Analysis: San Diego would pay more by doing its own wildfire brush clearing

30 January 2021

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USA – A new analysis shows San Diego would sharply increase how much the city spends on brush management wildfire prevention by handling the work itself instead of hiring private landscapers.

A $15 million deal approved last year with a brush management contractor prompted city officials to question whether moving the work in-house might save money, but the new analysis shows annual costs would spike $1.6 million.

Roughly one third of the city’s brush management efforts are already handled by city workers, with some help from nonprofit groups. The other two-thirds of the work is handled by Aztec Landscaping at a cost of $2.3 million per year.

The $15-million deal with Aztec was for five years.

If the city ended its contract with Aztec and handled that part of the work in-house, an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Analyst found that the annual cost would be $3.9 million.

In addition, taking the work over would require the city to spend roughly $3.6 million in start-up costs for vehicles, equipment and tools, the six-page analysis found.

All vehicles and equipment used by Aztec are procured and maintained by the company at no expense to the city.

Shifting the work in-house would have been a notable change for San Diego, which aggressively sought a decade ago to “contract out” to the private sector many functions handled by city workers.

The city tried to contract out vehicle services, street sweeping, publishing and landfill operations under Mayor Jerry Sanders, but city employees defeated bids from the private sector each time by finding cheaper ways to meet city goals.

Under Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the city didn’t attempt to contract out any services.

Brush management — essentially the thinning of vegetation for the purpose of creating defensible space — is a crucial element of the city’s wildfire prevention efforts and has been legally required in San Diego since 1989.

It’s particularly important on the edges of canyons or along San Diego’s dangerous “urban wildland interface” — where suburban neighborhoods bump up against undeveloped wilderness.

Of more than 26,000 acres of open space managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, about 904 acres are within 100 feet of structures. The city’s goal is to thin vegetation on 509 acres each year.

Nonprofit and city forces are slated to handle 170 acres, while Aztec is slated to handle 339 acres.

The city’s brush management efforts are separate from the efforts required of individual homeowners. City rules require about 49,000 individual property owners, many located along canyons, to allow regular brush management inspections of their properties.

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