Column: Time to Take Down a Tree

Ann Arbor's leaders need to make some tough decisions – now

Last week, city workers sawed down the last large street tree on our block – an old, rotting maple. I was unduly fond of it. I’ll miss its shade.

Chainsaw Guy

Chainsaw Guy

But it was time for that tree to come down.

The work took just a few hours – it seemed like a well-drilled crew. And because the tree is across the street from our home, I was able to watch.

I’ve written a lot of articles over the past year littered with words like “cut” or some unimaginative variation of it – “trimming costs” or “chopping expenses.” So I couldn’t help but see the dismemberment of this tree as a metaphor for what our local governments – our cities, the county, the schools – are going through.

It’s time for some trees to come down.

Monday’s city council meeting was devoted to “big ideas” – ways to fundamentally change how the city goes about providing services. And one of the first points of order was for the council to establish that they had been incrementally trimming each year since the early 2000s – 239 staff positions pruned away over the course of a decade.

The crew on our street also started with the easy stuff – small branches that could be yanked down or flicked off at the trunk with a quick slash of a pole saw. The first parts of the tree to find their way into the chipper were hardly noticeable when gone – it was still a tree standing there, just way less of it. In aggregate, all those smaller branches accounted for a lot of wood.

The guy wielding the chainsaw – call him Chainsaw Guy – directed the work. But he wasn’t just the guy operating all the saws. It was Chainsaw Guy who sized up the tree by first walking around it, looking at it from different perspectives, analyzing the arc of the branches, the spread of its canopy, the interplay with wires running from the utility pole to the house. He took his time before climbing into the cherry picker bucket, making sure he knew what he was up against.

Because it was time for this tree to come down.

Chainsaw Guy seemed supremely confident, as I imagine you’d need to be to take on such a formidable task. Once hoisted into the air by the jerky mechanical motion of the cherry picker, he approached his job very tactically. As I watched, it was clear that he was working his way through a puzzle step by step, yet with a clear vision for what he needed to do.

In some cases it was apparent that a branch was targeted early in the process, just to provide clearance for the cherry picker arm. And it became clear that some larger branches were left in place for a bit longer, in order to leave a place to anchor a pulley.

The moderately elaborate pulley system helped control the fall of the larger logs. The ropes were manned by one of the ground crew. The two other guys on the ground fed the chipper with branches, as well as most of the logs – it’s astonishing how large a log a chipper can accommodate. Taking down this tree was not something any one of them could have done alone.

Finally, when only the stump remained, shrouded in sawdust, we could see that this hardwood’s core had turned soft – though it had seemed strong to me, as someone unschooled in the signs of internal decay. Chronicle editor Dave Askins – the guy I also happen to be married to – told me that he’d received “condolences” from some folks after commenting online about the tree’s demise. I was sad, too.

But it was time for that tree to come down.

And as I watched the tree being taken apart, in ever larger chunks, I kept thinking about a comment that Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) had made during last December’s city council budget retreat. In my memory of it, Rapundalo had said it was time to cut down the big branches – when I later looked up The Chronicle report of that meeting, he had actually made the same point more dramatically than I’d remembered, saying that the city now faced a time when they’d need to “amputate part of the institution.”

Similar talk emerged during last week’s meeting of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, when Ronnie Peterson – a commissioner representing Ypsilanti – was among several of the commissioners who talked about the daunting budget challenges ahead. “No one has a clue about how bad next year will be,” Peterson said, and others agreed. That’s pretty telling, given that the county has already whacked roughly $30 million out of its budget for the next two years.

In Lansing and municipalities across the state, you’ll hear the same kind of statements. And yet, very few elected officials locally are taking the lead in wielding the chainsaw.

That task has fallen to administrators – among them Bob Guenzel for Washtenaw County, Roger Fraser in Ann Arbor, and Todd Roberts at the Ann Arbor Public Schools. They’re the Chainsaw Guys who can’t simply tug down the easy-to-reach twigs. They’ve got to deal with the hole in the trunk, and make some difficult, strategic decisions before the tree comes crashing down in an economic blizzard.

Ideally, their work would be more overtly supported by those on the ground hanging on to the ropes and the pulleys – those we elect to represent us. But mostly what we’ve heard so far from elected officials are warnings about what shouldn’t be cut, rather than concrete direction for what should be eliminated, and how. That’s a much more difficult call.

It’s time for some trees to come down.

At Monday’s budget meeting held by the Ann Arbor city council – devoted to reviewing a list of potential budget cuts – Fraser seemed a little frustrated with the elected officials in the room. It took nearly an hour of talk before he managed to get them to start focusing on the task for the evening, which was to identify which of the “big ideas” they wanted city staff to pursue.

Mayor John Hieftje and Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) were keen to express their opposition to reallocating the city’s greenbelt millage. The idea they didn’t like was reducing the allocation of the millage for acquiring land and development rights, and instead allocating money to help maintain existing parks. But neither of them balanced that with a specific suggestion of a cut they thought would be tolerable. [Note: The reallocation and possible re-setting of the greenbelt millage rate would, of course, need to be put before the voters – a referendum that Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) said at the meeting that she would not object to.]

And when the idea of putting the sale of some of the city’s parks before voters got no traction at the council’s meeting, Fraser acknowledged that this was the type of community we live in – one that values its parks. He noted that there was virtually no public outcry over layoffs of firefighters or police officers, but calls came flooding in when the possibility of selling parkland was raised.

Nevertheless, putting the sale of parkland before voters is at least a useful tool to get people’s attention, Fraser said – a tool to alert residents that if you’re going to extract $5 million from the budget this year, and even more next year, something’s got to give. If not parks, then services or people – or something else, or more likely a combination of all those.

It’s not business as usual, and it’s not an option to continue to provide every service to which we’re accustomed, contends Fraser. He reiterated Monday night a view he’s been expressing out loud since at least the December budget retreat: If the city can’t provide a service in the best way possible, the city shouldn’t try to provide that service.

A tree must come down.

When a tree is going to be cut down in Ann Arbor, the city gets our attention by sending letters to people on the street, and by painting a giant green dot on the tree. I’m not sure I truly believed the tree on our street would be removed, even when the dot appeared. I think I held out some faint hope that it would remain. Denial is a powerful thing.

Denial is almost as powerful as avoidance, and we see lots of that in the public meetings we cover. There’s a great deal of discussion about the need to do something, a great deal of effort that can best be described as chipping way at the edges, but not much serious work to reach consensus about where to lop off the big branches. Some elected officials can’t even bring themselves to say the actual words they mean at these meetings.

At Monday’s city council budget meeting, Margie Teall asked Jayne Miller, the city’s community services area administrator, about fees for users of the Huron River other than canoeists. Miller responded by saying that there are multiple ways for people to enter the water. Yes, said Teall, she understood that point – it wouldn’t make sense to charge someone a fee for walking across a grassy park, either.

But, wondered Teall, what about organized use of the water, in a way that, for example, prevented others from using the water? Well, said Miller finally, “the thing that comes to mind is rowing.” It’s clearly what Teall meant all along, and it’s a fair discussion to have – should fees be applied to rowers’ use of the city’s waterways along with other users? But it’s important in doing this tough work to label the discussion at the beginning for what it is: Asking rowers to pay fees.

Or, in expressing his view on taking the question of parkland sale to the voters, Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) said that he’d rather go to the voters with something directly about revenue. If Taylor meant something else besides a city income tax, it would be nice to hear in more detail what that is. If what he meant was a city income tax, then he needs to start saying those actual words.

We shouldn’t be talking about eliminating the growing things standing along this street that are tall, say, and might block the sun at times, for example, and turn different colors in autumn. We need to be blunt.

It’s time for a tree to come down.

There’s nothing satisfying about this difficult work – some people will be angry, no matter what is done. It is the most challenging time in decades for people to lead the community.

But here’s the thing: We citizens of Ann Arbor are mostly resilient creatures. In a few months, or even just weeks, I’ll forget what the street looked like before the tree was taken down. I’m told there was a similar tree growing in front of our house years ago, before we moved here. When I look at the house, though, I don’t wonder: “Why isn’t there a big tree on our lawn extension?”

Yes, it was tough to watch the tree across the street come down. It will be difficult to absorb the new reality that comes when the county, city and schools take down the “trees” here, too.

But the adjustment will be smoother if our elected officials grab hold of the ropes that ease the logs to the ground as the Chainsaw Guy makes his cuts. And they need to point out the next big branch he needs to saw through. Because in the end, nobody really cares who the actual Chainsaw Guy was – it’ll be the whole crew who gets thanked, or punished, by voters.

And finally, to the tree-cutting crew who worked Mulholland Avenue on Feb. 5, 2010: Thank you.

Tree before it was cut down

Tree falling down

tree with rotted trunk

Stump after tree was cut down


  1. February 10, 2010 at 7:52 am | permalink

    Great article Mary. Your analogy is on target. The only thing I missed was a call for courage. You know, bravery–the ability and willingness to act in the face of adversity. Maybe its time for a backbone transplant.

  2. By Margaret
    February 10, 2010 at 7:58 am | permalink

    Thank you Mary. I am often dismayed about how coy our elected leaders are in letting us know what their positions and thinking are. These meandering questions about the budget are just one example of their fear that the voters might be able to pin them down on something – horrors! Do they really want to protect their seats on council that badly? Blunt is absolutely called for, now more than ever.

  3. February 10, 2010 at 8:15 am | permalink

    Great article. Great analogy. I certainly hope that the council picks up on your call and takes action. Nature shows us, even with something like a forest fire, that sometimes its time to refresh the landscape… and even then, it can come back stronger and healthier.

  4. By Gill
    February 10, 2010 at 8:16 am | permalink

    I am worried that they will continue the practice of eliminating the rope and pulley worker first – let the branches fall where they may! We can clean up the mess later…

  5. February 10, 2010 at 9:22 am | permalink

    The concern I have about your thesis is that I believe that this crisis is being used to push some policy changes, like privatization or even elimination of trash removal, that are not necessarily budget-driven but are a substantial restructuring of the way services are delivered based on goals that are not being voiced. We have a recent track record of favoring certain activities (building big buildings) over others (service to residents). Council does indeed have some difficult decisions ahead. But they need to be made in the context of the overall vision of what kind of community that we want to have, not in a rush to cut the thing down.

  6. By suswhit
    February 10, 2010 at 9:41 am | permalink

    Great analogy. I have to say I’m beyond frustrated by the guy who wants to “amputate” parts of the city institution all the while plotting to bankroll a convention center on top of the 50 million dollar underground parking structure that we can’t live without down the street from the new 50 million dollar city hall that we can’t live without next to the fancy million dollar German urinal that we can’t live without. And then there’s the 5 million dollar regressive new recycling system. This guy is the surgeon who cuts off your leg by mistake when you are supposed to have your appendix out.

  7. By James D'Amour
    February 10, 2010 at 9:45 am | permalink

    Interesting analogy, Mary.

    I’d agree with Vivianne on this one. I’d be more supportive of the “tough choices” if EVERYTHING was on the table, if, to use your analogy, if ALL of the big branches were up for cutting. But it’s not.

    To use another analogy. I feel like a beloved grandfather is being held at gunpoint, and I’m being asked for a huge ransom right now, with no assurance my loved one will be safe after I give away a treasured heirloom.

  8. By Barbara Levin Bergman
    February 10, 2010 at 10:00 am | permalink

    Great article Mary. As County Commissioners, we know we have to go for some main branches of the county tree. Long gone are the easy branches which provided shade, but we decided we could live with the exposure.

    But we can’t take away so many limbs that the tree itself is endangered. Picking the right limb takes caution and in our haste to cut the right limbs, we endangered the tree. We ended out Day Break drug treatment and school program and returned these kids to their home schools where their troubles started. We saved $600,000 but we may have sacrificed some kids. We made a mistake. We hope our tree can grow back.

    Washtenaw County Commissioners Ronnie D. Peterson and Barbara Levin Bergman

  9. By Dan Ezekiel
    February 10, 2010 at 10:02 am | permalink

    Thanks for opening a useful discussion, Mary.
    I agree with Vivienne and James. I don’t see a clear analogy, for example, between the AA Public Schools or the AA city parks and a rotten tree. More a treasured and useful garden that has been passed down to us from previous generations who tended it well.

  10. By Thaddeus
    February 10, 2010 at 11:31 am | permalink

    Time for the city to make some tough changes by reducing staff and requiring a higher level of productivity from those that remain. And with escalating health care costs and with Washington reluctant to pass any national health care legislation to help reign in these costs, the City should require that the employees start picking up more of the tab.
    Privatizing where possible should also be explored.
    The City Council needs to be fiscally more responsible.

  11. By ken schwartz
    February 10, 2010 at 11:31 am | permalink

    Dear Mary,

    Another great Chronicle story artfully addressing the plight of local government in 2010.
    As a member of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners your chainsaw story fortifies me and increases my determination to confront and resolve the problems inherent from a contracting tax dollar. The County Board carries a heavy burden to use our best judgment today so that we can regain our financial footing, provide and align functional priorities with community values in a way that is practical and feasible with broad public support.
    Despite any appearances to the contrary the Washtenaw County Board is an outstanding group of elected officials deeply concerned how negative future revenue projections will affect what we do, how we do it and where we must cut.
    I believe that each Commissioner recognizes that this is the time to recoup, reorganize and reorder simply get through the next two budget cycles. Since no one Commissioner has all the answers, it is important for the public and the Commissioners to communicate with one another so we can develop a substantive process to scratch through this crisis period.
    For almost two decades property tax revenues to Washtenaw County were increasing far beyond the rate of inflation and created surpluses that were spent in expanding services and the infrastructure to support those services. The era of surpluses has ended. Revenues are nose-diving and the trends are not encouraging. Hence, the need for a chainsaw.
    As your story stated: “It was Chainsaw Guy who sized up the tree by first walking around it, looking at it from different perspectives, analyzing the arc of the branches, the spread of its canopy, the interplay with wires running from the utility pole to the house. He took his time before climbing into the cherry picker bucket, making sure he knew what he was up against.”
    I want to assure the public that our Board is taking on the role of the ”Chainsaw Guy” very seriously. Starting now we are kick starting a review of our county government. We are prospecting for many differing perspectives, meeting with the county wide elected officials, the Courts and department heads to understand what we are up against, to analyze the arc of services and the spread of the internal organization.
    As Commissioner Ronnie Peterson stated, “No one has a clue about how bad next year will be”. That’s true, but it cannot deter the Board from making the tough decisions regarding work force reorganization, evaluating the effectiveness of all services, mandated and discretionary, and deriving a new set of priorities to meet the challenges presented now, which are unprecedented to all but our oldest citizens.
    There will be change at the County; there will be unhappy people inside and outside the organization. It may require us as Commissioners to set aside personal political aspirations to labor for the common good until this work is done, but to forestall action now will only invite even more daunting challenges soon.
    So, I am certain that County will fire up a few chainsaws this year; that we will continue to trim and prune. To graft good branches with the tree, plant a few seedlings with new rootstock to give the greatest service possible with limited dollars. I also have no doubt that out of financial necessity a few big trees will fall.

    Ken Schwartz
    Washtenaw County Commissioner

  12. By Ruth Kraut
    February 10, 2010 at 12:01 pm | permalink

    Metaphors have both uses and limitations. One problem with this metaphor is the one that Dan Ezekiel [9] alludes to–the parks and schools themselves are not rotten. Another problem, though, is that you trusted the tree cutters and believed that they knew what they were doing. In the case of city government, I’m not feeling so confident about either city council or the city’s top management. There may be no use crying over spilt milk, but when milk [or money] gets spilled over and over for projects I don’t think we need–such as a convention center or a new city hall–then it doesn’t inspire confidence in the tree cutters [to mix a few metaphors].
    Thanks Mary for your thought-provoking and lyrical writing.

  13. By Jack Eaton
    February 10, 2010 at 12:21 pm | permalink

    Thanks for another thought provoking article. Perhaps, however, a better analogy would be a crew of subcontracted tree cutters coming to a street that has three dying trees and one remaining healthy tree and cutting down the healthy tree.

    The city administration’s list of “big ideas” had items such as bagging our leaves and reducing mowing schedules. Those ideas may save a little money, but they are not big ideas.

    In the last five years, the city’s revenue and spending increased by about one third. While cutting police and fire staff, those departments’ budgets grew about 13%. After reducing staff throughout its departments, the city now spends about one million dollars per year on consultants. Shifting costs from employment to consultants isn’t really a savings.

    Rather than cutting safety staff or selling parks, let’s identify the areas that experienced significant growth in the last few years and cut those budgets back to where they were before the increase in spending. For example, the IT budget has nearly doubled (from about $3.5 million to about $7 million)and the law department has had significant growth in its budget. The big ideas were nowhere to be found on the administration’s list of possible cuts.

    Ann Arbor taxpayers pay relatively high tax rates. We should be able to count on preservation of core city services such as public safety and infrastructure maintenance. To accomplish that, the city administration will need to establish different priorities.

  14. By Connie Pulcipher
    February 10, 2010 at 12:47 pm | permalink

    Metaphors aside for a moment, after looking at the rot in the second to last photo, Mary, we should feel lucky that the tree did not fall on either of our houses during one of the many storms over the last year. YIKES! Thanks to the crews for a job well done and leaving the job site with our properties intact. Not an easy job on such a tight street.

  15. By Peg Eisenstodt
    February 10, 2010 at 1:20 pm | permalink

    When I hear about the City cutting staff positions over the past few years, I wonder how many individuals who took advantage of early retirements were hired back as long-term “consultants”. And how many consultants, who were not former employees, exist? It would be interesting to see a tally of how many consultants the City pays on a regular basis. Chopping off a large branch doesn’t mean a lot if you then glue that branch back onto the tree or plant a different tree next to the trimmed one. It would also be interesting to compare the number of employees the City had fifteen or twenty years ago compared to now. I’m guessing that in 1990 there were still fewer employees than there are now, even after recent cuts. If that’s the case, and considering that the City’s population has stayed about the same, I wonder if the City could operate with fewer employees and fewer consultants.

  16. February 10, 2010 at 3:13 pm | permalink

    Trees growing between sidewalks and street curbs, trimmed to avoid overhead wires, with little pervious surface around them (even the “soil” in the extension is compacted) to get water, are living in an unsustainable system. And now one of them no longer is–dead before its time. There are more trees, though. And the system is still unsustainable.

    I just posted a comment over at about a local fuel tax that might not be considered a “big idea” but at least one that might move us toward a sustainable system: [Link]. They don’t number them, but it’s about #105. You might want to check it out and see what discussion follows or chime in yourself.

  17. By pat
    February 10, 2010 at 4:40 pm | permalink

    Sounds like the county has a plan.

    Good luck

  18. February 10, 2010 at 4:57 pm | permalink

    I see a lot of competing analogies. Mary’s was on target and useful. The others appear to me to be obfuscating. How about cutting to the chase. We haven’t got enough money to cover our overhead. Two choices–cut costs or raise revenue.

    If you don’t like the cuts, propose a sustainable means of covering costs. By the way, sustainable means that we get the benefit (cost reduction or revenue increase)every year. The one-time shots like canceling the sculpture only delay the inevitable.

    Personally, I think it is time for leadership to put the problem to bed so we can get on building a viable and vibrant city.

  19. By Ann Arbor Girl
    February 10, 2010 at 5:35 pm | permalink

    Wonderfully written article – and your choice of metaphor was powerfully clear. I very much appreciate the cool-headed view on what units of government are wrestling with, as too often the tone is dialed up to 11 (Spinal Tap reference intended) which makes it very difficult to move forward to finding solutions. And using your metaphor a bit futher, an idea of a downtown conference center is analygous to planting a new tree that perhaps may produce much-needed new revenues for this community. It is absolutely worth exploring this – and other economic development ideas – as we can no longer rely on things as they were in the past. 20% of City property is off the tax rolls for City parks, 15%+ property is off the tax rolls due to the UM, another 25%+ is off the tax rolls from schools, nonprofits, and other government. Our largest single tax payer – Pfizer – left town and we have almost no large corporations to carry the freight for residents as is done in cities such as Grand Rapids. Cutting down the size of government – like the tree – has been going on for years. Now is the time to think of new ways to plant new trees and build the tax base.

  20. By Barbara Annis
    February 10, 2010 at 5:54 pm | permalink

    Thank you Vivianne, once again. There is a lot of fear driven thinking out there — OMG what if that tree were to fall on my house! for example. How long might that tree have lasted if left alone? Did anyone ask, or was it just scheduled to come down now? The commentators who argue for careful thinking about both long and short term goals are on point. We are too often thrown into a tizzy while things we value are sacrificed without the whole picture being revealed.

  21. By Pinus Nigra
    February 10, 2010 at 9:03 pm | permalink

    I think Chainsaw guy should be employee of the month.

  22. By Rod Johnson
    February 10, 2010 at 10:24 pm | permalink

    An odd thing to hear from someone named for a tree.

  23. February 11, 2010 at 10:26 am | permalink

    I appreciate Mary’s article, and metaphor, as well. I’m not sure I entirely agree, however. As others have pointed out, it’s not that our local government or schools are rotten at the core (though some may disagree). It’s that, for reasons both under our control and not, the water and nutrient supply to our civic “tree” have been constrained. Some things we can’t control. Other things we can. We can deal with the crisis by taking down big limbs, or we can find more water.

    One thing the tree metaphor does illustrate is the need for planning ahead. Often, this kind of rot can be prevented, if you act early enough and see the signs. But when our civic tree was healthy, we didn’t worry much about the storm to come. When rain was plentiful, we decided to throw away the garden hose.

    Perhaps that tree did need to come down. Perhaps our civic tree needs some trimming as well. But how many branches can you cut before it ceases to be a “tree” at all? And will we be willing to spend the resources it will take to plant a new one?

  24. February 12, 2010 at 9:35 am | permalink

    Excellent article! Thank you Mary.

    Steve, without changes at the State level, local municipalities cannot impose a fuel tax (or a local sales tax, or a lot of other revenue options). There are state-level efforts to change that, but right now it’s not on the table for us.

    There does seem to be a problem in that each tree and branch in the budget has its own cheering section. So if you want to prune the arts branch, the arts community comes out to say “no, not that branch.” If you want to cut the parks branch, the parks community comes out. Same with fire, human services, etc.

    On the plus side, that’s community involvement and democracy in action. But now we are at a point where our elected officials will have to be more than politicians and show themselves to be leaders, which will mean angering some of those cheering sections to make the necessary cuts.

  25. February 14, 2010 at 9:21 am | permalink

    Thanks, Chuck. I’ve started a conversation with Jeff Irwin about it.