A new federal grant will provide Minneapolis with $8 million to pay for ash tree removal on private properties in disadvantaged neighborhoods, a significant relief effort after millions of dollars in removal costs were assessed against homeowners’ property taxes.
The U.S. Forestry Service grant comes from funding in the Inflation Reduction Act. The city applied for the grant in coordination with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, which condemns ash trees on private property in response to the infestation of the invasive emerald ash borer beetle.
The Minneapolis Park Board has condemned more than 18,000 ash trees since 2013. Homeowners with condemned trees either paid directly for their removal, or the city paid and assessed the cost—or added the cost as a fee—onto the homeowner’s property taxes.
Property tax assessments on tree removals total more than $7.3 million, according to the Park Board.
Neighborhoods targeted by the new federal funding, such as north Minneapolis, disproportionately paid for previous tree removal via property tax assessments, leading to increased monthly costs, Park Board data show.
“We’re really grateful to have these resources,” said Kelly Muellman, environmental manager with the Minneapolis Health Department.
But those resources can’t be used retroactively, meaning there’s no relief in sight for thousands of homeowners who are currently paying off tree removals that were ordered by the city.
Minneapolis’ ash tree removal policy is aimed at addressing the green beetle that is killing ash trees across the Midwest.
Several Minneapolis homeowners told Park Board officials at an October board meeting that they’re frustrated by the policy, that the costs are impacting family budgets, and that homeowners who are people of color, senior, and low-income were particularly affected.
Perhaps no one is more familiar with tree condemnations than Melissa Newman, a resident of the North Side’s McKinley neighborhood. Seven trees on her property have been condemned due to Dutch Elm disease or emerald ash borer since she bought her house 17 years ago.
The city’s forced removal of affected trees and subsequent property tax assessments are hardships, said Newman, adding that her monthly costs have increased between $150 to $200 as a result.
“I inherited the tree trying to create the American dream of homeownership,” Newman told Sahan Journal.
The funding applies to U.S. Census tracts considered to be environmental justice areas by the federal government, which includes almost the entire North Side, parts of northeast Minneapolis, and a large swath of south Minneapolis, including the Phillips and Cedar-Riverside neighborhoods.
The city originally applied for a $29 million grant from the U.S. Forestry Service. The $8 million it received will help hundreds of households, but could go fast. The city and Park Board are also pursuing a $500,000 grant from the state for the same purposes.
It’s unclear how far that money will stretch, or how many ash trees remain on private property citywide. Minneapolis officials say there are at least 12,000 trees remaining on private property in the environmental justice areas targeted by the grant, but also acknowledge that the Park Board doesn’t have good estimates on the true number.
The average tree removal in Minneapolis costs around $1,500. The grant also covers stump grinding, which isn’t included in the current average cost of tree removal, and replacing trees.
Minneapolis city tree program manager Sydney Schaaf said the city is still waiting for detailed instructions on how the grant can be used, but hope it will ease the burden to homeowners and help build back lost canopy.
A flawed process
Homeowners in the areas targeted by the grant are more likely than homeowners in wealthier neighborhoods to pay for mandated tree removals via property tax assessment. Homeowners in more affluent neighborhoods typically paid out of pocket to hire a contractor of their choice to remove a tree, according to Park Board data.
North Side residents disproportionately paid for tree removal via property tax assessments, Park Board data show. Around $2.8 million have been assessed in north Minneapolis in the last decade.
North Minneapolis homeowners experienced a high rate of tree condemnation, too. When Minneapolis ash tree condemnations peaked in 2021, with 6,095 trees marked for removal citywide, roughly 42 percent of condemnations happened in North Side neighborhoods, according to Park Board data.
More than half of the roughly 3,000 households citywide who paid for tree removal via property tax assessments in 2021 were in north Minneapolis.
Approximately 16 percent of the 2,164 tree condemnations issued from the start of 2023 through October were in North Side neighborhoods, according to Park Board data.
In 2021, the Park Board condemned five trees on Newman’s property in north Minneapolis. Her yard is fenced in, but one day there were green marks on her trees and a hanger on her doorknob telling her the ash trees had to go. She had 60 days to either cut the trees down on her own, or allow the Park Board to handle it by sending over the lowest bidding contractor.
Two were small enough for a neighbor to remove, but three were removed by the city and assessed against her property taxes. One of those assessed trees straddled the property line, and Newman split the $800 charge with a neighbor.
But two other trees were deemed “special” by the Park Board (for reasons Newman said were never satisfactorily explained to her), and the removal involved a crane, driving the combined removal cost to $2,700.
All told, after an $80 flat fee the Park Board imposes on all assessed trees and a 3 percent interest charge on the assessment, removing the two trees cost about $3,100. Newman’s yard used to be full of trees, and her dog would lie in the shade. But now, the grass dies easily in the summer heat, and Newman has to hack away at the tree stumps left behind.
“It’s completely open,” she said of her property.
The Park Board does not target any particular area of the city for ash tree condemnation, said Philip Potyondy, sustainable forestry coordinator, with the Park Board. It’s possible that ash trees are more common in some parts of the city, he said, adding that ash borer also tends to spread exponentially, and may have accelerated in the North Side in 2021 and 2022.
“This has impacted people in every part of Minneapolis,” said Potyondy.
Emerald ash borer is a persistent beetle, and it will infest and kill ash trees in time. But the infestation can be prevented with insecticide treatments implanted into a tree like an intravenous tube.
Potyondy said the city’s 12 staff tree inspectors only condemn ash trees that show signs of infestation. Those signs include woodpecker damage and thinning canopy at the top of the trees. They don’t confirm the presence of disease through testing, but because the beetle is so pervasive, any ash tree in the region that has not been treated will essentially become infested at some point, Potyondy said.
Newman said she would have been happy to spend around $200 every couple of years to treat her trees and prevent emerald ash borer infestation. The branches seemed fine and new leaves blossomed each spring.
But the Park Board doesn’t inform people that treating trees is an option. In 2010, the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution advising against using insecticides to treat emerald ash borer, Park Board forestry director Ralph Sievert told the board.
“We have been omitting that information when we’re communicating with constituents,” Park Board Commissioner Billy Menz said of the treatment option.
The Park Board altered the assessment process after community pushback led by the Harrison Neighborhood Association and the nonprofit, Hope Community.
Mitchel Hansen, outreach director with the North Side’s Harrison Neighborhood Association, is leading the charge against private ash tree condemnation. He became interested in the issue after hearing from several neighbors about costly assessments, and feels that the process is flawed and contradicts Park Board equity goals.
“I see this as being unfair. I see this as something we can easily solve,” Hansen said.
Schaaf and Muellman, the city health department employees, said the Harrison Neighborhood Association’s advocacy work inspired the city to apply for the federal grant.
Last May, the Park Board temporarily halted the assessment process to make changes.
The Park Board now requires tree removal companies to first examine the trees in order to get more competitive bids for removals that will be assessed against a homeowner’s property taxes, Potyondy said. Previously, only special trees with difficult removal circumstances would get in-person inspections from companies bidding to remove them.
The city also now offers all homeowners the choice of repaying the tree removal debt on their property taxes over five, 10, or 20 years, reducing the monthly cost with longer payment periods. Previously, the assessment was automatically set for a five-year period.
There is now also an exemption for seniors and veterans who can demonstrate economic hardship to defer the payments until the property is sold.
The city made 885 assessments worth about $2 million before pausing its assessment process earlier this year. When the pause ended in October, the city began collecting payments from those homeowners, who are ineligible for the new federal funding.
Most condemned ash trees are not assessed against property taxes, according to Potyondy, and the majority of removals are paid by homeowners out of pocket.
Park Board Superintendent Al Bangoura said he is working to find financing to help people who are already paying assessments. Bangoura said he is working with philanthropic groups to secure relief funding, but declined to provide further details.
“This is an absolute priority of mine,” Bangoura said.
‘The ship has sailed for me’
Schaaf, Minneapolis’ tree program coordinator, said she understands homeowners’ frustrations about the assessment process and the fact that the grant money can’t help retroactively.
“It’s hard because a lot of these people that are having to have a tree removed already live in areas that have some of the lowest tree canopy in the city. A lot of them really love trees, and they really don’t want to have to remove their tree,” Schaaf said.
Amoke Kubat didn’t want to get rid of her ash tree. She bought her home in the North Side’s Cleveland neighborhood in January 2021. While she was unpacking, she noticed a man in her backyard eyeing her large ash tree. He told her it was infested and tagged it for removal. Suddenly, Kubat had to figure out how to remove it and pay the bill.
The Park Board gave her a list of contractors to call. She got estimates, some as high as $10,000. The tree didn’t come down until August 2021, and in the meantime, an ash tree in her front yard was condemned as well. The backyard tree was huge, Kubat said, measuring 32 inches in diameter, according to Park Board records.
Kubat was assessed more than $6,000 to remove both trees; the process was stressful.
Her yard isn’t the same anymore. There’s nowhere for the squirrels to go and the birds seem confused, she said. Following the policy for all condemned and assessed trees, her contractor was paid only to cut down the trees, leaving large stumps in her yard that sprout small trees, which will be expensive to remove.
“We loved the tree,” Kubat said.
Kubat thinks the presence of ash trees should be noted during the inspection process of buying a home. She spoke with neighbors on the North Side and realized the issue was affecting many others. She’s glad there’s money to help now, but believes the process of identifying and removing affected trees is flawed.
“The bottom line is the ship has sailed for me. It’s on my bill,” Kubat said.
‘A slap in the face’
One day early this past summer, a crew showed up to Willis White’s house in the Jordan neighborhood to cut down a massive ash tree in his backyard. White, 54, was confused, and said he didn’t know the tree would be removed that day.
A data request on White’s removal shows that letters about the tree were sent to the house starting in January 2022. White said he and his wife bought the home with their daughter originally, and she officially transferred the property to them last year. The letters to the house were addressed to White’s daughter.
They’d received a letter about the tree and had been shopping around for a contractor, White said, but hadn’t hired anyone yet. He wishes someone from the Park Board would have knocked on the door or called to make sure they knew someone was coming to cut the tree for a hefty fee. According to a records request, White’s tree was determined to be special, and the city obtained three removal bids ranging from $10,000 to $7,200.
“It’s really difficult,” White said of the removal cost and the circumstances.
According to White: The removal took a toll on the yard. The contractor had to take down a chain link fence to bring in equipment, and didn’t properly repair it. Workers had to shut off power to his house, and lowered an outdoor power cord to the ground, which was left when they finished and had to be rehung by White and his son. The remaining stump is large, and White hasn’t looked into how much it will cost to remove.
The Park Board cut some 40,000 ash trees in public parks and on streets, but never ground the stump on the boulevard in front of White’s house. The stump sprouted dozens of tiny trees this year, creating an overgrown mess.
White’s tree is the seventh most expensive removal handled by the city since 2013, according to Park Board data. His cost—measured by the diameter of the tree’s trunk— was $226 “per trunk inch,” much higher than the median price of $69 per trunk inch in 2022.
Removal prices vary widely. White’s 30-inch diameter tree was assessed at $6,800. Kubat’s 32-inch tree cost $3,000; the smaller, 20-inch tree also condemned in her yard went for the same $3,000 price.
Although Park Board data says White’s tree was assessed for $6,800, the bill for his removal was more than $7,500 after fees and interest, according to a records request and a letter sent to White’s home.
“There’s no rhyme or reason why they price what they do,” said Newman, the McKinley resident who was assessed more than $3,100 for removals.
Newman said it’s not that she’s unwilling to pay, but that there were no alternatives to cutting the offered and no answers given about why her trees were determined to need special removal techniques throughout the process, despite her regularly reaching out to Park Board staff. She doesn’t want to see her neighbors get price gouged, and she’s mad that no relief is coming to people who are currently paying off assessments.
“It’s such a slap in the face,” Newman said.
Learn more about Sahan Journal’s data analysis for this story.