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Cuts to tree warden’s budget would leave more dangerous trees in town

According to town officials, if the override fails, the tree warden’s budget will total $25,000, about $20,000 less than the town normally has to spend on tree work. But the likelihood of the override passing does not seem high. Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Tim Kilhart said in an interview with the Press that he expects “budget cuts across the board, but [doesn’t] know how extreme” and Town Administrator Tim Bragan in a separate interview simply stated, “The override is not going to pass.”

Should the override fail, Bragan has proposed that the tree warden’s budget, which currently stands at $35,000, be cut by $10,000, an amount that equates to about two full days of work, according to Ferguson. In an interview with the Press, Ferguson explained that each full day of tree work costs around $4,400, which covers the cost of wood pickup, police coverage, and a tree work crew from Favreau Forestry—the company with which the town currently has a three-year contract. When Ferguson started volunteering as the tree warden, his budget was only about $14,000, he said. He has been “catching up” with the price of tree work ever since, asking for an increased budget each year. For fiscal 2021, Ferguson requested $27,000; the Select Board approved $25,000, prior to the proposed budget cuts.

Though the $10,000 Bragan has proposed is a significant amount to lose, the amount available for essential tree work might end up being much the same as Ferguson’s original $25,000 budget. For the past several years, Kilhart explained, there has been a separate warrant article that allotted $20,000 for DPW and the tree warden specifically to remove dangerous trees. As the Finance Committee and Select Board sought to balance the budget earlier this year, this article was “one of the first things cut,” Kilhart said.

Concerned that Ferguson needed more money to deal with dangerous trees, the Select Board transferred $10,000 from its own fiscal 2021 budget to the tree warden’s budget to make up for the loss, bringing the tree warden’s  budget for fiscal 2021 to $35,000. Though this was more than Ferguson requested, it was $10,000 less than the total budget normally available, and that’s before the further budget cut that’s in store if voters reject the override.

Without the override, the tree warden’s budget will be back to $25,000––the original amount Ferguson was approved for—but still $20,000 less than the town normally has to spend on tree work.

Kilhart expressed concern that the budget might be cut even further. “Budgets are very fluid right now,” he said. “It will have an effect on the tree work.” He also added, “Everyone’s going to feel some pain, but [the budget cuts] depend on what the state gives to us.”

The work the tree warden needs to accomplish with his budget, Ferguson explained, falls into “three big buckets.”

Removing dangerous trees: The first category of work is the removal of dangerous trees. Both Ferguson and Kilhart spoke of how 113 trees had to be removed during fiscal 2020. Trees become dangerous, Ferguson explained, when they begin to rot due to disease––common among the ash and hemlock trees––or drought––common among pine trees. Most of the budget is spent on removing these dangerous trees, particularly those “along the roadside and in public areas,” he said. In fact, the rest of Ferguson’s fiscal 2020 budget will be spent next week on two more days of tree removal. Ferguson said that he has a list of over 50 trees that still have to come down.

Caring for elm trees: The next category of work is elm tree care. Ferguson said that to keep Harvard’s large population of elm trees healthy, they need medication that costs about $3,000 to $4,000 each.

Planting new trees: The final category of work is tree planting. Ferguson explained that, though the town does not plant as many trees as are removed, it is still an important project. Last year, for example, the town planted 19 trees between the Bromfield parking lot and the Depot Road ball field using a grant from National Grid that Harvard matched, using money from the tree warden’s budget.

Since he won’t have as much money to spend on tree work next fiscal year, Ferguson said he will have to prioritize the work and save money for when it is most needed. The $20,000 DPW article is often used to remove trees in the fall, but as that article isn’t on the table for this year, he will have to save most of his budget for cleanup after the winter and and elm tree care in June. Furthermore, Ferguson said that he plans to mark trees for removal based on a priority system of how dangerous they are, which depends on “[their] likelihood to cause personal property damage or hurt someone.” “I’m going to continue to prioritize the elm trees because if we don’t care for them, they’re going to become unhealthy and require removal, and then the other priority is the removal of dangerous trees, and then whatever’s left would be used for other purposes, such as tree plantings. But we have so many dangerous trees in town,  I look at it as a public safety issue,” he said.

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