Columbus has a lot of grass to mow at vacant and abandoned houses.

Columbus also has a lot of people looking for work.

So city officials are looking for ways to get small lawn-service companies - a popular startup business for recession-struck Americans - onto the roster of city contractors who would be eligible for a slice of a growing city program.

The Department of Development has spent $277,390 to mow, weed and remove trash and debris from 1,205 yards so far this year and still has a backlog of as many as 475 more that need attention. Tall grass and trash are considered public-health risks because they're havens for mosquitoes and rodents.

The City Council authorized another $100,000 last week for its current roster of private mowers to attack the backlog, which is concentrated in areas such as North and South Linden, the Near East Side, the South Side and the Hilltop, which have been hit hard by the nation's foreclosure crisis.

It costs a lot - more than $200 on average - because vacant houses become dumping grounds for tires, old furniture, construction debris and other items that must be taken to different places for disposal, said code-enforcement manager Dana Rose. The city's cost covers disposal fees.

Property owners who haven't done their upkeep and maintenance duties get charged for the city's work through their property-tax bills. Columbus also adds a $198 administrative fee. But officials said the biggest problem in keeping up with the mowing isn't money. "Even if we have the dollars, there still are not enough people to do the work," said City Councilwoman Priscilla R. Tyson, who heads the council's development committee.

"Every available certified contractor was utilized this year," she said. "We still have a backlog."

Tyson wants development officials to expand the list of 13 lawn-mowing contractors by reaching out to job-training agencies and groups representing small and minority-owned businesses. The city takes bids in January for the work.

"We need to let more people know there are opportunities to get some of this work," she said.

Columbus requires people who want a piece of city business to register with the Department of Finance and Management, but procurement manager Nappy Hetz-

ler said that's just so they can be notified when contracts are available in their field of expertise.

People don't have to be organized formally as a business, Hetzler said, but they must be qualified to handle the volume of work for which the city is seeking bids. Rose said people seeking the work need more than the basic equipment because of the hauling and other work involved.

"It's not like cutting your own grass," he said.

Steve Fireman, president of the Economic and Community Development Institute, said he's sure the city can add to its list of businesses eager to mow away the backlog of unkempt lawns.

His agency, which offers small-business loans and other assistance to budding entrepreneurs, just recently has helped two people trying to start lawn and landscaping businesses.

"It's a fairly easy, low-cost startup," Fireman said.