In search of greener fields: Budget cuts to campus grounds operation prompt understaffing

Lorenz Angelo Gonzales/Staff

In the early hours, before the Campanile starts chiming, Angel Martinez methodically cuts his way through an endless sea of green.

He begins by mowing outside buildings to avoid disturbing classes and then tends to areas like Memorial Glade before foot traffic becomes heavy. According to Gary Imazumi, a grounds manager and Martinez’s direct supervisor, it would take about 56 hours to mow the entire campus.

Martinez, 44, is UC Berkeley’s lone lawn mower operator.

“Even before my time, there’s always been two mower operators … Ever since the budget cuts, it just seemed that I got stuck doing it,” Martinez, who’s been working at UC Berkeley for 10 years, said. “It is a lot of ground to cover for just one person. A lot.”

Over the last few decades, staff on the campus’s grounds operations — which include mowing, irrigation, pest management, gardening and tree maintenance — has been approximately cut in half.

According to Sal Genito, associate director of grounds, custodial and environmental services, the budget cuts and reduction in staffing have resulted in growth of unwanted plants and deferred work in irrigation systems and tree groves.

“You don’t really see it,” Genito said. “It’s underground or up high in the trees.”

The longer the work is postponed, he said, the more expensive it becomes to manage. Grounds personnel regularly deal with the most pressing campus concerns and undertake the less critical ones intermittently.

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Lead arborist Doug Labat, who partners with Martinez during lunchtime domino games, began working for the campus 28 years ago. He recalled a time when his team was composed of five arborists to service UC Berkeley’s trees. Now, it’s just him and one other person.

“We don’t have enough staff to take care of all the trees, but we do what we can,” Labat said. “I think it’s a shame.”

Martinez is glued to a systematic schedule year-round, except during the rainy season, when he helps out other grounds teams. The routine allows him to attack what would otherwise be daunting fields of unabated grass.

Lawns need to be mowed the day before they’re watered, and each has its own watering timetable. Lawns are assigned to a primary, secondary or tertiary priority. Places like Memorial Glade and the chancellor’s house are considered priority-one lawns. Those ranked last, the ones less visible to the public, are mowed less frequently.

“I keep a schedule of what I have to do, and basically it’s just taking care of the major stuff,” Martinez said. “It is pretty tiring for one person to do, especially on hot days.”

He spends his days with plugged ears and alert eyes. Two previous lawn mower operators fell off the machine — one into a creek — after it lost traction, though neither was seriously injured.

“At first when I first jumped into it, I was scared,” he said. “You got lawns here that are in angles, and it’s pretty dangerous.”

Years ago, Martinez was mowing on an incline slightly too fast. The grass was wet, and before realizing what had happened, he hit a pole. Now, he takes his time, even though the work is relentless.

For Martinez’s colleagues in the gardening crew, who are required to pick up litter on top of their normal duties, too few hands mean they end up preoccupied with the campus’s sprawling garbage.

Imazumi, who started working at the campus 26 years ago as a gardener, said it takes a toll on staff and morale. Even before he became a manager, Imazumi said litter was an obstacle. Over the years, budget cuts have made it impossible for gardeners to maintain the same standards, although that doesn’t keep them from trying.

“They’re hired as gardeners, and they end up being garbage collectors,” Imazumi said. “Once you realize that’s the job, everyone has the choice so you either move on or do the job.”

Genito, meanwhile, who joined UC Berkeley’s staff less than a year ago and previously worked at UC Davis and UCSF, said he has never seen a campus with so much litter.

Because they never know how much garbage there will be at any particular time, planning appropriate staff levels is challenging. The vast amount of litter on campus starkly contradicts UC Berkeley’s reputation for environmentalism, Genito said.

If gardeners ever miss trash on lawns, Martinez hops off the mower to take care of it. Despite his unforgiving workload, Martinez said he wants to stay at UC Berkeley for the remainder of his career.

“There’s certain areas that I mow where they can’t wait till I mow it so they can just sit there and meditate,” he said. “I’ve seen so many things that I’ve never seen in my life.”

The campus is working to transform lawns into meadows to conserve water and labor. After relandscaping, broadleaf perennials and other plants will take the place of lawns. Genito and Imazumi said labor won’t be cut, but the load per person will be lighter.

“From what I hear, there’s a lot of changes coming,” Martinez said. “They want UC Berkeley to be one of the top.”

Kimberly Veklerov is the executive news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @KVeklerov.