.

Problem solved-- we all thought. Someone in the neighborhood reported the tree-trimming to the city arborist, who then sent a nasty letter and a bill for a big fine. In Pali Alto, it is illegal for anyone but city contractors to trim the city-owned trees!

5 people like this
Posted by Urcan forestry dept is a joke.
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 13, 2016 at 11:31 am

The city jas never trimmed any of the trees on my street in Old Palo Alto. It took Three years of constant calls and the threat of a lawyer to get the the huge dead limb removed from the tree in front of my house. Gave the tree crew 100 USD to prune it and now it's the greenest tree in 7 blocks. BTW I have lived in the same house foe 26 years.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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