Ocean County officials had two ways to go after Superstorm Sandy - wait three months for the complex bid process for debris removal, or go with Florida-based Ashbritt and start immediately, Freeholder Director John P. Kelly said today.
"We had two choices in Ocean County," Kelly said at the Board of Freeholders meeting Wednesday in Toms River. "It was the only action that made sense."
Nearly all of the discussion at the meeting centered on the use of Ashbritt for debris removal, the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and Ocean County's eventual recovery.
Ocean County signed on with AshBritt in mid-November, and offered a shared services agreement to county municipalities for Sandy-related debris removal.
Under the shared services agreement, towns that signed on with the county used AshBritt for debris removal, with the county footing the bill upfront and seeking reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Administration.
Municipalities could opt in to a shared service agreement with the county for debris removal, or handle the debris removal on their own. Eventually, 19 towns signed up for the shared services.
"Every town was in here, clamoring," Kelly said. "We didn't force anybody to do this."
Towns that participated in the agreement will have to reimburse the county for the amount not covered by FEMA, which could be as little as 10 percent or as much as 25 percent of the cost, depending on final disaster figure determinations.
Reports that the contract was a no-bid deal are inaccurate, Freeholder John C. Bartlett Jr. has said.
"The contract (with AshBritt) was originally bid in Connecticut," Bartlett said in January. "New Jersey was able to make use of that bid to hire AshBritt," and the county was then able to piggyback on the state as a result.
The county was able to pay the bills upfront because of Ocean County's AAA bond rating and surplus. Ocean County will be reimbursed by FEMA for much of the cost, Bartlett said.
"We have not had to borrow a dime for this," said Bartlett, who is liaison to the county finance department.
Kelly and Bartlett also clashed with a Star-Ledger reporter who got up during the public portion of the meeting to ask questions.
When Jarrett Renshaw - who wrote several stories questioning Ashbritt receiving contracts in New Jersey - asked if the board had considered going out to bid for the work, Bartlett exploded.
"I can't think of anything more stupid in the whole world," Bartlett said.
If the county had gone out to bid on the work, it would have taken months before any debris could have been removed because of the bid process, he said
"We should all sit around here chewing our thumbs?" Bartlett said. "That's dumb. We are here to get a job done."
Renshaw also questioned whether Ocean County GOP chief George R. Gilmore had anything to do with securing Ashbritt's services. Gilmore told the Star-Ledger he was a consultant for the firm, but declined to detail his responsibilities.
"It would be three months to wait for the competitive bid process," Kelly said. "We were never hit with a storm of this magnitude in the history of this county. Maybe your newspaper doesn't like it. I could care less who George Gilmore works for. I didn't even know about it until I read it in the newspaper."
Bartlett angrily denied that Gilmore had spoken to anyone on the freeholder board about using Ashbritt.
"George Gilmore had absolutely no relation to the Board of Chosen Freeholders' involvement with the Ashbritt contract whatsover," Bartlett said. "I can assure you there was no contact with Mr. Gilmore. The five members of this board, we run the county and any other insinuation is a lie."
Patch contacted Gilmore yesterday for comment. Gilmore said he wanted to discuss his role with Ashbritt, but had signed a confidentiality agreement. He told Patch he would discuss the matter later in the day. He did not return four subsequent phone calls.
Bartlett also explained the complex process that led to the board's approval of the $7.5 million payment to Ashbritt - the third payment made to the firm since Sandy slammed into the Jersey Shore on Oct. 29.
"It's not as if someone sends us a bill and we pay," Bartlett said.
The contract with Ashbritt called for the removal of all debris on streets and rights-of-way, Bartlett said.
Every truck that picked up debris had an independent monitor on board to oversee the pickup and amount of debris picked up on an individual run. The debris was then taken to local transfer stations, where a monitor signed off on the total cubic yardage. The debris was separated by category - cement, asphalt and brick; wood and garbage; and white goods like refrigerators and metals, Bartlett said.
Anything that could be recycled was. Wood and garbage was trucked to the Ocean County Landfill in Manchester Township, where the tipping fees are $81.21 a ton, Bartlett said.
"Anyone who says they can remove this for less then that, doesn't know what they are talking about," he said.
The county's chief financial officer compared the voucher costs with the unit prices in the contract, Bartlett said.
"Once they all line up with the monitor's certification, the CFO signs a voucher forwards it to the Board of Freeholders," Bartlett said. "That is the process. It's all done under a state contract, all according to a monitor's verification. I don't know what else can be done or said."
Freeholder Gerry P. Little was the board's director when Sandy hit on Oct. 29, Kelly said.
"He made sure this Board of Freeholders knew everything that was going on," Kelly said. "I'm proud of the actions this county took. We helped not only municipalities, but homeowners, so they could start to put their lives back together."
"To remove that debris was vital," Freeholder Joseph H. Vicari said. "We have tried our best to do the right thing. They did an outstanding job under tremendous pressure. Our job is to do whatever is in our power to get to a new normalcy."