I ended a Jan 14 diary, After Sandy: The State’s Contract With AshBritt Reeks of “Business as Usual,” indicating, “Only time will tell whether the arrangement was beneficial and cost effective for Belmar and the 42 other NJ municipalities that have contracted with this firm. Nonetheless, the State’s haste, execution of a no-bid contract, failure to allow competition, and use of a firm with a questionable past raise troubling questions.”
The diary documented how AshBritt’s past includes artificially driving up prices, taking advantage of municipalities, passing up local contractors, being enmeshed in law suits, contributing huge sums to the coffers of elected officials and state parties, and undergoing a congressional investigation.
In the past week more news articles have questioned the arrangement between the State and AshBritt. Sen. Barbara Buono, Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, and Senate President Steve Sweeney have raised concerns.
Although Governor Christie frequently ignores criticism, in this case he has risen to his own defense. He called recent articles on the subject “shoddy journalism,” in spite of the fact that there is plenty of documentation in the news articles and my diary.
He insists his contract with AshBritt is not a “no-bid” contract because he “piggy-backed” on a Connecticut contract. Since when does NJ rely on using existing contracts from other states and just assume that the bidding process, prices, and policies included are fair and correct for NJ? As the Star-Ledger points out, FEMA regulations, which are described in a published guidebook, say “piggyback contracting” is “non-competitive and may have an inappropriate price structure.”
On NJTV last night Christie disingenuously said “All the municipalities’ decisions [to contract with AshBritt] were voluntary.” True in theory, but… When Belmar’s Mayor Matt Doherty announced in early November his town hired AshBritt to lead cleanup efforts in his borough, he indicated, “They are the contractor chosen by the state of New Jersey … I am following Gov. Christie’s lead on this.” Indeed, Chritie left municipalities little choice: undertake this complex task on their own or hire AshBritt, the only firm authorized by the State to provide exclusive advantages including no necessity for further sub-bidding.
Although Christie lashed out yesterday at his critics, he did not address most of the issues that journalist and elected offiicials have raised. One practical concern is the high cost of AshBritt’s services. Other municipalitie’s which decided to forego AshBritt and hire local contractors saved money and increased local employment. AshBritt’s higher costs have served to reduce more rapidly the pool of money available from FEMA and increase the municipalitie’s costs as FEMA will likely cover only 75% of the total expense, leaving the rest to municipalities.
Without admitting any failure on his part, Christie probably realizes he made a mistake as the State has now added other firms to the pool which can compete with AshBritt. At this point, however, most of the debris removal has been contracted and/or completed, and done so at a high cost by the only firm granted a non-competitive contract and a firm with a questionable past.
Furthermore, as the Star-Ledger reports, Last month, AshBritt was granted a second contract with the state to remove debris in the event of another storm through a competitive process. In this instance, it had the highest prices among the four contractors selected, suggesting to critics that lower rates were available had the administration pursued them. It appears that in the State’s contracting process once again we are faced with “Business as usual.”