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Ash Borer cost could be $1.5 million

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013 9:38 a.m. CDT

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(MCT) — Highland Park officials will soon be faced with paying for a program to remove more than 6,000 public ash trees that are expected to fall prey to the emerald ash borer that has infested the area.

City Forester Joe O'Neill said Highland Park has 4,125 ash trees of various varieties on public parkway, plus as many as 2,000 more on publicly maintained areas such as the bicycle trail. A five-year projection shows it would cost $1.52 million to remove infected trees and plant replacements.

That schedule, which includes consistent annual costs, could be sped up if the current drought continues, O'Neill said.

Emerald ash borer beetles pose "an attack on the vascular system of the tree, essentially, and that's what conducts the water from the roots to the crown of the tree," O'Neill said a recent committee-of-the-whole meeting of the city council. "And the fact that it's already stressed from the drought, it doesn't take much damage to show more effect on the tree."

Highland Park first detected the emerald ash borer in 2011, and expects it to destroy all the ash trees in town. Those trees on private property are also susceptible and must be treated or removed at the owners' expense.

Councilwoman Sally Higginson proposed identifying ways for private owners to work with the city to find economies of scale when several trees are being removed from specific areas of town. Such collaborations may not bear fruit for private homeowners because they are not required — as the city is — to hire contractors at prevailing wage, according to Highland Park Public Works Director Ramesh Kanapareddy.

Councilman James Kirsch recommended seeking private contributions to help the city respond to the predicament.

"This is a community-wide problem and I know this is a community that loves their trees," said Kirsch, who is not running for re-election in April. "As you go through the budgeting cycle, I think it's going to be important to get community buy-in and see what kind of alternative sources of revenue we can come up without raising permit fees or taxes in order to accomplish this goal."

Kirsch said he has been impressed during his time on the City Council with O'Neill's workload.

"He's so busy without this crisis," Kirsch said. "I mean, this is monumental. So we have to think about this in the context of really providing the proper resources so that he can continue to do what he was doing before this infestation came upon us."

Infestation has accelerated lately because of the drought, O'Neill said, but with a diversity of species in town, "that's going to help us reduce the visual impact of this, as well as the financial impact."

Still, certain streets, like Tennyson, Malory and Keats lanes, in a northwest area of the city, as well as portions of Greenwood Avenue, will receive additional attention because of the larger ratio of ash trees, O'Neill said.

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