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Tree pruning in Brooklyn and Queens axed since last year due to alleged insurance scam

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Routine tree pruning has been suspended in Brooklyn and Queens owing to an alleged insurance scam perpetrated by the contractor.
File Photo by Susan De Vries

A tree grows too much in Brooklyn!

Municipal tree pruning has been suspended for the past year in Brooklyn and Queens because the city dropped its contractor following its principals’ indictment in a massive insurance scam, a Parks Department spokesperson confirmed to Brooklyn Paper.

The nugget was tucked deep in the Mayor’s Management Report, a 500-page compendium of city agency performance over the past year, released on Friday afternoon. The report notes on page 144, in the Parks Department section, that while funding for tree pruning had been restored in Fiscal Year 2022 following COVID-era cuts, the program still was axed owing to “unforeseen legal issues with pruning contractors,” which the city intends to resolve this Fiscal Year.

That means the city cannot properly maintain its tree canopy in its two largest and most populous boroughs. Routine pruning, where dead, diseased, or broken branches are removed, is necessary to maintain a tree’s health and stability, and a preventive measure to mitigate the risk of partial or total collapse.

By halting routine pruning, precarious trees are less likely to be caught and addressed before falling; routine pruning is contracted out to private firms, while the city only maintains emergency crews on the public payroll to address urgent situations where collapse is imminent.

Justyn Tomaszewski, a decade-long Boerum Hill resident, said that the city is still usually slow to respond to 311 inquiries for arboreal emergencies, and decried the effective deferral of maintenance for the tens of thousands of street trees in the least “canopied” borough.

“I think it’s total bulls–t,” Tomaszewski said. “Why can’t we get out and find another contractor, especially if they’re not doing anything in-house.”

The $12 million city contract for pruning in Brooklyn and Queens was awarded to East New York-based Dragonetti Brothers Landscaping, a firm that also held contracts for other landscaping jobs and construction work.

The work was suspended last September when two of the company’s principals, Vito and Nicholas Dragonetti of Long Island, were hit with indictments alleging they perpetrated a mammoth insurance scam, wherein they deliberately misclassified the nature of employees’ work on demolition jobs to bring down the price of insurance premiums and pocketed more than $1 million.

The Dragonettis pleaded not guilty and are fighting the case in court; their next appearance in Manhattan Supreme Court is set for Friday, Oct. 7. Phone and email messages left with their company were not returned by press time.

In the meantime, the city suspended work on the Dragonettis’ contract and have not rebid on it as the contract was already awarded to the Dragonettis, and thus cannot be terminated and rebid to another firm, said Parks Department spokesperson Crystal Howard, leaving the city stumped on what to do. She noted that the city’s emergency crews do not have training nor equipment for routine maintenance.

“This matter is currently under review,” Howard said. “We expect this issue will be resolved and to reach the annual goal of 65,000 street trees pruned in Fiscal 2023.”

City contractors pruned 43,463 trees in Fiscal Year 2022, according to the Mayor’s Management Report. That’s well above the 18,900 pruned in Fiscal Year 2021, a consequence of the pandemic, but still below what was standard pre-pandemic (over 72,000 trees were pruned in Fiscal Year 2018, for instance).

The city has set a goal to prune 65,000 street trees in Fiscal Year 2023, the report notes.

Paul Kerzner, of the Ridgewood Property Owners & Civic Association, argues that even before the suspension, the city had long neglected its ability to plant street trees. He’s hopeful that the Adams administration will consider arboreal matters a higher priority than past leaders.

“Unfortunately the City of New York treats street trees as a footnote,” Kerzner said. “If they treated street trees as part of the capital infrastructure of the city of New York, they would be planting them on a regular basis.”

On Monday, the Parks Department announced that it had planted over 13,000 street trees in Fiscal Year 2022 — more than any of the previous five years — specifically, 3,000 trees in neighborhoods identified as highly vulnerable to extreme heat, which often corresponds to lower-income neighborhoods of color. In Brooklyn, those neighborhoods that benefitted from the $112 million investment included Seagate, Coney Island, East Flatbush, Bushwick, Crown Heights, Flatlands, and Sunset Park.

“Expanding our tree canopy makes our city cooler, our air cleaner, and our streets more beautiful,” Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement on Sept. 19. “As climate change advances, trees and our city’s green spaces are becoming even more critical infrastructure that will pay dividends for generations to come.”

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