Hamilton’s arborist may hold key to reducing power outages in city

There’s an official tree expert in Hamilton, and Dave Bienemann is here to help residents plant the right trees in the appropriate places, so they don’t grow into power lines and need to be butchered later, or have roots that upend sidewalks.

Bienemann primarily was hired by the city’s utilities operations to help trim its problems with trees that knock down power lines, causing electric outages. But Bienemann, a tree lover, also helps residents and the city with tree issues, recommending wise choices of what to plant and where.

“My ultimate goal is to make changes to improve the lives of the citizens, and make a lot of these tree issues go away, where storms come and they fall down, and whatnot,” said Bienemann, who previously worked as municipal arborist in Bowling Green for 12 years.

Kevin Maynard, Hamilton’s public utilities director, worked with Bienemann in Bowling Green, where his tree work was well-regarded.

“We were looking for ways to try to improve our tree-trimming program here, vegetation management, because it’s one of the issues that creates a lot of (power) outages for us,” Maynard said of the city hiring an arborist.

“Because we’re playing catch-up, we’re up around $1 million a year, for tree trimming for power lines,” Maynard said. “We’ve got five (outsourced) crews working full-time in the city. But we think we’ll be able reduce that probably to $500,000 or $600,000, once we get through this first catch-up phase of this.”

Bienemann, who earned a bachelor’s degree in forestry from Iowa State University and another bachelor’s degree in labor economics from the University of Akron, is paid $87,214.40 yearly from the city’s Electric Utility Fund. He will be paid from that fund until the electric utilities’ issues with trees are under control.

“I think the long-term outcomes are reducing all the hazards in town, reducing all the tree outages, and the long-term costs of the city — the overtime goes down for police, fire, public works and the linemen, because if there’s not trees falling in the wire or into the streets, we’re not calling them out,” Bienemann said.

Another part of his work can have economic benefits for the Tree City USA community, he believes: “We’re trying to show the citizens, the community and businesses: We’re cleaning up the area and start planting trees, and beautifying, and maybe that will bring in some dollars,” he said.

The city last year interviewed four candidates and Bienemann was the only one with experience working as a municipal arborist (Bowling Green for 12 years), and also a public utility (Ohio Edison/FirstEnergy for 14 years before that), Maynard said.

As he starts to manage Hamilton’s “tree assets,” his first challenge is to know how many assets there are, and their condition.

He’s developing an exact count of every tree in the city, its type and condition — good, fair, poor or dead — in the city. The count will be so exact that each one will be numbered and electronically mapped.

“The ultimate goal is I’ll manage two budgets: the vegetation-management under the utilities fund, and under the general fund, I’ll manage the street trees, the park trees and the golf-course trees,” Bienemann said.

As part of a larger Hamilton geographic-information-system mapping update, an aerial flyover will happen in June that measures the infrared spectrum of all trees in town. With those images, “the brighter the red the trees, they’re totally fine and healthy. As they change color on the spectrum, there’s some stress, maybe from an insect pest, maybe the roots got cut because of construction or something.”

When combined with a boots-on-the-ground survey, “I can do risk assessment and ask where do we need to focus our dollars?”

From his Bowling Green experience, “I know if we have 15,000 assets and 2,000 have to be removed — the rest can be trimmed depending on their size — I can put together a pretty good budget down to the penny of what we need.”

The trees Hamilton plants in the future will have about 160 varieties, he said: “There are going to be all kinds of different trees. So when I plant the urban forest, it’s going to look just like a forest in the woods — we’re not going to have all pears, we’re not going to have all tulip poplars or all maples.”

One advantage of doing that is when the next disease appears and wipes out a kind of tree, a significant percentage won’t be destroyed.

In many communities, he said, “all the elms came down, everybody planted ash. Ash borer came and wiped those out. So people lost their big old elms, and then lost their ash trees.”

In coming weeks he will supervise the planting of along major roadways and other locations: Among them, High Street, Ohio 4, Neal Boulevard medians, Bilstein Boulevard, and Hamilton Enterprise Park.

Since city residents have learned of Bienemann’s arrival, his phone has been ringing a lot, he said. He estimates he’s been meeting as many as 30 people a week, happily giving them free advice about what’s troubling their trees and where they should plant new ones, saving residents the hefty fee a tree service might charge for such advice.

“The biggest thing that I have seen is people planting the wrong tree in the wrong place,” Bienemann said. “You don’t want a high-growing tree under power lines.”

“If it’s under a power line, you plant a small tree, which would be a crabapple, a serviceberry, magnolia, they’re going to top out at 25 feet,” he said. “Those wires are up at about 40 feet, maybe 35.”

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