FAIRHOPE – A municipal crew to trim city trees could save Fairhope money and allow other work, such as lighting trees at Christmas to also be done in-house, according to a proposal presented to the City Council.
The city has been using outside contractors to trim tree branches near electric lines, Michael Allison, city electrical supervisor, said. The most recent bid for the service, however, was almost $1 million a year.
“It was four times what we had budgeted,” he told council members at the March 23 work session.
Allison said the department’s budget includes $275,000 a year for tree trimming.
He said the city has three options. One would be to go out for bids again and only have trees in about one fourth of the city trimmed each year. That could create problems if trees in an area not designated for service in a particular year need to be trimmed.
A second option would be to have city electrical crews trim the trees. The department, however, is not staffed for that, he said.
The option that Allison recommended to the council would be to add a three-person crew equipped and assigned to trim trees. He said the estimated cost of the addition would be about $236,000 a year at first. That cost would include the cost of three workers, their personal equipment and leasing a knuckle-boom truck.
“The nice thing is, they would be in-house employees obviously take a lot of pride in their work,” Allison said. “They’d be assigned to the electrical department, but be available to the other departments, Parks and Rec, Public Works, golf course if they needed them to take a tree out or something like that and we could manage it all in house instead of having to go out for bids.”
Councilman Jimmy Conyers asked if adding a tree crew would allow the city to go back to using municipal workers to install the Christmas lights in downtown trees. Allison said the additional staff and equipment could allow the city to do the work without bringing in outside contractors.
Most council members said the idea seemed sound, but some were worried about the expense of a new crew when city revenue was uncertain due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“I’m concerned about adding any new expense right now,” Councilman Jay Robinson said. “I’m not saying that this isn’t needed, but if this was a month ago, I’d have said thumps up let’s do it, but I’m of the mindset right now, that we need to take a wait and see approach until we see where we end up.”
Council President Jack Burrell said he did not want to hire more workers and buy equipment if the city can’t pay the expenses.
“I’m actually interested in pursuing this,” Burrell said. “I just don’t want to have to make this investment and, once you’ve lease purchased the knuckle-boom, you’ve got that cost. You don’t want to hire people and then lay them off. I just hope that we could keep it up.”
Councilman Robert Brown said the city should consider going out for bids again and seeing what response the proposal receives.
“I’m just afraid that three guys won’t be able to do it after the first year and then it will become $236,000 a year,” Brown said.
Allison said the city sent out bid proposals to seven companies, but only two submitted bids. He said Fairhope has about 62 miles of streets where trees need to be trimmed.
“Our little system of 62 miles isn’t much interest to them,” he said. “They want to go cut 300 miles. So, I think that’s part of what we saw in the $1 million bids we were getting. To be able to divide it up into quarters would be even less of an interest.”
Mayor Karin Wilson said bids might be less in the current slow economy, but that would leave the work undone until a new contract is approved.
“During this pandemic everything is going to change, and everybody is going to be hurting,” Wilson said. “My concern is between today and when that happens. It’s possible that the total will come down if we rebid it, but what will we do between then and now.”