City of Austin behind on mowing, cites staffing shortages

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Emily Blair goes for evening walks in her neighborhood, but the grass she walks by has grown taller than her.

“It’s really kind of frightening just because of the tall grass, maybe hiding snakes,” she said.

She’s not the only one to notice. Complaints to Austin 311 about tall grass in city-maintained medians spiked dramatically last month, reaching 107.

“I actually have friends in nearby areas that are having the same concerns,” said Blair.

If you’re a homeowner, you’re expected to cut your grass or risk getting a fine. In Austin, grass higher than 12 inches is a code violation, which can lead to a class C misdemeanor. But after an unusually rainy spring and start to the summer, we found the City of Austin is falling behind on its own responsibilities.

The city’s Public Works Department is responsible for maintaining 330 spaces around Austin. They are mostly medians that can be as small as 1,000 square feet or as large as 10,000 square feet.

The number of mowing requests to Austin 311 spiked last month following an abnormal amount of rainfall during the spring.
The number of mowing requests to Austin 311 spiked last month following an abnormal amount of rainfall during the spring.

Public Works pays four landscaping contractors to divide up the work by different quadrants of the city but claims this year’s extra rain and staffing shortages have caused those companies to fall behind.

As we drove around the city, it didn’t take long to find the evidence. In certain medians, we found the grass to have grown more than three feet tall.

“I know that all of our contractors, not just mowing contractors, are hurting from the number of open vacancies that they have,” said Pirouz Moin, Public Works assistant director.

One of the city’s four landscapers told KXAN their company has 18 people when fully staffed but is now down to three. The company asked us not to name them. The contractor cited an inconsistent mowing schedule because of the rain and pandemic unemployment benefits as reasons it is having trouble hiring.

This isn’t the first time Austin’s mowing contractors have fallen behind; we reported on it three years ago. That’s why Moin said the city increased the number of contractors from two to the current four.

We asked Public Works what it is doing to catch up now. A spokesperson tells us the department is supplementing the four contracting crews with its own in-house crew, as well as enlisting help from the Downtown Austin Community Court and the nonprofit Easter Seals.

“We are in discussion with other contractors to have the option of using additional contract capacity when needed, now and in the future,” said the spokesperson. “We are using one in-house team to start mowing as early as this Saturday with additional support from Urban Forestry – that crew should be able to mow those locations that require attention over the next 3-4 weeks. That should complete one cycle and our four contractors would be responsible for ongoing and future maintenance.”

While the city’s Public Works Department is responsible for maintaining the medians, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department handles mowing in city parks. The city’s Watershed Protection Department is responsible for maintaining grass and brush around creeks and waterways. A map showing the areas and who is responsible for maintaining them can be found here.

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