Canopy of elm trees Submitted photo

With several community groups pledging support and a different set of funds to tap, aldermen are showing interest in restoring funding toward a full fungicide injection program, which has been used to preserve the City’s parkway elms since 2005.

At the May 11 City Council meeting,  aldermen agreed to space out the injection program, treating one half of the City’s estimated 1,815 public elms in 2020, and the other half in 2021, for a savings to the City of roughly $400,000.

Aldermen reluctantly agreed to the change, citing the shortfall the City was facing — anywhere from $10 to $20 million — because of loss of revenues due to the coronavirus.

At the May 26 Council meeting, though, several aldermen cited tapping $300,000 in Capital Improvement monies and combining that with support pledged by a private group to continue with the full scale program.

The funds came to light after Ald. Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, reported that she reached out to Interim City Manager Erika Storlie after the May 11 meeting and asked whether there was money anywhere that could be used to restore the full program, and that would not affect the City’s Forestry Department other endeavors.

At the May 26 meeting, Ms. Storlie said that the funds are “interest we’ve earned on the cash balance that sits in the Capital Improvement fund as we pay bills for our capital projects.”

The funds technically are “unallocated, which means it could be allocated for this any purpose, whether that decision [for the injection program] or any other decision,” she told aldermen.

Echoing concerns residents voiced during citizen comment, aldermen expressed interest in continuing a full-scale program, with some worrying that residents in some areas may be better able to replaced public trees that have to be removed.

“At the end of the day, funding inoculation for all the trees is the most equitable thing to do,” argued Ald. Fiske.

Since the Council first talked of going to a partial program, she related, “I’ve had a number of people call me and say, ‘Oh, gosh, there’s a tree in front of my condo or in front of my house or in front of my park, and it’s beautiful —it’s my favorite tree. And can we pay to have it inoculated?’

“Well, that may be fine in some neighborhoods — it’s not fine for all,” she said.

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, compared the investment in trees to infrastructure.

“I’m not comfortable being okay with not knowing that we may lose trees in our neighborhood, and also knowing that with concentrated poverty people won’t have the ability to save the trees where other neighborhoods will have the ability to save trees,” she said.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, who first brought up the possibility of restoring the funds, said individuals will not be faced with that choice under the new funding formula because “it’s all going to be paid for. That’s the deal.”

Mayor Stephen Hagerty said if that is the case, the City will have to find savings someplace else as officials address the shortfall.

Ald. Rainey observed, however, that “this money is not in the General Fund” (used to pay for most City services and programs) “and that money will not be touched.”

During citizen comment earlier in the meeting, several representatives of citizen groups joined Virginia Mann, urging Council members to consider restoring the program.

Ms. Mann, co-founder of TREE (To Rescue Evanston Elms), the group that led a grassroots movement successfully getting the City to launch the injection program in 2005, argued the full inoculation program is more cost-effective in the long run.

Quoting the forestry expert who helped set up Evanston’s original program, she said the City could lose up to 15% or 136 trees of the 908 elms whose treatment would be deferred the first year. She estimated the cost to remove the trees at $408,000.

“This is not a choice between whether to spend money on tree injections, or to spend those same dollars elsewhere, ideally helping people during this difficult time,” she said. “The reality is that the choice is to spend money on tree injections, or to spend money on tree removals. We know without a doubt that many of the elm trees that have not been injected die, and they die quickly.”

Another speaker, Rachel Rosner, the newly elected president of Citizens Greener Evanston, a group whose goals include environmental justice, raised concern that the decision to cut the budget to inoculate elm trees will “have the greatest impact on our neighbors with the fewest resources.

“Everyone deserves to breathe clean air that mature trees provide, easing the symptoms of asthma and other respiratory issues,” she said. “Everyone deserves the cooling benefits of tall trees, especially as we have more extreme heat days. Everyone deserves to have large thirsty trees reducing the impact of flooding in their area. And every homeowner deserves the boost in property values that comes from large beautiful trees.”

She told aldermen that her group is working with the Evanston Community Foundation to create a fund to support the care of trees in Evanston.

Although “we can’t begin to help to raise the $300,000 that was cut from the budget,” she said, “we are committed to helping as much as possible.”

Representatives from several other groups also chimed in.

Representing National Habitat Evanston, Leslie Shad, citing a University of Wisconsin study, cautioned that under the proposed partial-injection program “the question remaining at this point in time is whether the increased level of protection is sufficient to effectively protect downstream Dutch elm disease infections in the field.

“So I am concerned about that — the current fungicide treatment works well,” she said.

At the same time, she said to aldermen during her remarks, “I know you’re in a bad budget situation.”

In that vein, Joshua Bowes-Carlson, representing the Southeast Evanston Association, said the neighborhood organization “very much appreciates the impossible task of choosing which items need to be adjusted in order to maintain sustainable operation of government.”

However, the Council’s move to cut the Dutch elm disease prevention program “is not in the best interest of the economics of the City,” he said.

“The trees you’ve chosen to put at risk or essential value to residents property owners in the business community. It’s not hyperbolic to say that their loss would be one that will be felt for generations.”

Citing one Chicago-region trees initiative, “treeline business districts lead to demonstrably more frequent and longer shopping trips, increased shoppers willingness to pay for more goods at all times,” he said, noting that “especially now we need to incentivize the patronage of local businesses and tax revenue that comes from their success.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.