Independent vendors help Brevard Parks cut grass and costs
With 121 parks totaling some 6,000 acres spread out over a large geographic area-not to mention three golf courses and 21,000 acres of environmentally endangered lands-the Brevard County (Fla.) Parks and Recreation Department has plenty to keep them busy. And, in an era of budget cuts, the challenges are growing. Outsourcing mowing is one solution the parks department has found to cut costs while maintaining quality.
“Back in 1991, we decided that we would place our emphasis on the maintenance of our athletic specialty turf; not to the point where we would disregard our other turf areas in the parks, but we thought it would be more cost-effective if we used contracted mowing to take care of those common areas and outlaying parks,” explains Parks and Recreation Director Jack Masson.
He notes that this move toward the use of some contracted mowing services was accomplished without increasing budgets or eliminating parks staff. The latter an important concern among unions and others worried about layoffs. How was the department able to pull this off? “We had to absorb the additional costs that we incurred at parks where we contracted the mowing, but the biggest benefit when your own employees aren’t doing the mowing is that you don’t have to be concerned with personnel issues such as annual leave, sick leave, workers’ compensation, insurance costs, or replacing or repairing equipment,” says Masson.
As these costs have escalated in recent years, with budgets shrinking, the department has continued to expand its use of independent mowing contractors to keep parks maintained. Masson says the only real disadvantage to contracting out mowing services is that, “you do lose a little bit of control.” To help retain as much control as possible over the quality of the mowing work being done by outside contractors, the parks department developed a detailed spec sheet that describes in exacting terms the requirements placed on contractors. This is provided to all lawn maintenance companies bidding on parks mowing contracts.
Over the years that Brevard County Parks and Recreation has utilized contract mowing, its approach has evolved. In the beginning, it would tell contractors that it wanted the grass mowed, say, every week in the summer and every other week in the winter. “Here’s one of the problems we would run into,” recalls Masson. “The job would go out to bid and the low bidder was awarded the contract. He or she would do a good job during the winter, when there were few cuts required, but they would bail on us before the increased mowing required in the summer.”
That oftentimes was because the mowing contractor wasn’t able to handle the increased workload. To help address such situations, the department now fully vets those who submit bids. “We’ve learned that in our selection process we can inquire about what kind of mowing equipment a company has, and how much equipment they have,” says Masson. “If you bid on the mowing at 20 parks and you’ve got a 20-inch push mower and a pair of hedge clippers, you may not get the bid.”
The department also looks at the company’s past experience and references, particularly relating to mowing on government properties and the size of the mowing jobs they’ve taken on. “Some people will tell us they’ve mowed a few years before, so they know what’s involved, but they’re not used to mowing in a parks setting.” Other companies can’t come up with the necessary insurances, he adds.
The department has also learned that it’s sometimes better to split the mowing between various contractors. “If we bid out the mowing at 20 parks, we may not give all 20 to one vendor. We may go with two or three vendors. It’s a little more work for us, but it seems to work out a little better, because once a company gets a day or two behind because of weather, it can be very difficult for them to catch up,” Masson points out. Currently, the parks department uses about five or six mowing contractors.
To help eliminate as many potential problems as possible, Masson says, “We try to make sure that our expectations are clearly delineated to the vendor.” The spec document provided on bid jobs spells out everything from mowing height (typically 2 to 3 inches) to when mowing needs to take place (typically during daytime hours during the week) to what happens in the event that a contractor damages park property during mowing.
Some of the requirements relate to turf health (contractors are required to use sharp blades and to avoid scalping the lawns), while others relate to the overall appearance of the parks (contractors must collect all litter before mowing. “We don’t want one piece of trash to turn into 400 pieces of trash when it’s hit by a mower,” says Masson.)
Monitoring is done after mowing jobs are completed to be sure the requirements are met. “We monitor what is done and when it’s done,” explains Masson. “One person on our staff will go around to be sure that the work is done right. A ticket turned in by a vendor cannot be processed until a monitor checks off that it was done correctly.” Vendors are paid on a per-cut basis, and the amount can be reduced proportionally if only some of the requirements were met for a particular job.
Masson says the most common problem that comes up is that a vendor doesn’t show up on a day they were supposed to mow a particular park. “Sometimes they get backed up,” he explains. “We try to develop a good relationship with our vendors. For example, we have the flexibility to ask them if they can change the mowing schedule if, for example, we have a big event and we’d like to get that area mowed the day before rather than four days before.”
Specialty athletic turf is not included in the contract mowing program. The parks department maintains a variety of high-quality sports fields for baseball, soccer, football, cricket, lacrosse, rugby and other sports, and continues to mow these fields in-house. “I’m very proud of our athletic turf cultural practices,” says Masson. “We mow those ourselves for a couple of reasons. First, the frequency of mowing is higher, particularly in the summer. The ball fields might need to be mowed three times per week, and we have the flexibility to mow them when they need it. A contractor might not be able to come out until 4 p.m., and there might be a game at 4 p.m. Second, I just feel very comfortable that our staff has the knowledge and ability to do the job right. I would hate to have someone else come in and make a mistake, say cutting our specialty bermudagrass with a rotary mower.”
Other Brevard County departments have followed and modified the parks department’s mowing contractor specifications and have also found success in using vendors to handle mowing in certain areas like median strips and around public buildings. “The benefit is that you don’t have to deal with the personnel issues, and you don’t have to worry about the equipment or the travel. Those are the biggest advantages,” says Masson. For qualified and experienced contractors, the benefits include steady work and clearly articulated expectations.
Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.