Why Modesto’s trees are an expensive liability for cash-strapped forestry division

Modesto is certified as a Tree City USA community, an esteemed program that recognizes cities across the country for excellence in urban forestry management.

But inclement weather patterns coupled with a shrinking budget have left the city struggling to catch up with the necessary maintenance — causing the prized canopy to turn from a spectacle to a liability.

The city has paid out more than $110,000 in damage claims the past 19 years, much of the issue caused by root rot or trees that take in a lot of water, leading to split or broken limbs during the hot summer months.

For years, the community forestry division within the Public Works Department, which oversees maintenance within the city, has been underwater. The division saw over $300,000 in budget deficits after the 2017-18 fiscal year.

In 2014, to regain funding to minimize the potential for falling branches, the department tacked on a $4.82 green waste program to Modesto residents’ garbage bill. However, the city would need to charge over 800,000 homes with the fee, 10 times more than it actually does, in order to reach the $4.2 million budgeted for maintenance.

By using the surplus from the Waste-to-Energy Fund that generates money from burning waste to create electricity at the Covanta plant, it broke even, said Modesto’s budget manager Steve Christensen.

Public Works Director Bill Sandhu cited the city’s priorities, which lie in public safety and other services, as the cause for the deficits.

With the funds it has managed to collect, the forestry division works to provide adequate maintenance and maintain a better pruning cycle. “We have made a lot of progress on our pruning cycle,” Sandhu said. “I think we’re down to somewhere in the range of a nine- to 10-year pruning cycle, so every year we have to prune (9,000) to 10,000 trees.”

But in the fiscal year 2017-18, 4,983 trees were pruned, 1,158 trees were planted with funding from a Cal Fire grant — which has since been returned due to underfunding — while 1,008 trees and 656 stumps were removed.

Matt Long, the tree service manager and a certified arborist at Grover Landscape Services, said the city should increase pruning. “Typically (at Grover), we try to shoot for a three-year cycle,” he said. “Some trees can be five years, some trees maybe two years.”

Long said the hope is that with regular maintenance, the trees will continue to thrive without dropping branches or completely falling down. But because the department hasn’t adequately funded the forestry division, the trees have shown their age.

Tree On Car 1.jpg
Bystanders get a closer look at the tree that fell on the Araquistain’s and Crane’s cars at John Muir Park on High street in Modesto, Calif. on May 11, 2019. Kimberly Araquistain

In May, Kimberly Araquistain and her brother-in-law, Jimmy Lee Crane, were at a family gathering in John Muir Park when a city tree fell on their parked cars.

Araquistain’s 2018 Honda Accord was nearly totaled, with the repair work valued at $17,000. While she waits for the work to finish, Araquistain has rented another car at a cost of more than $1,500.

Crane’s car was totaled, leaving him to worry about job security. “I work at Pizza Hut; I’m the manager and a delivery driver,” Crane said. “It’s stressful, you know, not knowing if I’m going to keep my job, not knowing if I am going to have a car.”

Luckily, Crane’s girlfriend offered to share her car and they have since worked around both schedules.

Both Crane and Araquistain and their respective insurance carriers filed claims for damages against the city, originally totaling over $50,000. The clerk’s office, which processes the claims, guaranteed them responses within 45 days of filing, or by June 27.

On June 28, Araquistain and Crane said the clerk’s office contacted them informing that they denied their claims. However, there is additional litigation still pending tied to the couple’s insurance carriers.

“This is just going to be a loss for us,” Araquistain said. “I don’t know if the city is going to actually pay us back at all. The city just doesn’t care.”

The tree that fell on the cars appeared to have root rot, said arborist Long after inspecting photographs of the uprooted trunk. Though root rot is difficult to manage, Long said an earlier inspection by the city could have detected the damage and taken action before the accident.

“(The city) is understaffed and they don’t have a budget,” Long said. “They don’t have a budget to support what they actually need to do.”

Modesto Councilwoman Kristi Ah You said she worries about how the city is spending forestry money. “My question is what are we spending on the court cases, on the claims? What if we just spent it on fixing our trees?”

The city regularly defends the growing number of tree claims filed yearly as “acts of God,” or nature — shedding the blame to the years-long droughts and recent wet winter.

“When it gets really hot and there’s no wind, the trees are pulling up a lot of water into the wood and the canopy but not actually releasing any water,” Long said. “So you get more moisture in the canopy. It’s hot, heavy and, boom, branches will split and break.”

But, Long also noted that regular maintenance and inspections can prevent limbs from falling due to weather. “If there’s general maintenance, a lot of times you can just reduce and lighten up the canopy weight and get it on a regular schedule,” he said.

The species of tree also plays a factor in limbs dropping. Chinese pistache, a popular tree in the Central Valley for its drought-resistant properties and beautiful canopy, has caused the majority of claims. Another variety, zelkova, causes only about 3 percent of the claims even though it also makes up a significant number of city trees.

Sandhu said staff is assessing and analyzing species in order to plant for a better future. “We are taking this very seriously; we are analyzing the data and putting in all the resources we have,” he said.

The city’s current resources may not be enough, though. Sandhu has requested $500,000 to fund a tree treatment and planting program to help maintain and plant more trees.

“I was told by tree crews that a big portion of our trees could be dead within five years,” Ah You said. “This is a costly endeavor I don’t know if we are prepared to handle. If we didn’t have the trees here, Modesto would not be pretty. It wouldn’t be beautiful like it is.”

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Mackenzie Shuman is a summer news intern for The Modesto Bee. She originally hails from Colorado Springs, Colorado, but goes to school at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication where she is studying Journalism with a minor in Political Science.
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