Nearly a decade ago, Los Angeles embarked on an ambitious campaign to plant more trees across the city. Now city officials find themselves struggling to maintain the urban forest along its parkways and medians.
To save money during the recession, the city began to jettison dozens of employees who trimmed trees. The city retained a small group of trimmers for emergencies. And as the economy improved, it began hiring outside companies for routine jobs — a practice meant to be more efficient.
But then the private companies started increasing their prices. The average low bid to trim a single tree more than doubled between 2009 and 2013, from nearly $56 to $124, according to data provided by the Bureau of Street Services.
As prices surged, thousands of overgrown sweet gum, jacaranda and other trees went untended, cracking sidewalks and scattering blocks with their branches.
"We need to dig into why that has happened," said Councilman Paul Krekorian, calling the price jump a "big red flag."
The situation has stoked a City Hall debate over whether L.A. should hire its own workers or outsiders to tame its trees. City budget officials are still trying to determine whether it costs less to hire city employees or outside contractors for the work.
The decision to hire contractors was a practical one, city officials say. Turning to outside companies was supposed to be less risky because the department wasn't sure it had reliable funding to keep crews on the payroll.
But Board of Public Works President Kevin James — a Republican some might expect to be a fan of privatization — has pointed to the rising costs as an example of the risks of relying solely on outside companies.
Last fiscal year, more than half of tree trimming bids were at least 75% over the city's cost estimates, a Times analysis found. City officials and labor unions blame the surging prices, in part, on the fact that Los Angeles no longer has crews of its own doing routine trimming.
"When they were competing with us, they really undercut us," said Art Sweatman, a city tree surgeon. "Once we were gone, that's when their prices came up."
Several tree trimming companies that do business with the city reject that explanation. Gus Franklin, president of United Pacific Services, said companies still have to compete with each other for city business, which nudges them to keep costs as low as possible. A handful of companies vie for each contract. He said rising costs for wages, equipment and insurance have pushed up prices, and that neglected L.A. trees had also become bushier and more costly to trim.
"It has nothing to do with city crews," Franklin said.
Street Services director Nazario Sauceda said city trees had indeed become overgrown. But he was skeptical that accounted for all of the added cost.
"When there's no competition, what stops you from increasing your costs?" Sauceda asked.
Companies bid to trim trees in various sections of the city. Last year, many businesses ended up bidding far above what Los Angeles officials estimated each job would cost. In one case, the lowest bid of roughly $792,000 was nearly twice as high as the city expected to pay to trim about 4,100 trees around the Westside and in the Watts area.
Faced with sticker shock, "I wanted to deny all bids," James said. "The city attorney said, 'Sure you can — but when we don't have a crew, they don't get tree trimming.'"
James said there was little time to toss out the bids and start over, and that even if they had, companies could come back with the same or higher bids. City staffers warned that if they stalled in awarding the contracts, the money for tree trimming could end up being swept back into the city budget for other needs.
To stay under budget, the city ultimately trimmed fewer than 32,000 trees last fiscal year instead of the proposed 40,000, Sauceda said. In a letter to lawmakers, SEIU Local 721 researcher Molly Rhodes said the numbers show that Los Angeles needs to restore its own crews to remain competitive.
The city faces a tree trimming backlog: Los Angeles once trimmed nearly 80,000 trees annually. In recent years, it has trimmed an average of 20,000 — resulting in roughly 300,000 fewer trees being trimmed over the last five years, according to George Gonzalez, the city's chief forester.
Local lawmakers are eyeing the numbers as the city begins to reinvest in tree trimming and other fundamental services Mayor Eric Garcetti has emphasized under his "back to basics" agenda.
Street Services officials have estimated that it costs less for city workers to do the actual trimming — an estimated $600,000 less for more than 30,000 trees. However, the bureau said that when benefits and other indirect costs for city employees are included, hiring contractors appears to be cheaper.
Some lawmakers question such calculations, saying they leave out indirect costs of hiring a contractor, such as the time city departments spend on contracts. City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, whose staffers are still analyzing the costs, said such comparisons could change if city workers agree to reduce city costs for health benefits and pensions, or if Street Services pursues multiyear contracts with outside companies to lock down lower prices.
Council members have also challenged whether private companies are as careful when cutting city trees: City Councilmen Paul Koretz, Joe Buscaino and Mike Bonin said they had gotten complaints about what Bonin dubbed "hatchet job tree trimming." Street Services officials said city employees are monitored more closely than contractors, whose work is checked by inspectors about every other day.
"We're paying more to get a worse job done," Koretz said.
The council recently decided to plug $500,000 into overtime for the small set of city tree trimmers, but much more — $3 million — is going into outside contracts this year. Another $500,000 is being devoted to city staff to monitor those contractors.