Warren takes on high grass

WARREN – Looking at the possibility of even more vacant lots with high grass this summer, several City Council members suggested doubling the money allocated for mowing from $10,000 to $20,000 for the year.

Councilman Vince Flask, D-5th Ward, however, disagreed, saying the city should be looking at other ways of controlling high grass than throwing an increasing amount of money at the problem.

The conversation about grass cutting occurred during a council finance meeting this week in which spending in the general fund departments of police, fire, operations and health during the first four months of the year was reviewed.

Safety Service Director Enzo Cantalamessa answered, “Do we want to get more money for grass cutting at the cost of something else being shorted in the operations department?”

Cantalamessa said the city is looking at ways to reduce the number of times it will have to mow by seeding some properties with a new product called dwarf grass and using a chemical growth-retardant.

Councilwoman Cheryl Saffold, D-6th Ward, suggested the finance committee sponsor legislation to provide the $20,000 for the health department because high grass traditionally has been a problem over the summer months and with the success of recent demolition programs, there will be more grass to cut.

Flask suggested allowing some lots to grow naturally to create small wooded areas. Saffold noted it would take three to five years before those lots looked good.

The city has spent an average of $10,000 a year for grass cutting on vacant properties since 2011 and in that time recovered $17,061 from property owners.

In the meantime, Cantalamessa said the city will continue to work with the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office inmate program to use prisoners to cut grass and clean up areas around the county.

In another discussion, assistant fire Chief Orneil Heller said to the council members that the department has not determined how the loss of five firefighters whose salaries are paid by expiring federal grants will affect the amount of overtime the department will experience this year.

Councilwoman Helen Rucker, D-at large, questioned whether the department will be able to maintain all three fire department locations.

“We need a minimum of 17 people on shift every shift to keep the three stations open,” Heller said. At this point, they estimate to have 17 firefighters on two shifts and 16 on the third, he said.

Councilman John Brown, D-3rd Ward, asked if the police department has enough allocated for overtime, since it spent so much last year.

Police Chief Eric Merkel said that police overtime costs of $259,576 was high in 2013 because the department had to focus a lot of manhours to solve a series of shootings and drug raids. The city has budgeted the police department to have $150,000 in overtime this year. So far this year, the department already has spent $85,522 of that amount.

Merkel suggested the amount of overtime may be reduced as its newest police officers are able to ride on their own. He also suggested the department can reduce the amount of overtime if it is able to increase the number of officers from the current 60 to its authorized strength of 65.

The police chief said he expects to add more officers later this year.