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Mayor resistant to change on ash tree plans

Mayor Tom Henry will not let pressure from an “impatient” City Council change his plans for how to deal with the city’s dead and dying ash trees.

The mayor said Friday his administration plans to stick to its multiyear plan to remove the trees from city properties, although emergency situations would be dealt with immediately.

“It’s a multiyear project,” Henry said. “There’s thousands of trees that have to be addressed.”

The mayor at Foster Park on Friday to celebrate Arbor Day, which is marking its 100th anniversary this year. But most of the questions he faced dealt more with how he plans to remove dead trees from city streets.

The emerald ash borer has gutted the city’s ash tree population from a peak of about 14,000 along city streets to a current count of about 8,000. The city removed 3,600 trees last year, but members of the City Council this week expressed frustration that ash trees weren’t being removed quickly enough.

Some members called on the mayor to use part of the $8.5 million in unexpected income tax revenue to remove all the ash trees and plant new ones.

Henry said it would be unwise to spend that money immediately, especially when the state is conducting an audit of its books that could show the city was overpaid.

“People get impatient, we understand that,” Henry said of the council. “We have a plan.”

Henry said the city has spent about $2 million on tree removal and replacement since 2009. He also said the city has numerous unfunded projects, and while ash trees are a high priority because of safety concerns over falling limbs, it’s important the city take its time in prioritizing how to use its money.

City Councilman Russ Jehl, R-2nd, said he raised the concern about the trees during a recent council meeting not to tell the mayor how to finance the work, but to let him know it is a major concern of almost every neighborhood he represents.

“I’m just offering support to whatever leadership the mayor provides, as long as it’s strong enough,” he said.

Jehl said the dead ash trees deserve serious and quick action. He also questioned why money hasn’t been set aside to remove trees this year.

Parks Director Al Moll said the city will spend about $1.5 million to remove 4,500 ash trees this year, though where that money will come from is undetermined. Moll added the city is unlikely to plant many new trees this year as it focuses its efforts on removing the dead ones.

Even if the money was available, Moll said it would be impossible to start taking the trees down until late summer because of the high demand of tree removal service from the private sector.

Moll said people who notice a tree that is posing a threat should call the parks department so emergencies can be avoided.

“If there’s an immediate danger, we address that,” Moll said, but he added the city has not seen many such instances. “We’re dealing with it as fast as we can.”