The overgrown corners, roadsides and vacant lots of Key West have a new crew to deal with as spring approaches.
Since January, a newly beefed up community services department says it has removed at least 200 cubic yards of debris from four "zones" drawn up as a plan of attack.
This isn't trash pick-up or litter duty, which the city pays Waste Management, Inc. to handle, but rather the heavy-duty brush hauling, mowing and debris removal that can often hinder visibility at a four-way stop or make a path impossible for someone with a walking disability.
For the 2013 fiscal year, Key West hired six new full-time workers to create a roster of nine employees assigned the heavy lifting and mowing.
Last year, the same department had three full-time employees and three more working on contract.
Staff divided Key West proper into five "zones," with city crews handling four and the fifth one still farmed out via contract.
"Every zone has been hit at least twice," said Rod Delostrinos, deputy director of community services told City Commissions on Tuesday at Old City Hall. "We've been getting a lot of positive feedback from residents. Complaints have gone down."
After some leaner budget years and cutbacks, Key West decided to invest a little bit more into outdoor maintenance.
Each new hire earns $10.36 an hour, and the city budged $77,802 for new equipment.
"Things are a little better and it was at a point where we needed more public works people," said city spokeswoman Alyson Crean. "They are keeping the roadways clear, the rights-of-way clear."
In addition to the zones, the crews are also on call for special assignments. Recently, they spruced up the former Easter Seals building's lot off College Road on Stock Island.
The vacant property draws homeless men and women who crash there in the hours before the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter opens each evening, and had also fallen prey to nature's wild growth.
City staff were inspecting city-owned properties in the neighborhood, including the office rented by Mosquito Control District Board's headquarters, and were impressed by the before-and-after makeover.
"They took a deplorable condition out there and by the time we were done, after several hours, they had cleaned the entire lot," said City Manager Bob Vitas. "It was like two different pieces of property."
City Commissioner Billy Wardlow said he has also seen better-looking rights-of-way and other city-owned public spots.
"I think you're all doing a fantastic job," Wardlow said at Tuesday's commission meeting after Delostrinos' report . "For just starting, it's coming along well quickly."
But, in a city that has a volunteer appointed Tree Commission to regulate tree cutting in certain areas and where neighbors have clashed over trees creeping over property lines, the crews have had a learning curve to master.
"People are very, very particular about trimming their own landscaping," said City Commissioner Teri Johnston, who has taken calls from two constituents displeased to find out after the fact that a crew was working ."Can we give people a week's notice? It would certainly help."
Delostrinos said that part of the crew's job is to educate residents on their responsibilities as well as hold up the city's end of the bargain.
"The crews are getting smarter," said Delostrinos. "They're knocking on doors a little bit better."
City Commissioner Tony Yaniz said Key West had quite a backlog of brush and debris piling up.
"You can see the amount of debris is diminishing," Yaniz told Delostrinos on Tuesday. "We are becoming partners with the property owners and I just think you're doing a hell of a job."