This week Mobile City Council members voted 6-1 to privatize some of the city’s landscaping duties, but not without some debate as to what the decision might hold for the future of city employees.

An agreement was reached with All Pro Landscaping and Lawn Care Inc., which will handle the mowing services on seven city rights of way through Oct. 14 at a cost of $87,797.

A second agreement with Eric’s Lawn Care, LLC was also reached. The $14,980 contract will cover the right of way mowing on Hillcrest and Springhill for the same time period.

A third contract was drawn up between the city and Complete Management Group LLC., for similar maintenance on Cottage Hill Road, but that resolution was tabled temporarily due to lack of funding.

Colby Cooper, Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s Chief of Staff, said the city is responsible for mowing 1,400 acres or 1,100 parcels of land. He also said the mowing department is currently understaffed and operating with only 32 employees.

“We’re going to perfect this model, but we’ve got to start somewhere,” Cooper said in a pre-council meeting. “We could be as many as 43 people short, but throwing bodies at it might not fix the problem. This is going to be a combination of manpower, equipment, overtime and outsourcing.”

Cooper said privatizing the mowing of rights of way and thoroughfares would free up staff the city already employs to cut the grass in other areas.

Both contractors are scheduled to cut the grass in their designated areas every seven days and maintain the ditches on those roadways every 30 days.

Council member C.J. Small abstained from voting because he felt the scheduled mowing was more frequent than necessary. He proposed the grass be mowed every 10-14 days as needed.

“It’s not a contract where we’re guaranteeing them (work) every seven days,” Councilwoman Bess Rich said. “It’s just that’s their rotation.”

Cooper said the contracts were based on cycles, but were at the discretion of the city for authorization. That means if grass in an area wasn’t growing as anticipated, the city would be able to divert those resources elsewhere or save those monies in the contract.

“After this program is implemented, we will measure it and see how it’s doing,” Stimpson said. “The idea would be to modify it and make sure we’re getting the job done in the most efficient way and that we’re cutting as much grass as possible.”

Despite agreeing on the details of the contracts, some council members – including Vice President Fred Richardson – expressed concern over the mowing being privatized at all.

“What about the 43 jobs,” Richardson asked Cooper. “The fear in District 1 is that (the administration) is going to bid this out to contractors and these contractors are going to circumvent any hiring.”

Cooper said the jobs Richardson was referring to “don’t exist,” adding the city is only trying to provide a manageable solution to the growing problem of areas not being properly landscaped.

“Privatization is a core function of all governments, and over the past few decades, this city has privatized many services though the performance contract method,” he said. “We’re trying to give city employees the tools, resources and the sustainable pay they deserve while still being able to do what we need to do with what we have.”

The Gateway to the Gulf?

The council also voted 6-1 to request the Alabama Department of Transportation to study the feasibility of adding a bicycle and pedestrian trail to the proposed I-10 bridge over the Mobile River.

Councilman John Williams opposed the study because he said the pedestrian path could cost up 15 percent of the total $865 million project.

“I believe in bike paths, but I can’t support this because I do believe it will delay the project and increase costs significantly,” Williams said.

During the council’s pre-meeting, Williams said he didn’t think a bike path on the bridge would be utilized frequently.

The bridge, which will be larger than the Golden Gate Bridge, doesn’t have a completion date, but the plans for its construction are supposed to drawn during the next two years.

Some council members said the sheer size of the bridge would draw tourists to Mobile who would want to walk the bridge safely.

John Blanton, a member of the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning Commission, told the council a federal statute requires that a bicycle or pedestrian path be considered if federal dollars are going to be used on this type of project.

“It’s up to the public in the public comment period to say whether they would like a bike path on the bridge or in the community,” Blanton said. “However, if we don’t design it in the bridge’s plans, we get nothing.”

He also said citizens could demand a feasibility study later in the project’s timeline, which would almost certainly cause delays.

“This feasibility study would address most of these concerns,” Councilman Levon Manzie said. “If it comes back and the cost is astronomical or it will delay the project, we won’t move forward with it.”

During the pre-council meeting, Richardson suggested amending the resolution to rename the project the “I-10 Mobile ‘Gateway’ River Bridge.”

“We want people to know Mobile is the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico,” Richardson said. “If St. Louis can take an arch and declare it to be a gateway, we can take a bridge and declare it to be our gateway.”

Richardson was eventually talked out of renaming the project to avoid confusion. However, he did say he would take the issue up with U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne and Alabama Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby as the project moves forward.