No-Bid Deal Allows Tree-Trim Company To Rake It In

<p>The financially strapped City of Berwyn hires tree service without formal bidding, pays more than $1 million over last three years – while business donates to suburb’s mayor.</p>

Autumn brings cooler temperatures, but in Berwyn it also means something else: The resumption of "tree butchering," according to resident Edward Allard.

He’s referring to the City of Berwyn’s tree maintenance program – a taxpayer-funded service that Allard has been critical of since last year when he said parkway trees on his block were "butchered and mutilated" during a routine trim by Berwyn’s contractor, Darien-based Lyons Tree Service.
 
"They are removing way too many branches from the lower part of the tree," said the 63-year-old Allard, who runs "Save Berwyn Trees," a blog. The impacted trees not only "look ugly," they are now "starving of nutrition."


That’s not the only controversy with tree trimming in the western suburb. The Better Government Association found the city paid Lyons more than $1 million between 2012 and 2014 – without going through a formal bidding process as is generally required in Berwyn for purchases over $10,000.
 
The payments to Lyons in 2014 alone added up to at least $515,000, according to records and interviews. That’s up from $367,000 in 2013 and $217,000 in 2012, documents show.
 
In 2012, the tree company began donating to the campaign fund of Berwyn Mayor Robert Lovero, who has received a total of $14,700 in contributions from Lyons, according to Illinois State Board of Elections records.
 
Lovero didn’t return numerous messages.
 
Assistant Berwyn City Administrator Evan Summers said Berwyn’s public works director, not the mayor, decided to hire the company. The public works director didn’t return calls.

Rados Markovic, owner of Lyons Tree Service, said there was "no way" his campaign contributions had anything to do with his employment with the city. He said he is not friends with the mayor and donated because he used to live in Berwyn and wanted "to give back to the community."
 
Summers said he didn’t know whether or not officials violated city ordinance by not bidding out the work – but Berwyn Ald. Margaret Paul believes the bidding process had been "undermined" by month-to-month billing.

"What we had was serial contracts over and over and over again over the years that I think were thwarting the requirement for the bids," Paul said.

This year the city did issue a "request for proposals" – a type of bidding – and the winning bid, which was approved by the City Council, went to Lyons Tree Service.

Summers said Lyons was "the lowest, most-qualified bidder" in 2015.

Markovic and Summers defended not only the work done by Lyons, but also the amount paid.
 
By comparison, the Village of Oak Park, which manages roughly 19,000 trees, spent about $386,000 on tree trimming and tree removal last year with 482 trees taken down, according to the village. Berwyn has approximately 13,000 trees on city property, and last year removed as many as 400 trees.

Summers said expenses have been high largely because there are many sick trees infected with the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle species that has been wiping out ash trees all over the Chicago region and elsewhere.

Berwyn, he said, had also been doing piecemeal work and only recently devised a comprehensive plan for maintaining trees.


"The day of reckoning is upon us. We are trying to play catch-up now," Summers said.

Markovic said his company’s work is being done properly and that the city asked them "to go heavier" on the trimming so trucks could pass by and so branches are kept away from the roofs of homes.
 
"We are not doing anything without them OKing it," Markovic said.

Summers added that some of the trees "might look a little different" after they are trimmed but said they will fill out again.

"We don’t have the funds to prune them every few years," he said. "We have to do them once every 10 years."

Pete Smith, an urban forestry program manager for the Arbor Day Foundation, a tree conservation group, said while it’s true the trees will likely grow back branches, it is going to take a long time.

"These look like fairly leafy neighborhoods and they have been very dramatically affected," said Smith, who reviewed photos of Berwyn trees at the request of the BGA and thought too much had been removed from the trees.

"I would like to see councils take that seriously," Smith said. "Trees do add significant value, as much as 7 percent to the next-door home. That’s a big number. Most people don’t think of their trees that way but that’s the asset they are."

Berwyn, which has about 57,000 residents, is facing financial problems with two poorly funded police and fire pension funds. While an 80 percent funding level is generally considered healthy, the city’s police pension fund was 59 percent funded last year and the pension fund for firefighters was at 46 percent, according to city documents.
 
This column – a regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing in the Chicago Sun-Times – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Katie Drews. She can be reached at (312) 821-9027 or kdrews@bettergov.org. Follow Drews on Twitter @kadrews.

Photo of Mayor Robert Lovero courtesy of City of Berwyn website. Photos of Berwyn trees by BGA.

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