By: Sutton StokesNovember 20, 2020

Costs for 2021 Downtown Flowers Program

At its November 5, 2020 meeting, the Elkins council approved a contract for labor and other costs of the 2021 downtown flowers program. The contract covers planting, watering, and related services starting in May 2021 and continuing into the fall.

The contract, for $24,500, covers labor, equipment and some other costs but does not include $8,000 in plants and related supplies. Both categories of costs are explained further below.

The 2021 season will see three phases of plantings. This expands the program over previous years, when there was only one planting. Even so, the budgeted cost for the 2021 program is lower than that of the 2020 and 2019 seasons.

Program Scope and Overall Costs

  • This program places flowers and other plants in 54 baskets, “hay racks,” and planters around downtown
  • Under the 2021 contract—in an expansion from past years—plantings will occur in three phases. In September, summer flowers will be replaced with mums. In October, mums will be replaced with pine garland and warm winter lights.
  • Cost comparison between the proposed and past contracts:
    • Cost of 2019 season: $36,541
    • Cost of 2020 season: $33,100
    • Proposed cost of 2021 season (i.e., the contract + supplies): $32,500
      • Labor, mums, and related supplies: $24,500 (included in contract; May-June paid in FY 2021; July-Oct. paid in FY 2022)
      • Plants for summer mixed baskets and related supplies: $8000 (not included in contract; invoiced separately)

Contracted Services ($24,500)

  • Planning, ordering, and coordination with grower each fall
  • Soil preparation, planting, and hanging: 4-5 days in May
  • Daily rounds of 54 watering stops for 7 days/week May-Forest Festival
  • Evening rounds for pesticide/fungicide application as needed
  • Liability and truck insurance; water pumps, hoses, fuses, watering heads, and gaskets; and fuel

Supply Costs ($8,000)

Breakdown of $8,000 in supply costs for the upcoming season:

  • 12 replacement basket liners: $500
  • 500 flower plugs: $6,250
  • Soil, additives, fertilizers, and treatments: $1,250

Payment Schedule:

The above $8000 in supply costs and two months of the 2021 season’s labor costs ($9,800) would be paid out of the FY 2021 budget.

The remaining $14,700 in labor costs, as well as next spring’s startup costs and the first two months of next year’s watering (if contracted for) would come out of the FY 2022 budget.

Contracted vs. In-House Cost

This program incurs substantial expense. Some might wonder if City of Elkins could manage this program at lower cost if it used city staff instead of contracting for these services.

Once the flowers have been planted, they require daily watering. One way to determine whether city staff could manage this program at lower cost is to consider what the hourly expense of providing watering services would be.

To water the flowers, the current contractor uses two people and a tank-equipped truck. Based on past years, this two-person team spends about 9 person hours a day watering (5 minutes X 54 stops = 4.5 hours X 2 people = 9 person hours) over about 160 days, for a total of about 1,440 person hours. At an overall contract cost of $24,500, watering services performed by this contractor therefore costs the city about $17 an hour ($24,500/1,440 = $17.01).

Under the current City of Elkins pay plan, our lowest-paid employees, who earn $10.39/hour, cost the city about $20 gross when taxes and benefits are figured in. For a team of two city employees to provide the watering service described above, it would therefore cost the city not $24,500 but $28,800—and that’s without figuring in the time-and-a-half cost of overtime and holiday pay that would be incurred for seven-day-a-week watering.

This comparison leaves out some additional important factors.

First, the city does not currently have a truck outfitted for this kind of work and would have to purchase one, raising our cost even higher.

Second, to simplify the above calculation, we left some details out.

We did not include the hours our contractor also spends on planning, basket installation and planting, and pesticide and fungicide treatments—all of which is also paid out of the $24,500 contract cost. The hours city staff would need to spend on this would raise our cost even higher.

We also did not include the following expense categories, all of which is also to be paid out of the contract amount of $24,500 for the 2021 season: liability and truck insurance; water pumps, hoses, fuses, watering heads, and gaskets; and fuel.

To summarize, all of this is provided by our contractor for a total contracted price of $24,500. If City of Elkins took over running this program, watering alone would cost $28,800 and a new truck would also need to be purchased and equipped. It should also be pointed out that the employees used by our contractor to provide watering services are experienced with the care and management of plants, so—as they water—they are also able to evaluate and make recommendations concerning the plants’ health. It might not be realistic to expect a similar level of knowledge and experience from city staff.


Council has approved expenditures for this program in support of the city’s long-term strategic goals of encouraging tourism and transforming the downtown streetscape to be more inviting for residents, customers of existing businesses, and prospective new businesses.

The flowers are in place during multiple important city events that draw significant numbers of visitors downtown each year, including the Ramps and Rail Festival, Independence Day weekend, the Augusta Heritage Festival, the Mountain State Forest Festival, Elkins Main Street First Friday events, and the weekly Mountain State Street Machines cruise-ins. The mayor and other elected officials report hearing compliments about the flowers from visitors.

Given council’s decision to continue this annual program, City of Elkins is convinced that contracting for the needed services is the most cost-effective approach.


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