After the longtime caretaker for the city's 22,459 acres of retired farmland in Avra Valley and his supervisor both retired, Tucson Water officials opted to outsource the work to a private contractor.

The winners of the $408,000-a-year contract: Harold Maxwell, the same Tucson Water supervisor whose retirement prompted the outsourcing, and Ralph Marra, another newly retired Tucson Water administrator.

As a water-operations superintendent for Tucson Water, Maxwell made $43 an hour to supervise Avra Valley maintenance, among other duties. Under the contract awarded last month, he makes $60 an hour just to oversee the Avra Valley holdings. Marra, who made $46.73 an hour as a city employee, also gets $60 an hour as a contractor.

Maxwell, Marra and partner BKW Farms were not the low bidders. They were second-highest among the four bidders.

City officials initially told the Star their choice was justified because of the expertise and familiarity the winning team offered. But later in an interview Deputy Water Director Sandy Elder said he didn't even know the winning bidders were former employees until after they were selected.

However, Marra had nothing to do with Avra Valley maintenance when he worked for the city and Maxwell administered the program along with a number of other responsibilities. The only city employee actually assigned full time to the Avra Valley property was a caretaker who is not part of the new management group.

Elder said he doesn't know how much it cost the city to maintain the land in-house, and has no idea if the $408,100 a year outsourcing contract will save the city money. But he said a professional land-management team will reap "intangible benefits."

"We wanted to get people with the right skills and abilities to manage the changing expectations people have of open-space land management," Elder said. They're "not just water guys," he said, even though the winning bidders are former "water guys." He didn't elaborate on what in their long tenure at Tucson Water made them experts in open-space management.

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Tucson Water bought vast tracts of farmland to secure the water rights underneath. Over the years, Tucson Water retired the farmland, demolished buildings, put up fencing and oversaw the transformation back to a more natural desert landscape.

Elder said that over time the demands of maintaining the land started to add up.

Fixing fence lines, grading roads, monitoring buffelgrass and ensuring endangered or invasive species haven't stumbled onto the property forced Tucson Water to redirect personnel to attend to the property.

"This is not a water-department function. We're putting a lot of manpower out there and were not putting their focus on the water system," Elder said. "There's an expectation among customers that rates go into the water system."

Before he retired, Maxwell oversaw operations, and one full-time employee assigned solely to Avra Valley land maintenance made the rounds to check on things and fix them as necessary. When a repair or a job required extra hands, employees would be temporarily reassigned to complete the task. Elder didn't know how often that happened or how much repairs cost in a given year.

"To be honest, I don't think we have good numbers," he said.

Elder said the city started talking about outsourcing Avra Valley maintenance in 2011 and finally put out the contract for bid in December 2012.

He didn't know former city employees were a part of the winning bid until after the contract was awarded in March.

"I didn't know who was associated with what company," Elder said. "We have all these procedures in place to prevent abuse. We do things according to the city's procurement guidelines."

City Attorney Mike Rankin said there's nothing in the code prohibiting former employees from pursuing a city contract.

Although two other land-management companies submitted lower bids - one for $265,960 and the other $399,768 - Elder said cost wasn't the sole consideration.

"We wanted to select the most qualified," he said.

Although Tucson Water is not filling the former caretaker's $60,000-a-year position, it still has a supervisor assigned to work with the new private contractors, similar to what Maxwell did.

Elder said the department will experience many gains, even if they can't be quantified.

"If we have a better water system, there's claim avoidance, better delivery, better relationships with customers," he said.

Tucson Water identified around $250,000 to pay for the contract before putting it out to bid, using the money the former caretaker received and revenues from the solar plants currently operating on parts of the property. The remaining cost will be covered by money originally slated to pay for other consulting services.

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or