Turns out snow isn’t the only thing the municipality has a hard time clearing. Mowing grass at Halifax’s parks, playgrounds, schools and cemeteries is currently in the weeds. A record number of complaints this summer has led HRM to issue thousands of dollars in fines against its grass-cutting contractors.
“While there has been significant progress with grass cutting since the beginning of the season in June, we are not where we wish to be in terms of grass maintenance across the region,” writes city spokesperson Jennifer Stairs over email. “Accordingly, tens of thousands of dollars of liquidated damages have been applied, and continue to be applied as recently as last week.”
To date, HRM has received 1,013 calls for service about grass cutting. That figure includes complaints, calls and emails from any resident, councillor or municipal employee requesting the grass to be cut at a particular site. The average number of calls for service over the past five years is only 726 for the entire May to October season.
Stairs says ideal growth conditions shoulder some of the blame for this year’s poor performance, but “challenges” have also come from working with the new service providers.
Municipal sources say roughly two thirds of the calls for service this year have been about the performance of one contractor—Teak Tree Enterprises.
Back in May, Teak Tree was awarded three different multi-year grass-cutting tenders for a combined total of $1.58 million over three years. Other multi-year tenders were awarded to Changing Seasons ($729,000), Edmonds Landscaping and Construction ($667,947), Whynder’s Property Maintenance ($330,000) and Never Greener Services ($203,610). The total value of Halifax’s three-year grass-cutting contracts is $3,594,689.
Individual performances aside, another culprit appears to be a lack of oversight from the parks department. Halifax’s Parks and Recreation department took over responsibility for grass contracts from Transportation and Public Works this past spring. Those tenders had to be restructured due to 2012’s re-drawing of HRM’s district boundaries, which may be one reason the contracts were awarded so late in the year.
Department vacancies have also contributed to the problem. Currently the roles of parks manager and work planning technicians (both new positions created this year) as well as the job of parks superintendent sit empty.
“We acknowledge that filling some specific positions in [that] department will help improve overall accountability and service request response times,” writes Stairs.
An acting manager and acting superintendent are currently looking after the parks department until the city can find permanent candidates. In the interim, planning is underway to make sure this grass-cutting problem doesn’t happen again next summer.
Stairs says that current strategies call for improved coordination with the city’s 311 call centre, as well as new options to potentially replace any contracted service providers failing to live up to their agreement.
For now, it appears the current grass-cutting companies aren’t going to lose their contracts. While the municipality does have the right to terminate any contract if the other party consistently falls short, doing so “is not a decision to be made lightly.”
“There are legal implications that need to be considered if the municipality were to take such a step,” writes Stairs. “It is essentially the last resort. Our preference is to work with contractors and give them the opportunity to address any issues with service. There are also other options that can be exercised first if we’re unhappy with the service we’re receiving, including applying liquidated damages, which we have done.”
Halifax maintains more than 5.5 million square metres of grass at 5,200 locations throughout the municipality. Included in that total are parks, playgrounds, schools, cemeteries, sports fields, baseball diamonds and the municipal right-of-way.