Trees, Blizzards and Overrides

How the city transformed its tree maintainence

For years, the city woefully neglected its thousands of street trees.  During that time, the city relied on hired contractors for all its tree work. As the contractor rates spiraled upwards the amount of useful work that could be done with the same budget spiraled downward.    The day-to-day preventative work was neglected and most of the money was spent on cleaning up the mess that was left behind each time a  storm hit.

In most cases, when a tree falls during a storm, it signals a failure of maintenance.  Nearly always, problem trees can be identified before hand and be pruned or removed before a storm hits.  When we rely on storms to remove dead trees, as we have in recent years, the cost skyrockets, and much additional damage occurs to homeowner's houses, cars, fences etc.  For years the number of neglected Newton trees falling in storms has been rising and this year that trend was reversed.

The story of how the city pulled this off is an interesting one, orchestrated by Marc Welch, Newton's Director of Urban Forestry (aka our tree guy) with the full support of the mayor.  Briefly, as part of permitting for their project, the developers of Chestnut Hill Square were required to make a substantial payment into the city's Tree Preservation Fund.  Rather than taking that cash as usual and hiring contractors to plant replacement trees in the surrounding neighborhood,.  The city used the funds to purchase the necessary used equipment for an in-house, three man tree crew. 

That crew is now up and running.  In a few short month that ever expanding backlog of dying trees, scheduled to be removed, has collapsed from 550 to 100.   By spring that backlog will be zero'ed out and the crew will begin whittling down the huge pruning backlog.  All this is possible because the city is now able to do the same work for 40% of the cost.  The savings are being used to undo the last years of neglect.    In the end, the same tax dollars we spent on trees a few years back are now buying more than twice the service and the results are already clear.

Last week's blizzard was a testament to how effectively this new approach  is working.  Remarkably, despite the high wind and heavy snow, in last week's storm not a single city tree came down.   

The other long neglected portion of the tree crews' job is planting new trees.  Once again, the city has come up with imaginative ways to get more done with limited resources.  A great citizen volunteer group, The Newton Tree Conservancy, has been working on planting trees all over the city.  The city has been working hand-in-glove with the Conservancy to help them in their mission.  In so doing, we all get the benefit by leveraging our tax dollars with this dedicated and energetic group of volunteers.

So what does any of this have to do with the upcoming vote on the tax overrides?

The last time the citizens voted down a proposed override, there was widespread concern that it would be throwing good money after bad.  There was little faith at the time that our tax money was being spent wisely.  This time around the landscape has changed dramatically.  There's widespread recognition and appreciation that this mayor, on many fronts, has imaginatively and diligently worked to spend our  tax dollars wisely and frugally.  From everything from the renegotiating the union contracts, to this tree program, to the Upper Falls Greenway, this administration has been finding innovative ways to do more with less, and by and large the citizens have been noticing.

The biggest evidence of that, is the fact that two of the leading opponents of  the last override have actively been campaigning in favor of this override.    Now that this administration has proven that they can spend our money carefully and wisely,  it's time to begin addressing our other even more serious backlog  - school maintenance.  

Vote YES on the upcoming tax overrides.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Dan Fahey February 16, 2013 at 06:55 PM
As one of those two leading opponents of the '08 override, I can vouch for the sea change of differences in the past 3 years [coinciding with Mayor Warren's term of office] that has led me to get on board with this year's override request. I've closely tracked the progress being made in those 3 years [alright maybe even done some nudging along the way] and because of that I know close up that promises made by the mayor have been promises kept. Jerry's story here is just another in a long list of success stories we have seen with this administration. To be clear, I'm not easily satisfied, knowing just how much needed to be done to reverse course, and there is more to be done for sure, but Setti has earned my trust that he has a true handle on our city's needs and is committed to completing the tasks at hand. Even where I might have preferred a different approach than Setti's on specific components, I usually find that his greater handle on the larger picture helps me see his rationale in a different light. Great story, Jerry!
Emily Norton February 16, 2013 at 10:58 PM
Hey make that 3! I was also a leading proponent against the last override (don't you recall my NewTV spot and robocall?!) but strongly in favor of this one. I will post why on Patch as well as soon as I figure out how.
Harry Sanders February 18, 2013 at 08:34 PM
Jerry, with all due respect, the override(s) - one operational and two debt exclusions are a new configuration election which the taxpaying voters have never experienced in this manner and economy. They require more parochial understanding related to the unity of 13 villages-one city construct. Of recent years the culture of Newton has praised and cultivated the unique character and heritage of its' 13 separate villages. Now due to fiscal restraints, taxpayers are asked to, instead of being consciously bound to their particular neighborhood, to instead envision the needs on a grander citywide scale. This resembles very much the debate of our founding fathers' in prioritizing states rights v. federal rights; with the resulting compromise heavily leaning on judicious preemptive national sovereignty. Back to Newton, the purist' campaign scheme is an all or nothing dissection which may not be the encompassing strategy for success. Is success measured by question 1 failure and 2 & 3 supported? Can we as a city survive with a mixed decision, or will a knockout or knockdown in entirety be the only positioning? The 13 v. one city all or nothing crap shoot can do more harm than good in the hopes and aspirations of successive generations..
Jerry Reilly February 18, 2013 at 10:05 PM
Harry, I'm not quite sure I follow you. If you're raising the question of whether voters in one village will support an override to build a school in another village - I'm not certain, but I do hope so. As for whether the city can survive with a mixed decision - sure, it will survive any decision. The three separate questions rather than a single up/down vote was a side effect of state regulations rather than a choice by the administration. From everything I've seen so far, it seems like both the pro and anti-override camps are heavily leaning towards three Yes votes or three No's but of course a split decision is certainly possible.


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