The Dade City Commission has approved a landscaping contract, after grievances aired in recent months about the upkeep of the Dade City Cemetery.
Commissioners have approved a contract with a landscaping company to maintain the grounds of the 17-acre cemetery, at 38151 Martin Luther King Blvd.
The agreement is with Gotha-based JDMF LLC, and it calls for landscape management services from April 1 through Oct. 31, at an annual cost of $37,200.
The seven months of work coincide with the area’s rainy season when grass grows more quickly at the site nestled in the Mickens-Harper community, on the northeast side of town, across U.S. 98.
Two other bids received for cemetery landscape management came in at $61,446 and $179,746, respectively.
The city originally budgeted $36,000 to hire an additional public works/park employee who would have shared duties between the cemetery and downtown grounds maintenance.
However, city administration felt it more prudent to outsource the cemetery workload instead.
As explained in a city memo dated Dec. 8: “Contracting out the cemetery landscape management will eliminate the current need to hire an additional employee and provide the current downtown and parks employees the help that is needed to maintain a park-like setting in our city’s downtown area. During the dry season, city employees will maintain the cemetery.”
Dade City Public Works Director Bryan Holmes also deemed the workload “too great for one employee to maintain during the rainy season.”
Funding for the contract services will come from the parks department’s operational budget. The cost for outsourcing the work will be offset by the cost of hiring an additional employee and the vehicle costs associated with maintaining the grounds, officials say.
The decision to go with the landscaping firm was divided among commissioners, narrowly passing by a 3-2 vote at the Dec. 8 meeting.
Mayor Camille Hernandez, and Commissioners Scott Black and Knute Nathe voted for the contract. Mayor Pro Tem Jim Shive and Commissioner Normita Woodard voted against.
In dissenting, Woodard expressed concern about the number of tasks the municipality has been outsourcing — as opposed to finding solutions in-house with city workers.
“It seems like anytime we meet any type of adversity, the solution is contracting someone from the outside,” Woodard said. “I personally feel like our solution should not always be to contract out.”
She added: “It seems to be that we are consistently setting a precedent that when we can’t do the job, we are immediately going outside, and I don’t like it.”
Shive made similar points. He preferred adding another a full-time employee to handle the grounds and other areas for 12 months, instead of “turn over control of the cemetery with contracted people” for seven months of the year.
“I just want to remind everybody this is $37,000 for seven months. What is going to happen for the other five months when they’re not here to do the job?” Shive asked.
“I have a problem paying $37,000 for seven months when we can hire a full-time person that can work for the cemetery and the CRA (the Community Redevelopment Agency special district) — and we’re actually creating a job for somebody.”
The mayor pro tem, too, noted the city previously hired a contractor to maintain parking lots downtown, which led to unsatisfactory results.
The other commissioners, however, supported the city staff’s recommendation for various reasons.
“For smaller municipalities like Dade City is, sometimes you can’t do everything in-house,” Nathe reasoned. “Sometimes it is more cost-effective to hire out and go to a third party to maintain something that we don’t have the resources to do ourselves.”
He continued, “I don’t care whether it’s somebody directly employed by the city who does it or a third-party contractor.
“If staff’s telling us, ‘Listen, it’s more efficient to get a third-party contractor to do this, so that it frees up the cemetery groundskeeper to go help out in other parts of the city,’ — and I’m sure they need help during the rainy season — then I say let’s do that.”
Meanwhile, Black pointed out the firm JDMF had strong references from the cities of Lakeland and Bartow, as well as Pasco and Lake counties. Also, he surmised the contractor is set to bring in an experienced multi-person crew with their own equipment to spruce up the cemetery, likely to be more effective and efficient than any one person.
“The fact remains that we’ve got a problem that we need to take care of, and this does seem like a cost-effective way of doing it,” Black said. “You’re getting a team that comes in, that works and does this for other municipalities and a couple of counties, and I think we’re needing to do something different here, and if it doesn’t work out, then we can go back and find another way to do it, but this does sound like this could be a very good solution for us, and hopefully we can go back and break the cycle of the problems that we’ve been having of late.”
Hernandez — who was the favoring swing vote — acknowledged being “really torn” with the decision.
The mayor emphasized that the city’s public works supervisors must have regular follow-up with the landscape company. Moreover, the contractor better give ample attention to weed-eating around headstones and gravesites, she said.
“I just want to make sure that we’re doing our work, that this gets done,” Hernandez said. “As we get ready to do all this marketing of our town and not only the cemetery, but all of those things that we’re doing, that everything is looking in a way that people are proud of, especially when they’re going to pay tribute to their loved ones who’ve passed.
“We all realize this is important for people with gravesites. It’s in a lot of ways very emotional and very sentimental, as well as being something that we need to take care of.”
In recent months residents have levied ongoing complaints on the growth of weeds, and damaged graves and headstone decorations, making comments on social media and during commission meetings.
It came to a head during a September meeting when residents, including Mario Jenkins, spoke up about the conditions.
Jenkins told commissioners when he last visited his mother’s grave, he discovered some of the decorations—including a memorial cross — had been destroyed.
“Every time I go there, I seem to be disappointed,” Jenkins said. “The upkeep on the grounds is very poor.”
Cemetery duties increasing
For many years, the city was able to have a single groundskeeper maintain the entire cemetery parcel, officials say.
But, apparently that’s no longer the case.
One explanation may be the surging demand of marked graves and installed headstones over the last several years.
Dade City Clerk Angie Guy is responsible for selling cemetery spaces and when families want to have headstones installed for loved ones.
Guy explained that more than 175 graves have been added to the cemetery during the last six years.
The increasing number of gravesites has increased the workload for maintaining the cemetery, she explained, as more man hours are needed to mark the grave, install headstones, landscape surrounding areas and so on.
“The workload has increased substantially, so that’s another part of the issue,” Guy told commissioners at the meeting. “It’s not just marking the grave and that’s it. Now there’s a headstone that (residents) want installed, that (worker) is going to have stop mowing, stop weed-eating, and install the headstone, and make sure it’s installed correctly. If there’s any problems (with the headstone install), then they go back and forth…”
Published December 30, 2020