Carol Horton has been complaining about a problem with a tree in front of her property for years. The Church Street resident said the tree is dead and losing branches with every storm.
She credits the roots of the tree with causing damage, which she says has contributed to flooding in her basement, which required her to call a plumber. Horton said she first reported the tree to Lockport city officials back in 2001.
“They haven’t done anything. They keep laying people off,” she said.
She believe the city “has a tree problem” and more should be done to address the issue, especially with the dead or dying trees.
Her answer: Hire more people to do the cutting and trimming.
Joe Kane, who’s acted as supervisor of the tree crew for 25 years, agreed that the city needs more employees working on trees. He said he’s disappointed with the backlog of tree complaints. But he also felt recent reports embellished the extent of the backlog.
While announcing new plans to address the backlog of tree complaints, Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said the city had some unaddressed complaints that went back as far as 15 years.
But Kane said that upon compiling a list of all tree-related complaints and notices of defect, he found the oldest tree complaints went back to 2004. What’s more, those trees had been addressed, just not marked off the list.
The oldest complained-about trees that haven’t been addressed, Kane said, date back to 2012.
“We don’t have any tree (complaints) that are decades old,” Kane said. “There are ones that are (more than) 10 years old, but those were already taken down.
“We have all these tree complaints from 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 that have been addressed and in most cases removed, grass has been planted, but they were never marked off the list,” he added.
After combining several lists of tree complaints, including separate lists for complaints made in person and complaints made via letter, Kane ended up with a list of nearly 1,000 trees.
That may sound like a lot, but Kane estimates nearly 60,000 city trees stand with the Lockport city limits. (Early in his career, he conducted an inventory and found there were nearly 70,000 city trees, and he guessed he’s felled more than 7,000 trees since then.)
What’s more, most trees on the list are not dead and so they don’t need to be taken down. Kane said only about 100 to 150 of the trees are dead or partially dead and require removal.
Most trees, Kane said, are a seven on the 10-point rating scale he uses to assess a tree’s health. A 10 is a perfectly healthy tree, four and below means it must come down, five is on the cusp, and six to nine means a tree just needs a trimming.
“A lot of complaints are residents complaining that a tree is dead and they want it removed. When I get to the job, I see it’s a seven and it just needs a good trimming,” Kane said.
Regarding Horton’s complaints, Kane said it was possible her complaint had gotten “lost in the channels.” However, he added that complaints about roots invading sewers are common, and that the city doesn’t address such trees unless the owner can prove they had a plumber remove the roots and the problem has persisted.
If the city removed every tree that infiltrated sewer lines, “we’d have no trees left,” Kane said.
Still, Kane said he is displeased with the years-long backlog of tree complaints, and like Horton, blames it on lack of manpower.
Kane is one member of a four-person tree crew. He said the crew has almost always had three or four guys. But amid cuts in city spending, highway employees have had to take on more roles — paving, plowing, mowing, putting up Christmas decorations.
The result is a tree crew that is perennially behind on complaints and reactionary rather than proactive.
“Every time we even think about doing a street, we get a call from the mayor’s office or police department and we have to leave because a branch fell off a tree or a whole tree has fallen in the street,” Kane said.
Even when they can devote their days to trees, the work often moves along too slowly to make much progress. Though a tree can be trimmed in a matter of hours, it typically takes a full day to remove one. First the crew must trim all large branches off the tree and gently lower them with ropes.
If there are power lines nearby, the crew has to contact NYSEG to have the lines wrapped in sleeves.
The time spent on preparation adds up. Felling a large tree in a crowded area can take as long as three days.
“There’s a lot of things to take into consideration. A lot of times we’re working around high-voltage power lines,” Kane said.
“You can’t let (branches) go crashing down in the street ... as opposed to a tree in a field when you could cut it any way and let it fall,” he added.
In Kane’s ideal world, he would have a six-person crew —four working in the bucket truck, one operating a pay-loader and a sixth driving a truck to haul away wood — devoted entirely to trees.
With that kind of manpower, the tree crew could not only respond to all resident complaints, they could keep up with rating and addressing all city trees. Kane said there are surely numerous dead or partially dead city trees that residents haven’t complained about yet.
With their current resources, the tree crew rarely can address these trees until the damage is already done.
“Most of the time, it’s too late. A branch has already fallen on their house or their car,” Kane said.
Kane would like it if city residents wouldn’t have to bother complaining about trees, just as complaints about snow-clogged roads are rare because city snow-plowers are so quick to address the issue.
“People don’t have the time to be calling in to the mayor’s office,” to complain about trees, Kane said. “The answer is to have a crew that goes out and takes care of these trees. But it’s impossible to do that because of the manpower. We don’t have the manpower.”
Last month, McCaffrey announced the city was planning to hire a contractor to clear up the backlog of tree complaints. First they’ll need to work out an agreement with the highway department’s union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
If the city hired a contractor without the union’s approval, union leaders could file a grievance. One potential outcome of that litigation is the city having to pay highway employees for the work that was bid out.
“We want to work with our unions to come up with an agreement that works for everybody,” McCaffrey said previously.
Kane said he would support the move if outside grants foot the bill. But if the city were to pay the contractor with city taxpayer funds, Kane thinks they shouldn’t; they’d get a better deal working in-house.
But first the city would need to hire more employees for its tree crew.
“We don’t have the manpower. We don’t have the five days (working) a week,” Kane said. “We’re constantly pulled off to do different jobs. If we had a dedicated crew out there every day, we’d be able to take care of these trees.”