The storm was not supposed to happen. Instead of a leafy autumn in New York, with beautiful foliage shading children out for Halloween trick or treating, the city was pummeled by an unusually early snowstorm.

The cost of that damage reached untold millions of dollars, and was made worse by something as simple as an autumn leaf.

Instead of a typical winter scene where snow falls amid bare branches, the city’s trees were filled with leaves. Experts, including the National Weather Service, says that foliage was like having countless tiny baskets catching the unusually wet and heavy snow. The added weight sheared off many more limbs than might otherwise have fallen.

On a larger level, the storm was a stark example of a looming dilemma facing New York City. It is a problem entangled with good intentions –from beautifying the city to lowering the high asthma levels that plague poor neighborhoods. It is exacerbated by older trees that are now iconic to the city, yet were virtually unknown in New York a century ago. And this problem comes with a growing price tag the Bloomberg administration is finding difficult to pay.

More trees, less money

For the past five years, the Bloomberg administration has been rapidly planting more trees in New York City. The Parks Department is the leading agency for the effort, borrowing money to help pay for the program, and it has attracted private groups to join.

The mayor and others promote this ambitious plan not simply for framing an urban jungle with tinges of nature. Trees, by reducing carbon pollution from cars and elsewhere, have emerged as a key tool for New York City to combat its high levels of asthma, particularly among children in poorer neighborhoods. Trees also cut the levels of the city’s damage to the earth’s atmosphere.

This arbor upsurge comes with a catchy title that encapsulates its goal, MillionTreesNYC. Residents can have the cost of planting trees in their yard paid by the city. Private partners like Con Edison have joined the effort. In the end, the city hopes three of every 10 trees planted under the program are on private land. The majority will be in city parks and along streets.

The effort is promoted countless ways. Boy scouts are encouraged to help with forestation. And publicity even recently included comedian Jerry Stiller, in a city park, reciting a classic Joyce Kilmer poem that begins, “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.”

Just weeks before the October snowstorm savaged the city’s trees, the city held a ceremony in Harlem celebrating a milestone. It planted its 500,000th tree, and it reached that halfway point toward reaching its goal a year ahead of schedule.

But underneath the publicity is a growing budget gap. The program’s budget has been cut every year since 2009. The forecasted reduction for 2012, compared with a prior year, is a cut that exceeds 20 percent.

Maintenance cuts hurt

After the trees are planted, they must be cared for. And for all trees in the city, maintenance is a burden borne by the Parks Department, which faces an overall 12 percent budget cut this year. City officials declined repeated requests to specify exactly how much will be reduced in tree maintenance, but they did acknowledge it, too, will be affected.

Budget cuts have included a hiring freeze for just about every city agency. For the Parks Department, less staff means fewer workers to prune trees. Trimming trees not only includes removing diseased and damaged branches, it also stimulates tree growth.

Up until three years ago, city trees were pruned every seven years. That excluded emergency cutting. Now the pruning cycle is longer. Trees get trimmed only once every 10 years. With the next round of funding cuts, according to Andrew Newman, project coordinator at MillionTreesNYC, the city may well make it even longer, with a 15-year pruning cycle. A Parks Department spokeswoman says a 15-year cycle is possible, but no decision will be made until the impact of budget cuts becomes clear.

Along with less money and fewer workers, there is a shortage of key equipment. For instance, the city only owns two stump removers. This is heavy machinery that handles the difficult task of removing the remnants of trees from the ground. That includes extruding trees killed by storms. The job is more than just about removing stumps, according to Newman. The city needs to get rid of those stumps to clear land for planting new trees.

The Parks Department spokeswoman, Tara Kiernan, says the shortage of stump removers is not an issue because most of the stump removal is contracted out. The department maintains they do not have “declining maintenance abilities,” rather they have been asked “to do more with less.”

“MillionTrees has dealt with maintenance from its inception,” says Morgan Monaco, Parks’ Director of MillionTreesNYC. “We have a competitive bidding for the contracting of trees that includes planting and maintenance for two years, which are the most vulnerable years for trees. This means if there is anything wrong with a tree, or if it dies, the contractors are responsible for it. It’s cheaper than doing it internally.”

A symbol ages

One of the challenges facing the city's tree maintainers has nothing to do with the budget, and dates to well before the Bloomberg administration. Its imprint is on the city Parks Department, a well-known logo on signs throughout landmarks like Central Park, and emblazoned even on t-shirts sold by the city. It’s a full, five- pointed leaf—the leaf of the London Plane.

The London plane, according to a city historian, is not a tree native to New York. In fact, the London plane was scarcely known to the region a century ago, and traces its lineage to European cities. In the 1930s, Robert Moses, the controversial city planner, began expanding city parks and favored the London plane. It is now the most common tree in the city, and also the most common on city land. While exact figures are difficult to determine, a 2005 census found about 15 percent of the city’s trees are London planes.