In recent years, most parks and recreation agencies have had to deal with the economic realities of reduced revenue and higher personnel costs. On the recreation side, program fees and charges can be revised, and/or programs can be eliminated or given to other service providers to close budget shortfalls. However, on the parks side—which is charged with maintaining the amenities, facilities, and landscape—raising additional revenue can be problematic. As a result, many agencies either are considering or have started to contract for maintenance services.
This concept—which many times replaces department employees with contract employees—is usually viewed as “bad” or something that will not provide the same level of service. However, in the new economic reality, contracting may have to be accepted. If that is the case, here is some advice on how to make contracting successful:
- A contract that is labeled “professional-services,” where negotiation is possible, is more successful than a “low-bid” contract. Experience shows that the latter type can end up costing more through change orders and other extra work than a contract that allows for ongoing negotiation. Price is important, but if it is the only criterion for review, you will probably end up spending more in the long run.
- The quality of service provided by a contractor is paramount to any success. The contract needs to clearly state quality standards sot you get what you want. If you want your turf to be “weed-free,” then write the standard that way. Standards need to be written in as simple and direct a fashion so that a 12-year old child could say “Yes, it does/does not meet standards.”
- Standards for quality should be written as “outcomes,” and not based on a performance you have to measure. If you want weed-free turf, state that. If you start to direct the contractor on how to make the turf weed-free, you will be treating the contractor more like an employee, wasting valuable time.
- The relationship between the contractor and the agency is a partnership in which both entities have a shared interest in maintaining the landscape. One of the arguments against contracting is the view that a contractor will not care as much as an agency employee. If the contract is an “us versus them” one, that will be true. If the contract allows for incentives and collaboration, and extensions or options based on a partnership, the contractor will look at the contract as a long-term investment, hopefully bringing skills instead of change orders.
- Quality-control inspections, while necessary and time-consuming, are the responsibility of the agency. How do you know if the contractor is meeting the standards you require? To simplify the process, inspections can be exception-based, meaning that, unless indicated otherwise, the site meets standard. Then the only information you need to identify relates to what does not meet standard. Additionally, the standards should have only two measurements: “meets standard” or “does not meet standard.” A measurement such as “needs to improve” only adds time and possible misinterpretation between the contractor and agency.
- A comprehensive background check of any prospective contractor is important so you know what can be done in comparable environments. Is the company fiscally solid? Does it have references you can check in which similar work to what you are asking for has been completed? Does the company use technology, and can the contractor be flexible when necessary? Is it responsive to requests, especially in emergency situations? What is the company’s quality-control plan that will provide a level of comfort? How does the contractor resolve differences in a disagreement on the terms of a contract? How did the contractor respond during the interview? (A formal interview should be a part of the process, and the people who will be overseeing your contract should be part of the interview.)
- Customer service is often a misunderstood component of maintenance contracts. The real customers of both the contractor and the agency are the citizens of the community. The citizens who pay the taxes and/or assessments—those who actually use the facilities and landscape areas—are thecustomers. A contract should take into consideration the wishes of the community related to standards and expectations because the agency is just the administrator of the contract when the citizens are providing the funding for maintenance. Having users understand maintenance expectations helps the agency keep the contractor on track, and builds on the principle of a partnership. The quality of a contract is what citizens and users want and expect. If the truth be told, citizens care very little how you get there.
- Finally, a contract needs to have corrective measures to ensure the work is completed to the agency’s satisfaction. If a certain standard has not been met, how long does the contractor have to make repairs? If plants die on a contractor’s watch, how is payment made for replacements? Is a financial penalty assessed for each item that is not in compliance? Is there an additional penalty for repeated noncompliance? Corrective measures should be addressed up front to make sure the standards are met as per the contract conditions.
Contracting out maintenance services has been considered something most agencies try to avoid. In the “new normal,” where expenses continue to rise faster than revenue, it may be something to consider. To get what you expect, spend the time writing the contract and standards to increase your chance for success.
Craig Bronzan is the director for the city of Brentwood’s Parks and Recreation Department in California. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.