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Nassau tree-trimming bill balloons

Trucks with the Looks Great Services logo are

Trucks with the Looks Great Services logo are parked in a lot in Huntington, April 1, 2013. Photo Credit: Newsday / Ed Betz

Nassau has paid nearly three times more than expected for routine tree trimming in the last nine months to a Huntington company that earned more than $60 million from the county for superstorm Sandy cleanup work, records show.

Looks Great Services Inc. has been paid $629,523 by Nassau from September 2013 through May under a regular non-Sandy tree-pruning contract, even though the administration estimated the work would cost $216,000 a year.

Jostyn Hernandez, a spokesman for County Comptroller George Maragos, attributed the higher-than-expected expense to severe winter weather.

Deputy County Executive Ed Ward said $200,000 of the additional cost was due to Sandy tree damage, including saltwater flooding, that wasn't detected until long after the late October 2012 storm.

He said the county will seek federal reimbursement for those expenses.

The county legislature's Rules Committee approved a "blanket purchase order" to Looks Great for regular tree pruning and stump removal on Nov. 5, 2012. The order, used to pay for routine repeated services, was unrelated to Sandy.

The administration estimated the one-year contract, which could be extended to three years and requires Looks Great to pay prevailing wage, would cost $215,865.Ward said the cost was an average of the past three years.

About the same time, the Rules Committee also approved $68.8 million in emergency purchase orders for Looks Great to clean up damaged trees and haul debris from Sandy.

The county ultimately paid Looks Great $60.4 million for storm cleanup.

Nassau officials said Looks Great was not required to pay prevailing wage for the county's emergency work.

Earlier this month, Looks Great Services Inc. pleaded guilty in criminal court in Suffolk County to underpaying employees for Sandy cleanup work, in violation of prevailing wage laws. In February, the firm agreed to pay more than $186,000 to other workers it had underpaid.

To date, none of the Sandy workers employed on Nassau County projects have been found to have been underpaid, Hernandez said.

Looks Great did not return a call for comment Monday.

In April, some Nassau legislators questioned why Looks Great cut trees around the county legislative buildings.

"Every tree along the county side of West Street (in Mineola) was cut down," said Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick). "On the other side of West Street, the trees stayed up. Somehow the trees were only bad on the east side, not the west side.It makes you wonder."

The county said the trees were buckling the sidewalks.

Last week, Looks Great felled trees around the county jail in East Meadow.

Salisbury civic leader Helen Meittinis, chairwoman of the county jail advisory committee, said the trees helped hide the jail from the neighborhood but had become a safety hazard.

She said the county will replace them with a slatted fence.

"It should look nice when its done," she said.A spokesman for legislative Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said the downed trees were either dying or interfered with jail security tower sight lines.

Rules Committee member Legis. Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury) said she was dismayed to learn that costs for routine tree trimming had ballooned, and said lawmakers should have been informed.

"There is no way to have checks and balances if they're going to completely disregard the blanket order," she said.

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