LARGO — The lawn surrounding the Largo Municipal Complex — buildings along Highland Avenue that are home to City Hall and the Largo Police Department — looks fine at first glance. It's mostly green, with a few small brown patches.
The grass is about 4 to 6 inches long — a problematic length if you're talking about a golf course fairway, but the Largo Municipal Complex isn't a golf course.
That lawn has drawn golf course-level scrutiny lately, though, because of who cuts it and how much it costs. The months-long debate reached closure Tuesday night, when city commissioners decided to award the lawn maintenance job to the private company that was already doing it, despite the strong objections of two commissioners and a union representative.
Buccaneer Landscape Management has cared for some of the city's properties for several years. As city administrators looked for ways to cut costs this year, they discussed outsourcing more groundskeeping. City commissioners agreed to give Buccaneer more work, but to keep "signature" properties — namely, Largo Central Park — under the care of the city's maintenance crew.
After that decision, which saved the city an estimated $62,700 per year, another city maintenance worker left, dropping the staff from four to three. Rather than hire a replacement, the administration decided to give Buccaneer additional work — Largo Community Center, Ulmer Park and the Municipal Complex. Buccaneer's crew has been cutting and watering the grass and bushes around City Hall since July or August, according to the company's president.
Changing the city's contract with Buccaneer needed commission approval, though. Commissioners voted 4-2 to approve the change Tuesday night (Mayor Pat Gerard was absent), making it permanent. Buccaneer will care for those added properties for two years, through June 2014.
Buccaneer is charging the city $24,900 per year to maintain those three added properties, a savings of $6,100 over what it would have cost Largo to hire another groundskeeper. The city is paying Buccaneer $181,400 yearly to maintain lawns on more than 30 properties, like parks, medians along city roadways and at several city buildings, including the Largo Public Library.
The decision to give Buccaneer more work came over the objection of Dawn Smolowitz, spokeswoman for the Communication Workers of America, which represents Largo's groundskeeping crew.
"We believe a city worker will do a better job than a contractor," Smolowitz said. "Do you really want the Community Center, Largo Municipal Complex and Ulmer Park to decline below accepted standards?"
Commissioners Michael Smith and Harriet Crozier agreed. Smith said the bushes around City Hall looked terrible.
Commissioner Curtis Holmes disagreed with both the assessment of City Hall's bushes, and the risks of outsourcing more grounds work.
"We're getting the same job done for $6,100 less," he said. "We're supposed to be the guardians of the treasury here . . . This isn't rocket science. This is cutting the lawn."
Chris Witherington, president of Pinellas Park-based Buccaneer, says any problems his company had this summer with handling the extra properties were due to mixed signals from City Hall.
"It became kind of a political thing, and we ended up in the middle of it," said Witherington, whose company also mows lawns for Clearwater, Sarasota, Pinellas County and several other cities and counties.
"I think the complaints are coming from union personnel," Witherington said. "We are under the microscope more than we've ever been."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.