Council mulls changing storm debris rules

If a tree falls during a storm, will the city collect the debris for free?

Previously the answer depended on whether Columbus' city leaders declared an official "moratorium" on charging fees to collect downed trees from residents suffering storm damage. Typically residents got a break only after a major storm like the tornado that cut through north Columbus on March 1.

But after a less significant storm caused more isolated damage off Forrest Road on the city's east side Aug. 19, residents there wanted to know why they shouldn't get the same consideration. After all, a storm is a storm, and the damage — though not as widespread — has the same cause and effect.

So on Tuesday, Mayor Jim Wetherington suggested top city administrators be given the flexibility to declare the moratorium on collecting fees for city crews picking up storm debris. The mayor, city manger and public services director should have the authority to make that decision immediately after a storm, he said.

City Manager Isaiah Hugley said council now decides on the fee moratorium. When charged under what the city calls its "Tree for Fee" program, residents must pay $50 per load and $14 per ton to have a city crew haul away a downed tree. The average price per job charged to residents is about $87. The city's average cost per job to do the work is about $55.

Since its implementation in November 2003, "Tree for Fee" has generated about $50,000 in revenue.

Councilor Skip Henderson said the city should come up with some clear guidelines before changing its policy. "I think we need a little more input the people whose job it is to take care of this," he said. He feared tree services might take advantage of the change, leaving their debris for the city to collect with the excuse that a storm just blew through.

"Let me just say this, councilor," countered Wetherington: "Who's more important to decide those types of issues . . . but the city manager and myself?"

"I'm just saying that I would rather hear a little more input from the two of you as to how this is going to be governed, because this is a shift, in my mind, from what we've done in the past," Henderson said. He'll likely support the policy change once he gets more information, he said.

Mayor Pro-Tem Evelyn Pugh said all residents who need help because of storm damage should be treated equally: "I don't care if it's in north Columbus, south Columbus, east or west, they should all be treated the same way."

Five councilors voted to change the policy, one vote short of the six needed for majority action. Council will discuss the matter again when more councilors are present.