The Case of the Missing Contract

By Steve Hoogenakker

It was a hot Monday afternoon in July and the humidity made it feel like an Indian sweat lodge.  The air conditioner was refusing to work through another day, much like the temp that was hired here last week.  My desk, looking like it belonged to Andy Rooney was strewn with paperwork facing every direction.

 Emails had come in over the weekend about sprinkler heads shooting fountains 15 feet in the air, and I’d received 2 calls from the Vice President of the board asking when the pruning was going to be done.  I even got an email asking about the sidewalk edging.  Sidewalk edging? Who asks about sidewalk edging?

I scrambled through the papers looking for the maintenance specs, then through my files. I called my assistant and asked her for the contract, but nobody had found it yet.

The contractor finally called me back at 3:00 PM. He didn’t think the pruning had been due yet.The edging might have been kind of done using a weed whip, he didn’t know. As for the sprinklers, how was he supposed to know? He said “I’ll get my irrigation subcontractor out there in the next week”. A week? Oh no.

At 5:45 PM, I left the office, never finding the specifications. I emailed the Vice President before I left and told her I was working on it, but didn’t feel like I had made a lot of headway.

Tuesday morning. Another email about wasting precious water due to the fountain sprinkler heads asking if I cared about the environment and if I was going to pay the water bill next month. I get a phone message from an angry resident about one of their bird baths being damaged by the mowers last week. With the edging and pruning questions still fresh on my mind, we did a full press search for the specifications. Voila, my assistant has saved us!

Well, saved might be a strong word. I start to read through it. Hmmm, I’ve never seen specs like these before, they’re only a couple of pages long, should be a piece of cake.

Let’s see here, mowing; “Contractor not responsible for damage to personal items left in common areas”. I don’t remember seeing that. I hope the birdbath was inside the sidewalk, but it’s not likely. I’m not looking forward to that visit and phone call. Ah, here’s edging. “Edging shall be completed once annually”. Well, no end date, so I guess they have until Halloween to finish. I’m sure they won’t wait that long, but when?

Then I found pruning. Pruning shall be completed twice annually, but after shrubs have flowered. What does that mean I wondered? Surely some shrubs have finished flowering, it’s July for Pete’s sake. Have they done any of it?  OK, one more question, irrigation, let’s see if that’s any better. Irrigation: “Lawn Sprinklers will be started up in the spring and blown out in the fall. If adjustments or repairs are necessary, it is the responsibility of client to notify contractor.”

So, I feel good that I found the contract and specs, but I still don’t have a single answer to give to the association.

This story happens hundreds if not thousands of times in Minnesota each year in one form or another.  The problem arises because there is no standardized specifications for grounds maintenance. The specs could’ve come from a book, or more likely, they’re using a contractors specifications.  I’ve run the largest landscape maintenance business here through the 1990’s and I can tell you that 20% of the language in contracts being passed around is language I wrote in 1999, and I am not an attorney!

In the past the board probably took 3 bids with 3 sets of specifications and accepted one. If they were one of the lucky ones, they kept using the same specs even after the contract ran out. If not, when the bid was up again, they asked for 3 more bids and got 3 different sets of specs to try to compare and had a new board to re-learn everything all over again.

So, what’s the solution? Whether you’re non-managed, a managed association, or a management company, you need to come up with your own set of specs and standardize as much of it as possible. To me, NOT having grounds maintenance specs for one of the biggest budget items and complaint items is just like trying to run an association without having MCIOA as a backstop!

There are only a couple of large management companies that have their own specs and they have a big competitive advantage over all the others. Their property managers already know what’s required at each site, why and when. They have deadlines for pruning and edging and they’re the same date, so on July 15th, sidewalk edging had better be done at every site. 80% of the thinking and brain damage of the board and property managers has already been eliminated. Just mark it in your Outlook calendar in February: First edging to be completed July 15th. You’ll see July 15th coming up so you can contact the vendor 2 weeks in advance with a reminder if you wish. The standardized specification makes less work for the manager, and in turn makes the manager and the board more efficient, and that translates into a happier association.

So, how do you go about making standardized specs? Since 90% of the horticultural items apply to all sites, standardize as many dates and descriptions as possible. For those few items that have to be customized, put them on as an addendum WITH DATES.

Grab 2-4 of your current landscape contracts and setup a meeting with 1-2 landscape contractors (with their current contracts), 1-2 of your property managers and optionally 1-2 respected board members. Send the documents out ahead of time and ask all to comment. Then, buy them lunch to come up with best parts of all contracts. Have them combine the specs into two sets. One for very small associations and one for larger associations. Run these by your accounting and legal departments and start using the “ABC Grounds Maintenance Specifications” as your own competitive advantage. Once done, 90% will always be done. You can tweak it over the years, but as the great philosopher Susan Powter says, “Stop the Insanity”!

Steve Hoogenakker

Concierge Landscape Environments



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