By Jill Colvin
CITY HALL — Recent cuts to the Parks Department's budget have put residents at even more risk of serious injury and death because of falling tree limbs, parks advocates warned at a City Council hearing Wednesday.
The hearing was called to examine the steps the department is taking to keep pedestrians and park users safe following recent storms and a string of deaths, injuries and delays caused by downed branches and trees.
In the same period that the number of people struck by tree limbs seems to have risen dramatically in New York, the number of trees the department pruned through its block program dropped more than 60 percent — from 79,658 last year to 29,782 in 2010 — according to the most recent mayor’s management report.
The number of trees maintained by city workers is also likely to fall more in the coming year as the department budget is set to shrink by nearly $20 million, from $294 million in 2010 to $276 million in 2011.
Full-time maintenance and operations will also drop from 2,600 people to 2,200.
Unless funding is restored, "the trees are just going to fall further and further into neglect," warned Alyson Beha of New Yorkers for Parks.
Advocates believe that New Yorkers are even at more risk, because at the same time the city is cutting its budgets for tree maintenance, it is also aggressively pursuing its MillionTreesNYC program, which aims to plant 1 million new trees by 2017.
"Considering the aggressive way we've been planting trees, the maintenance of trees becomes an issue," Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, chair of the Parks and Recreation Committee, said during the hearing.
In June, 6-month-old Gianna Ricciutti was killed and her mother seriously injured as the two posed for a photo in Central Park when a large branch fell on top of them — the second death caused by falling timber in the park this year.
At Wednesday's hearing, Liam Kavanagh, the Parks Department's first deputy commissioner, said that safety is the agency's first priority and outlined a number of steps the department has taken to keep its 8 million trees safe, including removing dead or dying trees within 30 days of reports and making sure that every tree is pruned each decade.
Regarding the department's failure to change its practices since the death of Ricciutti, Kavanagh said that "while you can always do something different or do more, we believe the practices that were in place to provide tree care were consistent with the best practices in the industry."
He also said the department does not check on the maintenance done by the Central Parks Conservancy, which is responsible for maintaining all trees in the park, except for those on zoo grounds.
The Conservancy said in a statement that it has expanded its care program for trees in the park, which has been battered by severe weather over the past several years.
Staff have increased inspections and pruning, and more than 6,000 of the park's 24,000 trees were pruned last year.
But advocates who testified at the hearing insisted that more must be done to keep residents safe.
"Clearly they're not doing enough, not even close," said Geoffrey Croft, President of NYC Park Advocates, who said the department has just a "fraction" of the resources it needs.
"You shouldn't have to look up and possibly think you're going to be hit by a branch or tree," he said. "We're talking about peopless lives."
Juliana Dubovsky of New Yorkers for Parks blamed funding cuts for the problems, and urged the city to restore the department's funding to what it was in 2009.
"It is imperative that New York City provides sufficient maintenance for the trees that currently line our streets and parks," she said.
Jason Post, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said that because of the recession, "every agency is being asked to do more with less."
The Parks Department did not respond to requests for comment on whether budget constraints are interfering with its efforts to maintain city trees.
At the hearing, the committee also considered a new bill that would require the department to provide 30 days notice before planting trees within 200 feet of entrances to schools, hospitals and other buildings catering to children, the elderly and disabled.