Records: Nassau paid Looks Great per tree

One of the downed trees in the Welwyn

One of the downed trees in the Welwyn Preserve in Glen Cove that Nassau County contractor Looks Great Services Inc. chopped down. (Dec. 13, 2012) (Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan)

Nassau County paid a Huntington tree service for each of 141 trees taken down in the Welwyn Preserve in Glen Cove after superstorm Sandy -- although county officials assured lawmakers the firm would be paid at a lesser rate for time worked, records show.

The bill for felling 117 trees and cutting up two dozen more already on the ground came to more than $105,000, not including labor costs, for the five days Looks Great Services Inc. was in Welwyn, according to the firm's invoice to the county. The county paid the bill on Jan. 31, a comptroller's office spokesman said.

Deputy Public Works Commissioner Richard Millett told county lawmakers several times that a crew paid for every tree felled had been sent mistakenly into Welwyn on Nov. 25, a month after the storm. He said he removed the crew immediately, replacing it with a team paid for their time and materials.


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Legis. Judith Jacobs (D-Woodbury) asked him on Dec. 3 whether the Welwyn crew charged by the tree.

"No, their job went to time and material," Millet responded. "We changed their billing."

Nassau's contract with Looks Great allows the firm to be paid for labor, equipment, tree pruning and removal, and hauling.

The company gets from $193 to $4,692 per tree, depending on size. "Climbers" and bucket truck operators are billed at $90.35 an hour.

The Welwyn work sheets indicate there were two climbers at the preserve for most of five days, but does not identify them. The work reports indicate 142 trees were taken down or chopped up, while the invoice lists 141 trees.

The Welwyn work was a small part of Looks Great's 309-page bill for $4.7 million, which included all the company's countywide work from Nov. 23 through Nov. 30.

To date, the county has paid Looks Great $35.5 million of nearly $70 million it is set to receive. The county hopes for at least 90 percent reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Complaints about the tree cutting at Welwyn helped spark ongoing investigations into Sandy debris removal on Long Island. Preserve advocates say the county cut trees unnecessarily to increase FEMA reimbursements. Nassau officials denied the claims, saying the trees taken down were damaged and dangerous.

Legis. Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove), who has spearheaded questions about Welwyn and Looks Great, said learning that Nassau had paid Looks Great by the tree "only strengthens my instinct . . . that all the information we have been given on Sandy contracts is questionable."

Public Works Superintendent Richard Iadevaio Jr., supervisor of the department's review of Sandy work, said Thursday that he would look into the per-tree charges in Welwyn. But he said his understanding was that because of the complaints, billing for tree work in the county's 16 preserves was changed going forward.

"Originally the preserves were on a unit price," he said. "We were paying by the tree, which is how FEMA wants it. . . . When we started having an issue, we switched to a time-and-material operation for preserves to try to discourage an incentive for more trees. It was not necessarily true that they were taking down more trees, but we wanted to remove that possible incentive."

Public Works spokesman Michael Martino said Millett never intended "to suggest that the county would or could change billing methods for work already completed."

Jacobs said, "My understanding was they were going to go back and correct it. When they're on the record, they're on the record."

Looks Great spokesman Dave Arnold said the decision "about whether a specific job would be billed hourly or per-tree was made entirely by the county, based on FEMA reimbursement eligibility requirements. Had the county paid on an hourly basis, FEMA might not have reimbursed the cost, and Nassau County taxpayers could have been on the hook for the entire cleanup."

In a statement, FEMA spokesman Jim Homstad said unit price contracts are among four types that the agency reimburses.

Agency rules say time-and-materials contracts, where the contractor bills for items including labor, equipment and materials, "should be avoided, but may be allowed for work that is necessary immediately after the disaster has occurred when a clear scope of work cannot be developed."

Records show that before the tree-cutting crew arrived at Welwyn on Nov. 25, it had downed 15 trees at the Sands Point Preserve. The firm was paid for each of those trees cut.

County records show that ultimately 466 trees were taken down in the Sands Point Preserve after Sandy, with one crew on Nov. 28 reporting it had taken down 50 trees between 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. -- a tree every 7.8 minutes.

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