Cedar Rapids to take on grinding tree stumps left in derecho’s wake

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Cedar Rapids to take on grinding tree stumps left in derecho’s wake

Zach Hughes, an urban forester for the city of Cedar Rapids, on July 21, 2021, grinds a tree stump in a public right-of-way along Wilson Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids. (The Gazette)

Background

CEDAR RAPIDS — A year and a half after the 2020 derecho, Cedar Rapids still is on the “Stump Attack” to grind thousands of tree stumps — a lingering reminder of the devastating tree loss the city endured in the storm’s ferocious winds.

After cutting down trees that were damaged in the derecho in city parks and right-of-ways, crews last June began to grind down the stumps left behind.

What’s happened since?

Seeking assistance with the massive undertaking of stump grinding, Cedar Rapids had solicited bids to issue a contract for the removal of at least 1,000 stumps.

Those bids came in too high, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said, so Cedar Rapids will take on the work itself at a lower cost through a joint effort with the Parks and Recreation and Public Works Departments.

This commitment will require some one-time equipment purchases, as well as the use of both seasonal and current employees, Pomeranz said. With labor shortages and other challenges facing the private sector, Pomeranz said it is more efficient to make this a public endeavor.

“We’re making that commitment and it’s obvious that there’s really no one who’s geared up on the private side to remove this vast number of stumps,” Pomeranz said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is reimbursing the city for some other derecho recovery costs, doesn’t cover stump removal.

Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell also said the work will be done quicker with the city taking it on. Staff expect it will take about a year to finish stump grinding.

“It’s a lot less than the estimates when we were going outside,” O’Donnell said.

There are about 9,084 stumps to be ground in the right way, Parks and Recreation Director Hashim Taylor said.

Public Works Director Bob Hammond said three three-person crews can tackle about 25 stumps a day. The city will organize these crews into snow routes, something the community is already familiar with.

Cedar Rapids also will have a public-facing dashboard so people know when the stumps near them will be ground.

Hammond said staff will coordinate this effort with the ReLeaf reforestation program and with the Paving for Progress street-repair program “so that when these projects are going forward, there’ll be a complete project when they’re done.”

“We’ll have the stumps ground, we’ll have the trees in, we’ll have the Paving for Progress, either with our contracts or our in-house on that,” Hammond said.

Residents can pay themselves to have stumps ground in the right of way if they choose, but they first must obtain a permit to do work in the right of way from the city’s forestry operation.

Much of the city’s derecho recovery work in the meantime has centered on crafting the ReLeaf plan, a guide to equitably reviving the tree canopy on public land over a 10-year span with native species. The plan, adopted in February, also includes resources for landowners.

Cedar Rapids worked with Marion-based nonprofit Trees Forever, renowned urban planner Jeff Speck and local landscape architecture firm Confluence on the plan.

The city also has contributed $1 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds toward the PATCH home-repair program to help fix derecho-damaged properties.

Besides supporting those initiatives, it seems the City Council overall has little appetite for entertaining funds for further derecho recovery, though the new mayor was somewhat at odds with her elected colleagues.

At a recent council goal-setting session, O’Donnell was interested in potentially placing derecho recovery on the list identifying about a handful of priorities. One of the planks of her campaign platform last year was to “fix and finish” recovery from the 2008 flood and the 2020 derecho.

Specifically, she mentioned areas such as Cottage Grove Avenue SE where trees still needed to be removed. She wondered if there might be opportunities for the city to incentivize or otherwise support private landowners with the high costs of tree removal.

Though the city had offered free right-of-way tree debris pickup for months after the derecho, there remains a portion of landowners who have not cleared their storm-damaged trees in certain cases.

“It’s our town being able to move forward,” O’Donnell said. “…People with means are choosing not to do that because it’s so expensive.”

Council member Scott Overland, chair of the council’s Finance and Administrative Services Committee, took issue with allowing the taxpayers to pay “for a handful of people” to get their trees removed.

Agreeing with Overland’s sentiment, council member Dale Todd said the city already supported this effort for a reasonable amount of time with the right of way pickup opportunity, which ended last April.

“The assumption is … based on those addresses, that they’ve got some means,” Todd said. “I think council would agree resoundingly.”

Comments: (319) 398-8494; marissa.payne@thegazette.com