By Graig Graziosi
Like animals stirring from hibernation, the annual emergence of lawn mowers from their dingy winter shelters is a reliable indicator that winter is finally gone.
As the weather warms and the grass grows, giving the lawn a once-over becomes a weekly ritual for many. Up until 2015, the lawns that escaped that ritual ended up long and unkempt and eventually were cut by contractors hired by the city, often resulting in some 3,000 city-funded cuts each year.
Since taking over the business of cutting neglected lawns in 2015, the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp.’s grass-cutting crew has increased the annual number of cuts across the city to more than 10,000, while cutting the overall cost to the city.
The city formerly paid between $35 and $50 per cut to hire contractors to mow the lawns. Today, the city pays the YNDC $10 per cut, allowing it to increase the cuts without growing the price tag for the city.
Ian Beniston, YNDC executive director, said the dramatic increase in cuts largely can be attributed to a change in the way problem lawns are identified. The city previously cut neglected lawns only after a complaint was filed. Today, complaints still play a large role in directing mowing efforts, but the YNDC also conducts field surveys to locate neglected lawns.
Easy to spot in their neon-yellow shirts, the 11-person YNDC grass-cutting crew travels the city. It cuts only specific lawns; the lawns must be located at vacant structures, not abandoned lots and not occupied structures, and the first time they cut a lawn, the grass height must exceed 8 inches. Occupied structures are handled by city code enforcement, and vacant lots are cut by the city’s in-house grass-cutting crew.
The YNDC cuts aren’t free – property owners are billed $150 per cut if the grass-cutting team has to pay a visit.
Each morning, the grass-cutting crew is given an efficiency-optimized route – which is created at YNDC headquarters using an extensive property database built from citywide survey efforts – before heading out into the city with zero-turn mowers, weed whackers, leaf blowers and trash bags. They work 10-hour days, six days a week.
Edgardo Velazquez has worked with the grass-cutting team for four and a half months. He said his experience working for the team has been positive.
“I had been looking for work and saw a posting for the grass-cutting job at the library,” Velazquez said. “I enjoy the work, I get to be outside, plus we help people and we can see the physical change in the community.”
Between April and October, the YNDC expects to cut grass at vacant structures throughout the entire city at least four times over. At the beginning of June, the team had nearly finished its first full cut of the city. This year, the team anticipates once again breaking 10,000 cuts, with potentially more if the conditions allow.
“Weather and other factors, such as people maintaining their lawns or the city demolishing vacant structures, can impact the overall numbers,” Beniston said. The eventual goal of the YNDC’s mowing efforts is to lower the number of cuts needed each year as structures are either demolished, sold to new owners or the current property owners begin to maintain their own lawns.
“We’ve seen that in a lot of instances once property owners see that we’re actually billing them for the cuts, they start maintaining the lawns themselves,” Beniston said.
Even without lawn mowing, the cutting team has plenty of work. From October to April, the team guts and prepares structurally sound abandoned homes for the YNDC to renovate and works to board up condemned structures.
Tom Hetrick, YNDC’s neighborhood planner, said the grass-cutting team’s work is tough, but added that neighbors often were complimentary after the team’s efforts.
One of those rare, in-person compliments occurred last week while Velasquez and his team were working on West Dewey Avenue on the city’s South Side. A neighbor who was watching the group work drove by, slowed down and thanked them for their “good work.” She then pointed them to another problem property on the street.
One more for the list.