Switch to more in-house mowing of county park sites expected to save about $20,095 a year

County commissioners approve hiring of three new full-time employees and purchase of equipment, citing problems with vendor contracts

Urfer Family Park on Honore Avenue in Sarasota is one of many county parks that see lots of use. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Having dealt with the issue many times in regard to rights of way, the Sarasota County Commission took little time this week to approve the mid-year hiring of three new full-time employees to handle mowing of county park sites.

The request for the additional workers arose as the board was completing its April 26 review of county finances for the first six months of the fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2016. Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham explained that all the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department sites have been mowed by vendors under contracts to the county. However, he continued, over the past five years, “these services have failed twice.” In fact, Cunningham said, in mid-2016, “one of the contractors just stopped performing.”

As a result, he told the board, Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources (PRNR) staff began taking care of the sites that had been the responsibility of that contractor. Yet, that effort was taking the employees away from their responsibilities, creating backlogs in their regular work.

The county did award a new mowing contract in March to cover the areas that Parks staff had handled since last year, Cunningham said, but staff ensured that contract included flexibility for amending the locations, as needed.

“To prevent future failures,” he added, staff felt the best approach would be to hire the three new employees and purchase appropriate equipment, so the county could handle 55% of the mowing of park sites in-house. That actually should save about $20,095 per year, he pointed out.

Moreover, during periods when the new employees do not need to mow as often, he continued, they can work on such projects as playground improvements, invasive plant removal, trail maintenance and mulching.

“I would say, finally, great,” Commissioner Alan Maio responded. “A previous regime — many, many years removed — a different administration … came up with the great idea that we sell all our [mowing] equipment, we reduce our number of full-time employees, which probably made sense at the time.”

Maio was referring to former County Administrator Jim Ley, who took that action during the Great Recession. County property values dropped about 40%, leading to a significant reduction in operating revenue, county leaders have explained.

Commissioner Alan Maio. File photo

“But year after year,” Maio continued, “we just get battered by people just reneging on their [mowing] contracts, just walking away from them.”

“Our [property] looks beautiful — our roads, our parks … For me, this [shift in mowing] is a long time coming.”

Then Commissioner Mike Moran asked Cunningham whether PRNR staff had received any explanations from the vendors who had abandoned contracts about why they had done so.

Cunningham replied that he was not aware of any firms offering comments. “The last one just stopped,” Cunningham said. When staff tried to contact the company, he added, “there was a sign on the door saying that they closed.”

“Everybody struggles to put the lowest bid in,” Maio pointed out. Yet, many of the companies that have submitted bids in the past, he continued, “didn’t have their arms around the magnitude” of the effort involved in county mowing — including picking up litter first and edging the sidewalks, as well. “I think it just bogged them down and they could not perform and make money.”

At that point, Commissioner Charles Hines — the longest-serving current board member — explained that after the decision was made to contract with the private sector for all county mowing services, and that failed, “we found ourselves in a horrible situation where it was very embarrassing that we couldn’t even get the grass cut in the rights of way …” The public perception, he continued, was that if the county could not even handle that responsibility, how could it do anything else. “We had to live through that for a while and rebuild [with] multiple vendors,” Hines added.

An employee of MegaMower works on a residential right of way off Webber Street in 2016. File photo

Problems also arose with county athletic fields not receiving adequate maintenance through contracted services, he pointed out. Even with Sarasota County marketing itself as a sports tourism destination, he said, people involved with athletics characterized the situation with the fields as “‘mow, blow and go.’ No attention to detail. So we started taking [that work] back.”

Hines noted that, given all those circumstances, staff and the board have worked to find the right balance between how much mowing staff should handle and how much should be done by private firms under contract. “It probably needs to be a little bit of both.”

The balance Cunningham indicated for the parks site seems appropriate, Hines said.

Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

“I appreciate those comments,” County Administrator Tom Harmer responded.

Staff also is working on a plan to divvy up the park sites into zones, as it did for the right-of-way mowing, Harmer explained. The in-house ability to handle mowing, he added, means “that we never get stuck [when a vendor stops working],” and the shift will enable the county to achieve a higher quality of work overall.

Moran did ask Cunningham to try to contact some of the firms that had given up on county contracts, to try to ascertain what had happened. Although he said he has no experience with landscaping and mowing work, Moran indicated that he has heard from those in such businesses that expenses can rise and fall quickly on the basis of changes in gas prices and unexpected maintenance.

“We have no problems doing those outreaches, if we can find the contractors and they are willing to talk to us,” Cunningham replied.

Then Hines made the motion to approve the hiring of the three new full-time employees. Commissioner Nancy Detert seconded it, and it passed unanimously.