City groundskeeping cutbacks making for a shaggy, weedy summer

BI police are fighting weeds with rocks
BI police are fighting weeds with rocks

Here’s my weekend story on the impact of the city’s drastic groundskeeping and roadside mowing cutbacks.

Bainbridge police are trained to weed out crime.

But weeding out weeds? Not so much.

The city has slashed funding for landscape maintenance, forcing police, groups of senior citizens and others to get their hands dirty as volunteer gardeners and landscapers.

Officers and police support staff spent much of Saturday planting new shrubs and replacing their station’s front yard with a lower-maintenance rock garden.

“We’re growing rocks now,” joked an officer as she walked past white stones where green grass had been last week.

Where volunteers aren’t picking up the slack, city officials say islanders can expect a shaggier look this summer on the generally well-groomed island.

“We have less hours and less people to do these activities,” city public works assistant director Lance Newkirk said. “Things may look different this year.”

The biggest difference may be seen along roadsides. In the past, the city crews mowed the sides of all paved public roadways during the summer. This year, the city will mow once and do a few spot mowings at intersections where grass and weeds block visibility.

Landscape maintenance at City Hall, Waterfront Park and other city-owned properties has dropped on the priority list for the city’s shrinking staff.

The city’s full-time workforce dedicated to roadside maintenance and landscaping was reduced by four employees during recent job cuts.

The summer landscaping budget – which typically paid for the hiring of as many as 10 temporary laborers – was cut by more than half this year. Last year it was $66,000; this year it’s $28,000, allowing the hiring of just four workers.

How will four people do the work of 10?

“That’s the $64,000 question,” Newkirk said. “It is going to be a challenge.”

The city is keeping the grass mowed at Waterfront Park thanks to the generosity of the Bainbridge park district. It’s grounds crews began mowing and maintaing the city-owned park’s grass last month.

A group of seniors has also started pitching in, weeding and mulching the grounds of the Bainbridge Island Senior Community Center on the north edge of the park.

“It was starting to look pretty shabby, so I got together a couple volunteers who like to garden and we just started doing what needs to be done,” senior center director Jane Allan said.

Senior center volunteers last year took over the maintenance of Winslow Way’s hanging flower baskets after the city backed away from the duty, citing its money troubles.

The senior center crew waters and weeds the baskets every morning at 6 a.m. Their work saves the city about $5,000 a year.

The city’s remaining landscape crew will focus much of their time on maintaining the island’s several stormwater detention ponds. Weeding the invasive plants, alders and other vegetation is a state requirement, Newkirk said.

City maintenance crews have expressed some exasperation as the summer growing season kicked into high gear.

“There is a morale issue,” he said. “The crews care about our community but they can’t do all the work that needs to be done.”

The police station’s rocky front lawn could hint at things to come. The city may begin to look at ways to reduce its maintenance workload if revenues don’t show signs of renewed vigor.

“I can’t say we’ve gone too far down that path in our thinking, but that is something that we may want to evaluate,” Newkirk said. “If the economic downturn continues into 2010, we may take additional measures to minimize our landscaping needs.”

As for putting the burden elsewhere, Allan cautions that well-intended volunteers are rarely an equal replacement for paid professionals.

“We’re willing work in partnership, but it’s hard to rely totally on volunteers,” she said. “Hopefully, it’s not a long term solution.”