Editor’s note: This story is the fourth in a series of in-depth reporting by ELi on the City of East Lansing’s budget for Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24). The three previous articles were on FY24 plans for the environmental management, the fire department and the police department.
The annual springtime budget talks have included Acting Director of Public Works Ron Lacasse and Environmental Specialist Cliff Walls seeking an increase in the part of the City of East Lansing budget that mitigates the city’s environmental impact. A presentation by Lacasse and Walls to Council on May 2 included attention to solid waste management, implementation of a solar power system at DPW’s headquarters and a stronger focus on urban forestry.
East Lansing’s spending on tree care has been way behind Lansing’s and Ann Arbor’s.
Walls focused the majority of his presentation on the budget for urban forestry, hoping for a five-fold increase of that budget from the previous $110,000 to $533,750. East Lansing’s urban forestry program involves management of the city’s trees, including everything from tree trimming and tree removal to stump grinding and emergency work for trees following storms.
This work is important for the city as, according to the the City of East Lansing website, trees help stabilize the soil, reduce noise levels, cleanse pollutants from the air, produce oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide and provide habitat for wildlife. The trees also provide significant economic benefits, such as increasing real estate values.
“I don’t see that our current budget or staffing for urban forestry programming can provide a high level of service for the expectations that we all know the residents look for,” Walls told Council.
The main reason for the ask for an increase in the budget is related to the interest in seeing a larger number of new plantings and the institution of a proactive tree care program versus the current reactive program.
Walls explained the difficulties the program has faced over the past few years, emphasizing the need for this increase in funds.
He expressed the hope to shift the majority of tree removals from the city’s Street Fund into the General Fund. In the past, the majority of the funding has come from Street Funding. But, under Act 51, these dollars can only be used for tree removal or replacement that are a part of road projects. Walls wants to see more trees planted along streets not undergoing road projects, and the trees in the city’s parks and around city buildings are also of concern.
Walls also discussed the previous stump grinding contractor the city had for restoration efforts.
“Previously, we had a stump grinding contractor to do that work [site restoration] and then our people followed up and did the actual grass replacement,” Walls said. “This was not very efficient.”
Many years ago, East Lansing dissolved its Forestry Crew and failed to replace it with a contractor to steadily perform proactive maintenance. This led to needing to focus more on reactive efforts, responding to emergencies and complaints.
East Lansing has also struggled with the ratio of full-time employees (FTE) to trees. The national average for the tree-to-FTE ratio for municipalities with a tree care contractor is 6,000 to 1, according to the International Society of Horticulture. For communities that have a dedicated staffing and no tree care contractor, the ratio is 4,500 to 1.
Walls compared East Lansing’s ratio to that of cities nearby.
“Lansing, I think they have eight forestry staff and two foresters,” he told Council. “Ann Arbor, they have 10 foresters and five seasonal fulltimer. We [East Lansing] have no tree care contractor for that proactive maintenance and zero FTEs for our 11,000 trees.”
With additional funding, the DPW team hopes to resolve these issues by implementing the 2004 Tree Management Plan. Although this plan is almost 20 years old, Walls said that these recommendations are still relevant.
The first step would be to institute a seven-year block pruning program through a contractor. The goal of this program is structural pruning that will maximize health, remove decay and extend the life of trees. The plan would designate seven different zones in the city, alternating every year a different zone for a contractor to focus on, performing block pruning and structural pruning. (Walls emphasized this would be far gentler on the trees — and much more tree-centric – than what people have seen done by BWL tree-trimming contractors interested primarily in the health of power lines.)
The second step of the program would be to hire a contractor to perform tree plantings, thus increasing the annual number of plantings.
The presentation to Council also focused on solid waste management and the implementation of solar use at the Department of Public Works (DPW).
In East Lansing, 1,875 compacted yards of yard waste are picked up each year. Fifty percent of that yard waste is collected on no-fee days, which is a problem. While the no-fee days are great for residents, they are difficult for staff.
“It’s a whole lot of work in those couple of days,” Lacasse told Council.
So far, there’s been no suggestion of eliminating the no-fee days to help the city’s budget and make things easier on DPW staff.
The city is currently recycling between 1,400 and 1,700 tons of material through residential curbside collection, the DPW drop-off facility and municipal buildings.
The proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24) includes weekly trash collection, bi-weekly recycling collection, weekly bulk item collection, seasonal fee-based yard waste collection, no-fee yard waste collection days, a recycling and styrofoam drop-off center, extra support for trash management during Michigan State University student move-in and move-out days, regional collaboration on the planning of events, continued Burcham Landfill monitoring and management (still an unpredictable cost year-to-year), and storm debris disposal.
The solid waste department is seeking to add $20K to the fund balance (savings) in FY24. This would leave a fund balance of about $712K.
Following the presentation, Councilmember Dana Watson asked if the department has benefited from the city’s No Mow May initiative.
“We’re participating where we can on city facilities,” Lacasse said. “We’re doing that in more natural areas, like Fine Park, things like that. Not necessarily parks that are more heavily used or areas that we would have to bag, because we would never catch up on mowing if we had to bag all the parks at the end of May.”
No Mow May has not been popular with everyone. One Pinecrest Neighborhood homeowner came to Council this week to say the initiative has left his neighborhood looking trashy, as if it were full of abandoned houses. He questioned whether it has made a difference for pollinators as intended.
The city is still interested in creating a solar array at the DPW headquarters on State Road.
A DPW solar array was a specific goal of the Council’s 2012 Climate Sustainability Plan, with the aim of creating 100 percent renewable electric energy by 2030. The DPW solar project has recently been recommended once again by East Lansing’s Commission on the Environment.
“DPW is, I believe, the second largest energy user in the city, second to the WRRF,” Walls said, referring to the water resource recovery facility (the wastewater treatment plant off Trowbridge Road). “Just on commodity charges, they are anywhere between $2,500 to $3,5000 a month for electrical service at DPW.”
In an effort to reduce these costs, the federal government has “made a very attractive environment for solar for municipalities and other non-taxable entities,” Walls said, offering 30% direct cash payment for municipal solar.
With this money and the combination of rooftop and ground mount solar, Walls said it would be feasible to produce 418% of DPW’s energy needs.
That said, the cost of the project has risen considerably since it was first introduced as an idea. The total cost is now estimated at $2 million. With incentives from the federal government and BWL, the expected cost to the city would be about $1.4 million.
Alice Dreger contributed reporting from the May 16 City Council meeting.