Trees that need pruning are not being pruned, and trees that do not need it are being over-trimmed, according to an audit of the Parks Department conducted by city Comptroller Scott Stringer.
“I’m not going out on a limb when I say that Parks’ performance has been unacceptable,” Stringer stated.
The department hires contractors to prune trees across the five boroughs, and except in Queens, contractors were trimming the wrong trees, according to a 2012–2013 analysis.
This is part of Stringer’s broader effort to reduce lawsuits against the city.
“The city pays out millions per year in settlements resulting from falling limbs,” Stringer stated. Reducing the city’s exposure to these types of claims is a mandate that cuts across all city agencies.”
Last month, Stringer launched Claimstat to track claims made against the city by people seeking compensation for injuries.
In 2009, the tree-pruning budget was cut, just two years after the city began an initiative to plan a million more trees in a decade, and tree-related claims rose steadily.
Most notably, a Google engineer suffered major injuries including paralysis after he was hit by a falling branch in 2009, resulting in a $11.5 million settlement.
After restoring the budget for tree pruning in 2012, the claims dropped quickly back to the level it had been in the years before: about 300–400 per year.
So far this year, over 12,700 damaged tree complaints have been made through the city’s complaint line, 311, and the Parks Department takes additional complaints through its website directly.
The Parks Department has an annual goal of pruning 10,000 trees, and typically exceeds that. In Fiscal Year 2013, the department pruned 46,000 trees. In Fiscal Year 2014 (through May), the department pruned over 57,000 trees, according to a department spokesperson.
“This high number of prunings has made a positive impact on neighborhoods throughout the city, and has minimized the risk of injuries to people and damage to property from fallen limbs,” Parks spokesperson Philip Abramson wrote.
Map: Tree-related Claims by Community District
Map via comptroller.nyc.go
Too Many Prunings
The recently implemented Fiscal Year 2015 budget includes an additional $1 million for tree pruning to allow for more frequent maintenance, but the Comptroller says now the problem lies with over-pruning.
In Manhattan and Staten Island, contractors did not receive lists of trees that should be pruned, making it impossible to inspect their work. In Brooklyn and the Bronx, the lists included 51–112 trees under five inches in diameter that should not have been pruned, according to the report.
Stringer says the Parks Department has inadequate control over its spending on tree pruning.
“The Parks Department needs to implement reforms that will help protect all taxpayers, boost services and ensure greater safety in all neighborhoods,” Stringer stated.
The comptroller’s office recommends detailed lists of locations of trees that need pruning be kept, and that the trees and streets be inspected after pruning.
The Parks Department cites a number of changes already implemented to address the report’s recommendations and ensure stronger oversight.
The report also recommends contractors only be paid for work on trees that meet the requirements for pruning and that the department try to recover money paid for trees that were not pruned or were undersized, reporting falsification of invoices to the Department of Investigation if need be.