AUSTIN (KXAN) — Frequent and heavy rain since the end of the summer has grass growing like crazy.
Cities still expect you to keep your lawn mowed, but we discovered the city of Austin breaking its own rules by a long shot.
In Austin, grass higher than 12 inches is a code violation. It can lead to a class C misdemeanor and a fine if you don't correct the problem in a week. But we found city medians north of Lady Bird Lake with grass at least 4-feet high.
The grassy median that runs down the middle of North Lamar Boulevard near the Triangle is one example where this week the grass is at least 4-feet high in some spots. It’s been a problem for the last month.
In early October, Richard Craig, the founder of the Pease Park Conservancy, pointed us to another median near Seton Medical Center with grass 4-feet high.
“The sidewalk is so overgrown that it's unusable,” said Craig.
BEFORE & AFTER: Median near Seton Medical Center at West 34th Street and Medical Parkway
He called his city council member back in June after noticing multiple medians were out of control.
“It can lead to graffiti, it can lead to crime, people think they can get away with more things if the area is unkept,” said Craig.
The job belongs to Pampered Lawns, an Austin mowing company awarded the largest chunk of the city's $4 million mowing contract. It's responsible for more than 70 percent of the city's medians and rights of way, all north of the Colorado River. They are expected to mow 200-plus locations every three weeks during the busy growing season.
“We're trying to keep up, we're struggling to keep up,” said Mark McNabb, president of Pampered Lawns in Austin.
He invited KXAN to the company headquarters on an early morning in October to see his crews loading up and heading out to job sites at 6:30 a.m. in the rain just to get caught up.
City emails show the company has been behind since March when no medians were mowed the entire month. It was the same story in May. Come June, the city told him complaints were rolling in. That's when the city began tracking the work and sending an inspector to each location.
In July, city records show Pampered Lawns never made it to 158 locations in the regular mowing cycle. In some cases, it grew into a safety issue.
A school crossing guard supervisor emailed a picture to the city of a crosswalk, and said the grass was so tall in the median drivers had a hard time seeing the children crossing.
We showed a picture of the overgrown median Craig found near Seton Medical Center to the city’s Public Works Department, which oversees the mowing.
“It is unacceptable,” said Pirouz Moin, interim city engineer, who agreed keeping the grass mowed is important. “Cutting the grass would help our citizens both in mobility and safety, and always we try to keep Austin beautiful.”
McNabb says the last thing the company wants is citizen complaints.
“We want to do the work, we want to make the city look good,” said McNabb.
But McNabb says he has just 18 employees — half the number he needs. He was counting on the federal H-2B visa program to get through the busy season which allows employers to hire foreign workers for nine months, but Pampered Lawns didn't make the cut.
McNabb claims he's received no applications through local newspaper advertisements or the Texas Workforce Commission.
He believes it’s because the work is hard, physical and can get unbearable in the hot summer months. Pampered Lawns pays between $12 to $14 per hour, offers time off and overtime, but no health insurance.
The city could call up another contractor to help, and have called on its own city crews to pick up the slack, which takes them away from other jobs that need to get done.
Moin said terminating the contract is always an option, but it's always the last option. As of now, the city said it will keep working with Pampered Lawns to get caught up. The company and the city are asking for one thing.
“Please be patient,” said McNabb. “If there's something that's causing a hazard please report it so we can get that taken care of.”
Craig said he has seen some improvement and is sympathetic with the city and with the contractor's problems. So is Councilwoman Ora Houston, who often calls 311 to report tall grass in the city’s medians and rights of way.
“Everybody needs a second chance. I'm one of those people that believe that we need to help you correct whatever it is that's causing the problems,” said Houston.
She says the city and crews respond quickly when she reports various locations. “My ask is that if there's anybody who's interested in working with this firm give them a call and say, 'Yes, I'm willing to come to work.'”
The city says it's been difficult to find other local companies equipped to do the work because mowing next to roads requires special safety training and insurance.
The city also says the three other companies on the contract mowing medians south of the river are keeping up, but their territory is a lot smaller.
H-2B visa Program taking a toll on landscaping companies
When it comes to employing foreign workers, we've learned landscaping companies have been hit the hardest because they employ more H-2B visa holders than any other industry.
During the second half of the year, the Department of Labor received applications for 81,600 workers — almost two and a half times the number of slots available.
A user can zoom into a location on the map and click on the shaded areas to see who is responsible for the mowing. The term “PWD Contractor” stands for Public Works Department Contractor. App users click here.