Brown grass and trees

Brown grass and distressed trees line the northeast corner of King Avenue West and South 24th Street West. As of Wednesday, the grass and trees were finally getting water.

CASEY PAGE/Gazette Staff

Traffic studies show that more than 80,000 motorists pass through the intersection of King Avenue West and South 24th Street West on an average day.

There’s no way of knowing how many of them noticed, in this parched, searing summer, that the boulevard trees on the northeast corner of the intersection weren’t being watered and some of them were looking terribly distressed.

For that matter, the grass on the boulevard was dry and yellow, as was the grass on the island that is separated from the boulevard by the curving bypass that takes you north from King onto 24th West.

We do know of one motorist who noticed and decided to do something about it.

Donna Gabel called the city complaint line Monday and left a message about the trees, and then she sent an email to The Gazette. She says she didn’t get much help from the city until we here at the newspaper started asking around.

“It carried a little more weight than just someone calling in,” she said.

Glad we could help

We won’t take much credit — you can teach a monkey to make a phone call — beyond noting that the power of the press is sometimes a good thing.

The upshot was that three city employees — Public Works Director Dave Mumford, assistant director Vern Heisler and Bill Kemp, supervisor of streets and traffic — drove out Tuesday to look at the pitiful grass and trees.

Mumford said his reaction was: “Oh, my God. I can’t believe this happened.”

How it happened is a somewhat tangled story. Jon Thompson, the city’s parks supervisor, said the Parks and Recreation Department was responsible for watering city-owned islands, medians and boulevards until about a year and a half ago, when the responsibility passed to the Public Works Department.

Then, last summer, in a money-saving move, the state Department of Transportation stopped contracting with the city of Billings for the maintenance of state roads within city limits.

The stretch of King Avenue West in question is a state route, so the city was no longer responsible for watering the island where King meets 24th. But the controls for the sprinklers on the boulevard across the street, as well as the controls for the sprinklers on the island, are both located on the island.

Signals crossed

Mumford said Public Works just assumed that the state was responsible for the island and the boulevard and would turn on both sprinkler systems at the start of the irrigation season.

But somehow, with the transfer of responsibility, the folks at the Transportation Department were just as confused, and no one turned on either sprinkler system.

“I don’t think there was neglect by anybody,” said Stefan Streeter, the department’s district administrator in Billings. “I think we’re just sorting it all out.”

Be that as it may — it sure looked like benign neglect to me — the grass and the trees and the shrubbery on the island were all looking bone-dry and near death.

Until Donna Gabel drove by and decided to do something about it.

It was a small act, but her phone call and email may have saved 20 linden trees, all of them 20 to 25 feet high. In this arid part of the world, 20 mature shade trees are a small treasure.

After sorting out the ownership and responsibility issues, the city turned on both sprinkler systems Wednesday.

“We are going to water the heck out of it,” Mumford promised.

That was welcome news to Gabel. She and her brothers own Hank’s Body Shop, founded by their father more than 40 years ago, not far from King and 24th. She drives past the intersection three or four times a week, and looking at those distressed trees finally was too much.

As Gabel pointed out, she as a taxpayer helped buy those trees, and she didn’t want to see them die.

Mumford, for his part, invited other good citizens to help keep him and other city employees on their toes.

“I don’t consider these complaints a problem,” Mumford said. “I see them as a way to make sure we’re doing things right.”

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I cover the city of Billings.