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Mowing dispute leaving Hillsborough medians unkempt, overgrown

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Published:   |   Updated: August 24, 2013 at 09:47 AM

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TAMPA — Many roadsides around Hillsborough County are looking a little shaggier than usual this summer because of a contractual dispute between the county government and two lawn-care companies.

Complete Landcare and Central Florida Landscaping, which were awarded bids for mowing around ponds, medians and roadsides in 2011, declined to exercise extensions of their contracts in June and quit working. The two companies were in charge of mowing in three of the four geographical areas in the county.

County crews have been trying to fill the gap. So far, Hillsborough has paid government workers $34,000 in overtime for mowing once handled by the two companies. Public works officials expect to pay another $25,000 for the extra work before new contracts are put out for bids later this year.

In letters to the county, managers with the lawn-care companies said they could not continue because they were losing too much money.

“Based on the previous 22-plus months, Central Florida Landscaping cannot continue to absorb the losses we have experienced during the initial contract period,” wrote John Reed, project manager for the company, in a May 20 e-mail to the county Public Works Department.

Reed did not respond to phone calls and an e-mail seeking comment.

Edward Evans, vice president and director of operations for Complete Landcare, said the contracts were unreasonable because they specified that ponds and roadways be mowed every 30 days. Because of the warm winter and heavy rain this summer, grass would grow several feet high during the 30-day intervals, he said.

Evans said debris hidden in the grass and weeds was wreaking havoc on the company’s expensive equipment. He also worried that the mowing machines would spit out a hard object that could hurt someone or damage a vehicle.

“People throw everything in those medians,” he said, “and you can’t see it when the grass is 3 or 4 feet tall.”

Evans said he told public works officials about a year ago that the 30-day cycles should be shortened because the company was losing $7,000 a month in broken equipment. The officials said the company could mow more often but wouldn’t be paid any more money.

“It finally got to the point where the contract was bleeding us dry and killing our company,” Evans said.

Evans claims his company’s relationship with the county was amiable.

“They were telling us we were great,” he said.

But e-mails and interviews show county public works managers were unhappy with the two companies’ work. They were behind on the mowing and couldn’t get caught up, according to the county.

“I frankly have had enough of (Central Florida Landscaping) and need to get the work done,” wrote public works engineer William Cox in an e-mail to Eric Meserve of the procurement office, which handles bids and contracts.

County inspectors also were giving failing grades to some of the areas mowed by the two companies, according to Robert Suess, general manager in the Public Works Department.

“There was a time issue they were unable to meet as well as .... edging, trimming and blowing,” Suess said, “and when our inspectors were inspecting it, they weren’t approving it.”

The subpar work could have contributed to the companies’ financial distress. Suess said the county had not been paying for the “majority of the work” because the companies were not meeting time schedules and the finished product did not meet contract specifications.

The county hasn’t been doing much better. Roadways in Brandon and Valrico, where Complete Landcare had the contract, were overgrown in recent weeks, as were roads around the South Shore Regional Library in Ruskin, previously mowed by Central Florida Landscaping.

Suess declined to assess the quality of his department’s work in mowing around the ponds and rights-of-way. But Lithia resident and former county commission candidate Mark Nash judged the mowing around the library “a horrible job.”

“If it was someone cutting my yard, I would fire them before they were halfway finished,” Nash said. “It was so tall and thick, you’d have to cut it twice.”

Though the two companies have stopped mowing, they can’t legally opt out of the contract unless the county approves. The county has exercised a three-month extension allowed under the contract, said John Hollingshead, the county’s procurement manager.

“We can just do it and the contractor has to perform,” Hollingshead said.

And if they don’t, the county can bar the companies from future work, according to the contract.

Despite the three-month contract extension, the companies are not being paid because they are not mowing, Suess said.

Meanwhile, Public Works managers are working on specifications for a new countywide bid. Once they are finished, it will take about five weeks for the procurement division to advertise, accept and evaluate bids, said Meserve, the procurement analyst. The recommendation will go to the county commission, which makes the final decision.

msalinero@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-8303

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