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This article was published 1/8/2017 (833 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Questions are being asked about how city hall is spending part of its budget after a new report revealed that the parks division pruned several thousand fewer trees in 2016 than the previous year.
The 2017 community trends and performance report notes that the city’s forestry division pruned 13,723 trees in 2016, down from 17,715 the year before. The amount of tree pruning done in 2016 was almost half of what it had been in 2014, when 24,495 trees were pruned.
Council authorized $4.9 million for tree pruning in 2016 but new data reveals the city spent $4.6 million.
"That’s a front-line service cut," Coun. Russ Wyatt said. "The mayor and EPC promised there would be no front-line service cuts with the last budget. Clearly here is another example of a front-line service cut."
Wyatt (Transcona) said it’s recognized by the city’s forestry officials that regular tree pruning is essential to maintaining healthy trees. He said the city has gone from a schedule of pruning individual trees once every nine years to once in every 22 years.
The community trends and performance report — an annual document that charts department initiatives — says the industry standard for communities is to prune 14 per cent of their urban forest annually but Winnipeg did only 4.5 per cent in 2016 (down from 8.2 per cent in 2014). In comparison, the report notes that Edmonton pruned 16 per cent of its trees in 2016.
"There have been major cuts to the tree-trimming budget," Wyatt said. "This speaks to our ability to maintain a healthy urban forest and Winnipeg city council does not give this a priority at this point. The last city council did. This council is choosing not to."
Wyatt said city officials admitted this week they can't keep up with the loss of elm trees caused by Dutch elm disease and the city faces another threat to its trees from the Emerald ash borer beetle.
A civic spokeswoman said the parks division reallocated part of the 2016 tree-pruning budget to deal with the Dutch elm disease control program and that additional funds were reallocated to clean up after a July 2016 storm.
Coun. Ross Eadie said financial information provided to him recently by civic officials in preparation for the 2018 budget revealed that the forestry division overspent its approved 2016 budget by about $1 million; council approved a budget of $38.175 million but the amount spent was $39.116 million.
Eadie (Mynarski) said the numbers also showed the dollar amount cut from tree-pruning in 2016 almost matched an over-expenditure for spending on the Dutch elm disease program.
Eadie said that while new suburbs have been added across the city, council has essentially frozen the parks and forestry budget at the same funding amounts for the past three years, about $38 million annually.
"There are no more efficiencies to be found any more," Eadie said. "The parks people are managing what they can. You have to take from one place to deal with an unexpected issue."
Wyatt said the community trends and performance report notes that the city is losing more trees every year to disease (9,419 lost to Dutch elm and other issues in 2016) than it’s replacing (2,757 trees planted in 2016).
Wyatt said council has to recognize that protecting the city’s parks and urban forest deserves the same attention as that given to its roads.
"Parks and trees are one of those things they call soft infrastructure which, in my view, is just as important as the hard infrastructure, like roads and sewers," he said. "The soft infrastructure gives us the quality of life and the enjoyment of living in an urban environment. If you lose that or if that’s harmed, your quality of life goes down. There’s no doubt about it."
Aldo Santin is a veteran newspaper reporter who first carried a pen and notepad in 1978 and joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1986, where he has covered a variety of beats and specialty areas including education, aboriginal issues, urban and downtown development. Santin has been covering city hall since 2013.