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Relationships You Can Count On

heavy equipment for debris removal
Post-Irma recovery in St. Petersburg, Fla. Photo by CityofStPete on Flickr.

When you find yourself cleaning up hurricane debris for the second year in a row, it helps to have friends with the right equipment for the job. Having those friends doesn’t usually happen by accident.

Hurricane Irma had just barely passed when Robert Buckles and Tracy Larson brought their crew from Joshua’s Tree Landscaping over to the beachside community where my wife and I have a vacation home. While Robert plowed about half a foot of sand out of my driveway and off the street in front of my house, Tracy and his guys shoveled more sand away from the air conditioning units that I installed after Hurricane Matthew buried the old ones last fall.

I was not the only beneficiary of their prompt attention. Neighbors all around my house and from elsewhere in the development hired Joshua’s Tree to help with their own storm cleanup, and the homeowners association used them to clear sand from the rest of our oceanfront block. Robert and Tracy have been back on multiple occasions since the storm, getting started on restoring landscaping and irrigation systems at my place and others. In between visits they have served other local customers, cutting up and removing downed trees and making sure all sorts of detritus was safely removed and properly disposed. But my neighbors and I were at the top of the list.

The story has been different elsewhere in Florida. After Irma cut a path of destruction across virtually the entire length of the state, labor and equipment of all sorts has been in very short supply, despite the flood of out-of-state help that arrived to deal with emergency repairs and follow-up work. Texans are likewise scrambling to find the resources they need to repair the massive flooding, as well as the significant wind damage, that Hurricane Harvey left behind. And Puerto Rico, impoverished and isolated on a large Caribbean rock that was devastated by Hurricane Maria, is in an entirely different league of misery and frustration, with far less material and skilled labor available to cope.

In Florida, some of the most irritated individuals right now are the local officials who thought they had lined up recovery resources in advance, only to find after the storm that the resources either were not available at all or were going to cost much more than the previously negotiated price. Every extra dollar that goes toward removing downed tree limbs today is a dollar that governments can’t spend tomorrow on regular public services or other sorts of storm relief, such as temporary housing for displaced residents.

The Miami Herald reported that a Deerfield Beach-based storm recovery firm called AshBritt Environmental raised the ire of North Miami Beach by removing piles of debris too slowly for city management. Rather than adjust AshBritt’s rate as the firm requested, City Manager Ana Garcia fired it and opened the contract to competitors in an emergency bidding session. And North Miami Beach is not the only municipality in a similar situation.

Sky-high demand, in both Florida and Houston, incentivized subcontractors like those AshBritt relies upon to hold out for higher rates than those the cities originally negotiated; without enough of its own resources on hand to meet obligations, the company insisted it had to have more money to attract the subcontractors it needed. The result is that while governments carefully negotiated and agreed to debris removal contracts well in advance, many haulers aren’t meeting their obligations.

In the long term, contractors like AshBritt may face legal action for failing to honor their agreements with local governments. For now, since leaving debris all over their communities during an extended bidding process isn’t an option, officials are scrambling to make alternate arrangements.

Why does a single part-time resident homeowner like me get better service than a local government waving a big contract? Sheer luck is certainly part of it, but I actually have a big advantage over those local officials, who are hard-pressed to meet their constituents’ demands for prompt storm relief.

I can give my cleanup business to whomever I choose, at whatever price I am prepared to pay. This allows me to emphasize factors like reliability, proximity and service quality over other things that matter less to me, such as price. It lets me build relationships over time. Once those relationships are in place, it gives vendors like Robert and Tracy at Joshua’s Tree the confidence to know that if they take steps to protect my property in my absence, I will thank them and pay them, rather than second-guess them.

We don’t let government officials operate this way; there are extensive requirements to prevent favoritism, nepotism and corruption in the awarding of public contracts. We typically require advertising and competitive bidding under prearranged rules that are supposed to give all qualified vendors a fair shot at the business. Although these requirements do not always demand that work go to the lowest bidder, they usually require substantial justification to accept anything other than a potential lowball bid.

When a contractor wins the business on the basis of a bid that is overly optimistic, the outcomes are not apt to be very satisfying. Either the contractor will adjust the price to a more realistic level or the contractor will not deliver the expected level of service, or both. Sure, the contractor might be barred from future work or might even be sued after the fact, but that won’t haul away a pile of downed vegetation any faster.

Some of my beachside neighbors impose similar constraints on themselves. Last year, three or four of them hired Joshua’s Tree to clear Matthew’s sand off their property after they saw how well Robert and Tracy handled my work. Several others requested price quotes, but then gave the business to other companies from neighboring counties, who showed up a week or two later and then set their own bids a little bit lower.

I didn’t see any of those companies on the block when Robert and Tracy came back to dig me out of this year’s storm.

I am not judging my neighbors for their choices. Neither, for that matter, are Robert and Tracy; like everyone in their field in Florida, they have plenty of work to keep them busy. Everyone has different priorities. For many people and in many situations, it can be worth waiting for demand to lessen and prices to normalize after a disaster before proceeding with nonessential recovery work. People define “nonessential” and “essential” differently, too.

I just observe that in a service-based economy, a lot of the rules that evolved to make purchasing things like office supplies and city buses more taxpayer-friendly can carry a downside. Awarding a contract in advance for storm debris removal to a company that has no locally based personnel or equipment can end up as nothing more than a false economy.

I did not grow up in Florida. I have not known Robert and Tracy for very many years. I first hired Joshua’s Tree to do some routine maintenance on my sprinkler systems. From there, we planned to work together on redoing some landscaping; Matthew accelerated that plan and turned it into a pretty large project. Now that Irma has trashed a lot of what we did after Matthew, we will have to do it over again. It is not a job I plan to seek bids on. I know that Robert and Tracy will charge a price that is more than fair for everything they do, and that they will do the job the right way. That’s all that matters to me.

Loyalty and trust take time to build in all relationships, including in business. As localities all over Florida are discovering, if you want to be first on the list for help when disaster comes, you have to earn your status, one way or another.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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