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Mitchell seeks balance for tree culling costs

With the emerald ash borer in South Dakota, the city of Mitchell is working on making plans. And on Thursday at the Mitchell Parks and Recreation board meeting, members tried to balance the city's existing rules with the need to potentially take ...

Branches of an ash tree are shown Thursday in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Branches of an ash tree are shown Thursday in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

With the emerald ash borer in South Dakota, the city of Mitchell is working on making plans.

And on Thursday at the Mitchell Parks and Recreation board meeting, members tried to balance the city's existing rules with the need to potentially take out dangerous trees if the infestation makes it to Mitchell and what the costs might be.

Currently, Mitchell's ordinance says that city employees will remove dangerous trees that are located along the street or boulevard but will charge property owners a fee. But currently, the city doesn't charge a fee for that service.

While that hasn't been a problem to this point, it likely will be if hundreds of the city's estimated 8,000 ash trees begin to die off and those trees need to be taken down. No official action was taken at the meeting at City Hall but a few basic ideas were agreed upon, including that the city would place ash trees on the city's list of trees that can't be planted along streets.

Members also said they would take public input on what the fee to homeowners should be for the city to take down trees. Parks and Recreation Director Nathan Powell initially proposed an amount of $25 per tree, but most of the conversation centered on a cost-share between property owner and the city, or a flat fee. For the purposes of the emerald ash borer, any tree that is confirmed to have the borer would be deemed a "dangerous tree."

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The emerald ash borer was found in northern Sioux Falls earlier this year and has been restricted to that area only for now. There's no timeline to know how quickly it could make its way to Mitchell, and the borer kills every untreated ash tree it impacts.

The city has an estimated 8,000 ash trees around the community, including 616 trees in parks and 1,555 trees along streets, Powell said. There's also an estimated 182 trees at Lakeview Golf Course, and about 60 at the city's cemetery. Board member Brian Johnson said none of that will matter to most of the city's residents, who will now have to pay a fee the city will enforce because of the infestation.

"Now they're going to get charged $600, when a year ago they wouldn't have been charged anything?" Johnson said. "This thing is going to get big real quick. ... Residents don't care how many ash trees around the lake get dropped, they don't care how many ash trees in the parks get dropped. They care about how many ash trees get dropped in their boulevards that they're going to get charged for."

Powell estimated that it costs the city about $600 to take down a typical tree. Board President Ryan Tupper said at the end of the meeting that he believes the final fee needs to be closer to what the actual costs are to take down the dead trees.

"It's my opinion that we're at the consensus to come back with something closer to the actual costs and not a nominal fee and then we can decide if that doesn't work," Tupper said. "But if I've got a tree and it's 50 feet tall and I know I can call the city and it's $25, and I call a tree service and it costs $800, which one am I going to call. We're not in the private business of removing trees."

City Council member Marty Barington, who is a liaison for the board, proposed a 50-50 cost share for taking trees down.

"It has to be an actual cost you put out there," he said. "Maybe it's actual costs and the property owner is paying half of the actual costs and the city pays half. If you cut down a 10-foot tree and it costs $250, the city pays $125 and the owner pays $125. It's a partnership that way, compared to what we haven't been charging before."

(For the purposes of the example, Powell clarified that a 10-foot tree would be too short to be dangerous, and a homeowner would be asked to remove that.)

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Treating every tree in the city isn't cost effective either. For the city to treat every infected tree in the city's parks would cost $46,200 every other year, Powell said, plus the costs for additional part-time staff to cover the work of licensed full-time staff. If the city treated parks and street trees, it would cost more than $160,000 every two years.

The ordinance isn't going to change, Powell and Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson reiterated on Thursday. There's no specified amount currently on the books for what the city is supposed to charge.

"It's really about putting us in the even-keel and doing what the ordinance requests," Everson said.

Parks Foreman Brad Gates reiterated to the board that it was important for the city to stay as far ahead of the issue as possible. City employees do most of their tree removal during the span of a few months during the winter, starting in mid-December, Parks Supervisor Steve Roth said.

"You'll see them decline each year, and you don't want to be reacting when it's too late," Gates said. "That's why we need to stay ahead of it and that gives you time."

Roth said the city hasn't been planting ash trees in parks for at least the last 10 years or so because word about the emerald ash borer has been out there.

Other business

• Johnson took issue with the $18,000 artificial Christmas tree that the city bought to place at the Corn Palace Plaza. City Administrator Stephanie Ellwein said that the money came from a Corn Palace fund, not from the Parks and Recreation budget. The tree is 26 feet tall, while the previous trees at the Corn Palace were about 20 feet. Previously, the city had donations cover much of the cost of placing a tree downtown. "I couldn't believe that price," Johnson said.

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• The board approved creating a veterans membership rate at the Mitchell Recreation Center, which would be the same as what seniors (60 years and older) pay, a rate of $31 per month or $338 annually. A standard adult membership is $450 for the year.

With the emerald ash borer in South Dakota in 2018, the city of Mitchell's Parks and Recreation Board discussed Thursday actions it would take to address some of the nearly 8,000 ash trees estimated in the city. (Matt Gade / Republic)
With the emerald ash borer in South Dakota in 2018, the city of Mitchell's Parks and Recreation Board discussed Thursday actions it would take to address some of the nearly 8,000 ash trees estimated in the city. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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