TAMPA — When it debuted earlier this year, a city program to help East Tampa residents trim and remove trees to reduce blight and make their properties safer during storms proved popular.
Since July, 400 homeowners have applied for the $2,500 grants. More than three-quarters of those applications have been approved through the city’s East Tampa Community Redevelopment Area, which is providing funds for the $300,000 program.
“It’s revving up. Residents are very happy about the program,” said council member Orlando Gudes, who represents East Tampa.
But Gudes acknowledges there has been a twist. An initial effort to recruit certified tree-trimming firms ended up with three vendors, all white-owned. That didn’t sit well with Gudes and other residents, who pressured the city to widen its search. A second effort yielded three more firms, but only one that is Black-owned.
The president of the Hillsborough NAACP, Yvette Lewis, said it took too much prodding to get the city to look for Black vendors. And they still haven’t done enough, she said.
“The city continues to control what goes on in the African-American community. We have minority vendors that are registered with the city and are reputable with the community. And the city continues to place roadblocks on why they can’t get contracts,” Lewis said. “Minority vendors are the last to get anything.”
The lack of minority-owned business participation in city programs and contracts has been a long-standing complaint, especially since four new council members, including Gudes, took office in May 2019. Mayor Jane Castor, who took office at the same time, has said increasing the share of Black-owned businesses receiving city contracts is a priority in her administration.
One stumbling block is that, although there are plenty of Black-owned landscaping firms, those certified and properly bonded to do the more hazardous work of trimming or cutting down trees are harder to find, said Michelle Van Loan, the city’s community redevelopment director.
Early on, residents who chose non-certified trimmers ended up with damage to their properties, she said.
“It’s a greater hazard for the homeowner if the tree is trimmed incorrectly,” Van Loan said.
The grant is restricted to single-family homeowners who are paid up on their property taxes.
The program does allow East Tampa residents to chose a non-city certified vendor, but that vendor must obtain all required permits and licenses and have a current city business license. And the contractor must provide carry a minimum of general liability of $1 million per occurrence, worker’s compensation insurance and automobile liability insurance with minimum coverage limits of $500,000 combined single limit, according to city documents.
Extra paperwork has discouraged residents from seeking trimmers from outside the city-approved list, Lewis said. And Van Loan said the insurance requirements have kept some Black-owned businesses from pursuing the work.
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For Gudes, the dilemma provides an opportunity. The city could partner with private tree trimmers in a training or apprenticeship program to help Black residents become certified trimmers. That could provide a sustainable benefit to the community, he said.
“We have a lot of African-American-owned lawn care services, but they’re not tree trimmers. We don’t have enough African-American tree trimmers — the amount of requests coming in are astronomical,” Gudes said.
“We have to look at how we get more people qualified to become tree trimmers. It is a dangerous job. You’ve got to have skills to understand that craft.”
Earlier this month, city council members, sitting as the community redevelopment agency, approved $500 more to the grant to remove a tree if it’s determined to be a hazard. Some tree trimmers had been removing limbs from trees that were obvious safety hazards, he said.
“Why just cut some limbs instead of the whole tree because the tree is dead?” Gudes said. “The purpose is to eliminate blight.”