Modesto's status as an official Tree City USA has long been a point of pride.
But budget cuts have forced the city to scale back tree maintenance, and some worry that the city's leafy canopy is becoming a costly liability hanging over residents' heads.
"The trees have been the jewel of the city of Modesto, and if we continue in the direction we're going, that's not going to be true," said retired city forestry superintendent Chuck Gilstrap, a longtime tree advocate. "They're going to become, instead of an asset, a liability."
There's evidence that's starting to happen. The number of tree-related property damage claims filed against Modesto in the past two years has far outpaced the number of claims the city saw before the most severe budget cuts took effect.
The city had 63 such claims in the 2005-06 budget year. There were 90 in the 2008-09 budget year. Claims filed over the past five years have cost the city at least $109,264. The figure likely will increase because not all the claims have been processed.
Among those who've filed claims is Molly Rodriguez. When she parked outside her Morris Avenue office in August, a co-worker noticed that Rodriguez's truck was a little too far from the curb. She suggested that Rodri-guez move it, lest she get sideswiped.
The co-worker's premonition came halfway true.
"I was getting my keys out to go move it when all of a sudden, I see this tree branch fall on it," Rodriguez said. "I turned to my co-worker and said, 'Did you just see what I saw?' "
The branch smashed the roof and passenger side of Rodriguez's 2006 Honda Ridgeline. Eventually the city paid Rodriguez's insurance company $3,000 to cover repairs.
Modesto's only halfway through its budget year, and 76 tree-related damage claims have been filed. Many are a result of the whopper storm that blew through the city in mid-October.
The city lost more than 2,000 trees that day, and 115 trees damaged property, said Steve Lumpkin, the city's community forestry manager.
The storm created a backlog of stump removals that will take months to work through, Lumpkin said.
That's because the city's forestry department has been clearcut in recent years. Five years ago, the city spent $3.2 million tending to its urban forest. This year the forestry budget is $2.2 million.
Gilstrap remembers a time when Modesto's tree program was so well-regarded that it was featured in a textbook on urban forestry.
Nursery just a memory
The city once employed specialized crews to attack tree menaces such as mistletoe. Another crew worked exclusively on responding to residents' service requests. When old trees died, the city replaced them with saplings from its own nursery.
Those services were cut like dead wood when city budgets shrank. The specialized crews were eliminated. The nursery doesn't exist anymore, so the city doesn't plant new trees. The forestry department lost seven workers in June.
"Every year the forestry staff is trimmed about as much as we trim the trees," said Parks and Recreation Director Julie Hannon.
The forestry department now has one crew of 10 tree trimmers that's responsible for inspecting and, if necessary, pruning, the city's 95,000 trees. The crew takes a break from pruning about once every two weeks to perform services such as stump removal.
Those services were cut from the budget, but the crew still performs them because the city can't just leave stumps in the street, Hannon said. However, the wait for some stump removals could be as long as six months, Lumpkin said.
Pruning used to happen once every three years. Now it's once every seven years -- and slipping. The city is three months behind schedule on pruning, because the October storm pulled the forestry crew away from its regular duties for so long, Hannon said.
"This group is super efficient, but there's just not enough people compared to the trees," Hannon said.
It's the lengthy pruning schedule that worries Gilstrap. In San Jose, a toddler was killed Jan. 22 when a silver maple crashed on a pickup. Gilstrap worries that if a similar accident happened in Modesto, the city wouldn't be able to defend itself in court. Attorneys could argue that Modesto doesn't inspect its trees often enough, Gilstrap said.
As Modesto braces for another tight budget year, city leaders face another round of difficult decisions about how to pay for critical city services such as police and fire. Gilstrap says caring for the city's trees is a public safety issue, too.
"There's no doubt about it," he said. "You've got thousands of tons of trees suspended in the air. And if they're not maintained, you're going to have tree failure."