Champaign city council debates need for tree database

At last night’s Champaign City Council meeting, the most discussed resolution was to purchase Tree Inventory Services for $90,000. As the council voted on and passed all 18 bills presented, the one that merited consideration of the current economic troubles was that concerning a tree database.

The city’s trees represent the last major asset – estimated to be worth $30 million – currently not catalogued in the work order and management system. Champaign is also a Tree City USA, as decided by the Arbor Day Foundation.

According to Bill Vander Weit, forestry supervisor, the software would allow for rapid identification of what species of trees are present, in what proportions, where specific trees can be found, and what the relative sizes of trees are, among other pieces of data, all of which could prove advantageous to future tree work.

“When we prune sycamores, we try to do that in the winter because the leaves are very allergenic,” said Vander Weit.

Vander Weit also mentioned Dutch Elm disease, which plagued Champaign in the 1950s and 1960s. City planners had planted the same sort of tree throughout Champaign and most were wiped out as a result of the disease. Such an inventory could help increase diversity to minimize effects of tree-specific maladies, including the Emerald Ash Borer, expected soon in Champaign.

City Manager Steve Carter mentioned that if the Ash Borer affects 10 percent of the city’s trees, as has been estimated previously, a catalog of the location, size and type of trees throughout the city would greatly ease removal of the affected trees by contractors. This would increase efficiency from a managerial standpoint, he said.

Vander Weit also highlighted benefits to those planning construction projects, who would be able to see the locations and sizes of trees at putative sites.

Beyond the potential advantages conferred by such a data management system, Vander Weit pointed out the primary detriment that would result from not installing the system: that without a new system, all the data in the currently existing software may be lost.

While most Council members agreed that the purchase was a good investment, several of those in attendance disputed the timing.

One of the factors to be considered is the imminent retirement of Vander Weit. Councilman at large Tom Bruno raised the issue of immediate versus long term payoff.

“Computerizing, while it creates some upfront costs, in the long run may give you better data at a lesser expense,” said Bruno.

Council member Paul Faraci spoke out in opposition to implementing the plan at the current time. While he did concur that the project was worthwhile, he felt that the cost was hard to justify.

“I’m concerned that at some point – the climate that we’re in – we need to recalibrate our spending expectations,” said Faraci. “At what point are we going to restructure and take a look at how we’re doing things?”

The council was also in favor of rewording city zoning ordinances concerning parking in the Central Business District, encompassing Downtown and parts of Campustown, to maintain the urban feel.

In addition, laptops will be replaced in all police squad cars. Many of the council members had previously gone on ride-alongs with the Champaign police and as such had witnessed the need for the upgrade.

While opening the meeting, Mayor Don Gerard informed attendees that during the extreme heat, people may visit the Public Health Department to cool down.