Elm tree near Northminster Presbyterian Church Photo from Virginia Mann

Evanston will keep in place a fungicide injection program that has been effective in saving the City’s parkway elms since 2005, though some aldermen expressed concern the City may be digging a deeper budget hole with the move.

Aldermen voted 6-3 at the June 8 City Council meeting in favor of maintaining a full injection program for the City’s estimated 1,815 elms on parkways and public property.

Council members had reluctantly been considering a modified program, treating half of the elms this year and half next, for an estimated cost savings of  $330,000.

They changed course, though, after City staff reported before their May 26 Council meeting that $300,000 in capital improvements funds had not been yet allocated and could be used toward restoring a full treatment program.

In discussion at the June 8 meeting, Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said splitting the program — which has achieved a high success rate in protecting elms from Dutch Elm disease — “makes no sense.”

“We have this money — we should do it,” she said. “If we do it half-and-half, we’re going to spend this money — but then we’re also going to have to cut down the trees we’re killing by not doing it [the injections] all this year. We have this money, we should do it.”

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, also said she was worried about the trees that would be lost by spreading out the injection program.

One outside arborist had estimated the City could lose 136 trees, or 15% of the untreated trees the first year.

Asked for an assessment at the meeting, City Arborist Michael Callahan said that the numbers have fluctuated.

“But we are definitely going to lose more trees,” he said. “There’s no two ways about it.”

“If it’s a severe year, we could lose a great deal number of trees,” said Mr. Callahan, whose own estimate of public elms is 2,370.

One downed tree could have a big impact, suggested Ald. Fiske, who discovered the Capital Improvement funds after asking Interim City Manager Erika Storlie if there was any available money to keep the injection program intact.

“If any of you have large old elms in your neighborhood,” Ald. Fiske told Council members, “you know that when one comes down, you know when the chipper is going all day. There are people gathered around and they are so sad and crying, and it is a terrible thing to see. And again, this doesn’t make any sense to not be injecting the trees and then paying for them to come down. It’s just absurd to me.”

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons 5th Ward, described the presence of the City’s trees as “undervalued.”

“It’s enhancing architecture, it’s enhancing the neighborhood, adding on property value — and the serenity of the trees is actually reducing stress.”

Other aldermen, while not minimizing the value of the City’s trees, spoke of the difficult budget decisions the City faces because of the coronavirus.

“While trees are important for a lot of reasons,” acknowledged Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, “we have just gone through a pretty severe crisis with health and economics, and I don’t know when we’re going to recover from that.”

“And, you know,” she told aldermen, “I’m getting calls and emails almost every day from people looking for services — a lot of which we don’t support, a lot of which are non-profits, teaching capacity.”

Alderman Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, also noting that the Council’s earlier decision to spread out the program was a reluctant one, estimated a move to go with the full injection program could represent “a $650,000 swing” in available funds for the cash-strapped City.

“I mean, we’re going to walk out of this meeting farther from closing the hole in the budget than we would have been,” he said.

“I really want to understand,” he said. “I think our number-one priority will be to close this [budget] gap. And I want to make sure that we’re not leaving meetings with more problems, and then at the end of the year when we’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do, have to resort to a tax increase.”

At the May 26 Council meeting, members of the City’s environmental community had urged officials to restore the program.

A representative of Citizens Greener Evanston said that group is working with the Evanston Community Foundation to raise money to fill the City’s spending gap in the program.

Virginia Mann, co-founder of TREE (To Rescue Evanston Elms), the group which led a grassroots movement successfully getting the City to launch the injection program in 2005, praised the Council’s decision to keep intact the program intact.

“These are incredibly difficult times for all governments,”

Ms. Mann said. “With so many difficult decisions to make – and I am grateful to the Evanston City Council for taking the time to review all aspects of this issue and to make a decision that is fiscally responsible but also the right decision for our environment and our community.”

With close to a 99% success rate, “that is such as astounding number — there are almost no other programs of any kind 
you can cite that has that kind of [success] rate,” she said.

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.