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Dickinson Buildings and Grounds workers face unprecedented workload amid high levels of precipitation

With heavy amounts of moisture around western North Dakota, staying on top of mowing has become a chore, especially for city Buildings and Grounds workers in Dickinson. Residents have not gone unscathed either, as more than 300 have been brought to the city’s attention for failing to cut grass in Dickinson.

Sydney Binstock, a seasonal worker for the City of Dickinson, mows along State Avenue in northwest Dickinson on Thursday, June 23, 2022.
Sydney Binstock, a seasonal worker for the City of Dickinson, mows along State Avenue in northwest Dickinson on Thursday, June 23, 2022. Binstock is one of seven seasonal workers for the city's Buildings and Grounds Department.
Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press
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DICKINSON — Since Memorial Day weekend, City of Dickinson Buildings and Grounds employees have been working around the clock, trying to keep up with summer mowing. With heavy amounts of moisture, compared to last year, city workers are not the only ones facing mowing overload. In Dickinson, more than 340 properties are in violation of the city’s tall grass ordinance.

Public Works Director Gary Zuroff noted to the Dickinson City Commission on Tuesday, during its regularly scheduled meeting, that the hail storm experienced on Monday evening added to the ongoing struggles his department is facing.

Keeping up with 190 acres

“... It’s been a really challenging spring,” Zuroff said. “… The rain continues to make it difficult to get all our spring projects caught up. So we are fully staffed for seasonals in Buildings and Grounds; they’ve been mowing continuously.”

Throughout Dickinson, Buildings and Grounds mow a total of 190 acres multiple times during the year. Lee Skabo is in his first year as the Buildings and Grounds supervisor. With four full-time employees and seven seasonsals, Skabo provided an update on the mowing schedule to the commission.

Seasonal worker Caleb Hansen for the City of Dickinson operates a mower in northwest Dickinson on Thursday, June 23, 2022.
Seasonal worker Caleb Hansen for the City of Dickinson operates a mower in northwest Dickinson on Thursday, June 23, 2022.
Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press

The week before Memorial Day, the Buildings and Grounds crew went out and hit all the cemeteries — from mowing, weed eating and then using a blower to remove all cut grass from headstones. This process usually takes about three days, Skabo said. The next week, the crew will move onto all the drainage ditches, getting those cut to perfection.

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“Most years, once we do that first initial cemetery mowing then we don’t go back for about another three weeks. This year, we had to go back the week after because it had grown so much and that put us behind on all the right-of-ways, ditches and any city property,” Skabo said.

Once all the cemeteries were mowed again, the crew began working on all the right-of-ways and city-owned property. On Thursdays, they mow Dickinson Pioneer Park, followed by around the mausoleum, Dickinson Adult Learning Center and the new cemetery. Skabo noted that they then will push mow the front lawn at Public Works and mow the Dickinson National Guard Armory.

“We had lots of rain days this year which put us behind. I think after this week though, I feel pretty good that we should be caught and we should be able to continue being caught up,” Skabo added.

Code Enforcement Officer Tiffany Johnson also gave an update to the commission on how the public is keeping up with its grass, saying that they’ve noted 343 properties in violation of the city’s tall grass ordinance. Johnson added that 156 of those properties have included some type of noxious weed.

“Out of these 343 properties, we have only set our city contractors to five and we have sent our city sprayer to one. So I think the public is doing a pretty good job keeping up with the grass,” she said.

Mayor suggests hiring emergency summer contractors to maintain mowing

Across the city, residents, including Commissioner John Odermann, have to up the amount of times on the mower due to the heavy moisture in the past weeks.

“... All things considered, I know how hard it’s been to stay on top of my own lawn this year with how wet it’s been and how fast everything’s grown,” Odermann said, commending Skabo and his crew. “I think you guys have done a phenomenal job.”

Mowing along State Avenue, Sydney Binstock works alongside her fellow seasonal workers Thursday, June 23, 2022, in Dickinson.
Mowing along State Avenue, Sydney Binstock works alongside her fellow seasonal workers Thursday, June 23, 2022, in Dickinson.
Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press

Much like the emergency contractor fund for snow removal, Mayor Scott Decker suggested to the commission that one be put in place for events like this when mowing falls behind due to heavy amounts of precipitation.

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“I was thinking about that the other day and I was like, ‘As soon as they get done, they’re basically circling back,’” Decker said, adding that having contractors in place will help keep first impressions of the city intact. “... This is going back to: we are going to be the gateway to the presidential library. We have to understand that and that is coming faster than we would like and that is something we need to take advantage of — fully take advantage of — and keep our city looking good. As hard as these guys work, there’s only so many man-hours.”

With additional trails and areas to mow, Zuroff added that he will request more operators for next year’s budget.

Summertime precipitation higher than last year

Over the past three months from the April blizzards to recent rainfalls, Dickinson and western North Dakota are experiencing a different start to the summer season compared to previous years.

“... I think the past three months we’ve been pretty lucky. And a lot of places have seen quite a bit of rain — enough in fact to take us out of drought,” Meteorologist Todd Hamilton said, of the Bismarck National Weather Service. "Whereas maybe some have even seen too much. So it’s definitely been quite a bit wetter than it was last year.”

At the Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport, precipitation in June currently rests at 2.02 inches, according to the Bismarck National Weather Service. For the month of May, the airport received 2.35 inches on record. Hamilton noted that June is predicted to receive an average of 3.17 inches of precipitation.

“With summertime precipitation, it can vary greatly in just a small amount of area. Because we’re dealing more with thunderstorms whereas the wintertime (it’s)... synoptic systems; so generally everybody gets about the same,” Hamilton said, explaining that summer readings differentiate from place to place.

Caleb Hansen fills the gas tank on a John Deere lawn mower Thursday, June 23, 2022, in Dickinson.
Caleb Hansen fills the gas tank on a John Deere lawn mower Thursday, June 23, 2022, in Dickinson.
Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press

Jackie Jahfetson is a graduate of Northern Michigan University whose journalism path began in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as a freelancer for The Daily Mining Gazette. Her previous roles include editor-in-chief at The North Wind and reporter at The Mining Journal in Marquette, Mich. Raised on a dairy farm, she immediately knew Dickinson would be her first destination west as she focuses on gaining aptitude for ranch life, crop farming and everything agriculture. She covers hard news stories centered on rural communities and government, agriculture & Ranch. When not fulfilling deadlines and attending city commission meetings, she is a budding musician and singer.
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