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Pinellas County, Florida

Keywords: Grounds Maintenance, Failed Contract

Grounds Maintenance

Private contractors maintain over 80 percent of all buildings and grounds in Pinellas County. The one exception to this rule is grass cutting at the countys 360 water pumping stations, a service that was brought back in-house following 18 months of privately-provided service.

The pumping stations are on small lots (50 by 50) surrounded by chain-link fences. Most stations are located at remote spots in residential neighborhoods, and are rarely visited by county employees. In 1996 county officials contracted out grass cutting at these facilities in order to cut costs. While the private contractor was willing to provide the service at significantly lower rates than what it would cost for the county to do the job, the contractor quickly found that he and his crews were unable to maintain such a large number of small lots in a timely fashion.

Following a number of complaints from residents living near the pumping stations, the county chose to end its contract with the private contractor half-way through its three year contract. The contractor admitted he was in over his head, and was relieved to see the contract terminated. County employees have provided the service for over two years now, and service quality has improved tremendously.

The decision to bring the work back in house was a joint effort of the County Administrator and other managerial staff. No additional employees were required to provide the service. Rather, the work was incorporated into the daily routine of county maintenance workers.

Bringing services back in is rare in Pinellas County, where a large number of services are contracted out. Grass cutting at the pumping stations was a unique case, says County Administrator Fred Marquis. Servicing so many remote locations made it very difficult to monitor service quality, so for this particular service it made more sense for the county to do the job. The county has contracted out a number of services to private providers over the past decade, and generally has been pleased with the services of its contractors. However, satisfaction with services is only one reason why the county rarely takes services back in-house; equally important are the rules governing the competitive bidding process. When a service is first put out to bid, county employees are allowed to compete with private firms for the contract. Once that contract is lost to a private contractor, however, only private providers have the opportunity to bid on future contracts. The county sees the costs associated with bringing a service back in as too costly to be worth the effort. Not only would the county have to hire new employees to take over the service, but new equipment and buildings may be required as well. In short, the start up costs associated with bringing a service back in house make public bids on competitive contracts prohibitively expensive for the county.

Case based on interview with Fred Marquis, County Administrator, July 6, 1999.