Hugh McQuaid File Photo

(Updated 3:59 p.m.) Fresh off the heels of his trip to Kuwait and Afghanistan, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said there was “precious little doubt” Friday that the state needs to be more aggressive in trimming trees near power lines.

Cutting back the trees near lines would harden the energy infrastructure and improve the ability of the system to bounce back after naturally occurring incidents like Tropical Storm Irene and a freak October snowstorm. Both storms left hundreds of thousands of Connecticut residents without power, some for more than a week.

Malloy said that it remains to be seen who would pay for ramped up tree trimming program but said the state could not afford to not address the problem.

Utility tree trimming budgets are approved through the rate-setting process with the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. Asked if he would support a rate payer increase to fund the trimming, Malloy said “ultimately what I would say to you is safety should not have a price tag.”

The state also needs to take a look at where trees are planted in the future, he said.

“Trees grow guys, ladies and gentlemen of the state of Connecticut, they grow. And if you plant them under wires, don’t be surprised that somewhere between five and 15 years those wires will come in contact with the tree and be threatened by it,” he said.

Earlier in the day the governor’s Two Storm Panel asked for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s help Friday in drawing up clear tree trimming standards to strengthen the state’s utility infrastructure.

DEEP’s Urban Forestry Coordinator Chris Donnelly spoke to the panel, commissioned by Malloy to examine the state’s response to Tropical Storm Irene and a freak October snowstorm. Both storms left hundreds of thousands of Connecticut residents without power, some for more than a week.

The panel has been considering how the state, municipalities, and utility companies trim trees located close to power lines and what changes can be made to the process to reduce outages from downed trees and branches.

Donnelly said that the state already has very high quality tree care and has two of the best tree care laws in the nation. In 1901, the legislature showed great foresight when it passed a tree warden law establishing one individual in each town who is responsible for caring for its trees, he said.

Later in 1919, the General Assembly passed an arborist law requiring that anyone managing trees on a commercial basis be licensed by the state, he said. Testing for that license is rigorous, he said, adding that only about half the people who take the test pass it.

But there are few specific industry standards to direct tree wardens and utility crews, he said.

“We the people of Connecticut have yet to define the overall goal or purpose of the roadside forest in terms that are clearly understood and accepted by most people,” he said.

What standards do exist don’t focus on planning and preparation, he said. Joseph McGee, chairman of the panel, said it was clear from speaking to the state’s mayors and selectmen that aging trees putting the utility infrastructure at risk.

Town tree wardens and utility tree trimming programs need to be more integrated, he said and suggested the state could take the lead and make that happen.

The DEEP could issue clear standards, collaborating with town tree wardens and the Connecticut Tree Protective Association, he said. It could also establish a five-year commitment to collaborative budgets, he said.

Donnelly agreed.

“The municipalities, the professional communities and so on, they do look to state agencies for leadership and for guidance,” he said.

However, he cautioned against the state imposing unfunded tree trimming mandates on the municipalities since it would make the department “little more than cheerleaders.”

McGee said there may be a way to improve tree trimming without necessarily forcing towns to increase their budgets. Towns could use their current budgets more effectively, he said. McGee used Fairfield as an example. The town spends $750,000 a year on trimming but the tree warden sees his role as the health of the trees, he said. The warden said the tree’s relationship to power lines was not his business, he said.

“It just seems this is a whole silo. And if we’re facing an issue of tree trimming, wouldn’t it makes sense to coordinate this?” he asked.

Donnelly said cooperation was the best place to start.

“If there is a sense of priority and a sense of what is the right way to be doing this among the professional community I think that would go a great way towards what action should be taken,” he said.

McGee asked Donnelly to come up with some recommendations for the committee about how state agencies could work with utility companies and towns to better communicate.

Currently, how much towns spend on tree trimming and what their tree programs consist of varies widely throughout the state.

Donnelly explained some of the difference, citing an informal survey the department did in 2004.  That year the town of Greenwich spent the most on trimming, at $900,000, he said. Meanwhile the town of Sprague spent only $217, he said. The average in the state was around $60,000 a year, he said.

“This of course becomes relevant to this discussion because we are dealing with a diversity of municipalities and each have their own challenges but they also are very, very different,” he said.

The vast majority of towns spend under $2 per capita on tree programs, he said. Donnelly estimated the total municipal expenditures on trees in the state was around $10.5 million.