Ocean County's hiring of a Florida-based firm for debris removal was legal and necessary for a quick response in the weeks after Hurricane Sandy, county officials said Wednesday.
Responding to comments from Gary Black of Jackson, who claimed an article in the Star-Ledger of Newark criticized Ocean County's involvement with AshBritt, a debris removal firm hired by the state, the Ocean County Board of Freeholders said the county was piggybacking on the state's contract.
"Under state law, counties may use contracts the state has in place," Freeholder Gerry P. Little said in response to Black's comments. The Ledger article, accessible here, actually criticized the company and the state, saying it exploited political ties and distress over the storm to gain municipal clients. Ocean County was only briefly mentioned as one of its clients.
Ocean County signed on with AshBritt in mid-November while offering a shared services agreement to county municipalities for Sandy-related debris removal. Under the shared services agreement, towns that signed on with the county -- 16 of them -- used AshBritt for debris removal, with the county footing the bill upfront and seeking reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Towns that participate in the agreement will be expected 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.
AshBritt was one of the contractors involved in the cleanup in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, according to its website, and its prior experience in dealing with FEMA was among the reasons it touted as making it the best choice for debris removal after Sandy, according to the Star-Ledger article.
Reports that the contract was a no-bid deal are inaccurate, Freeholder John C. Bartlett Jr. said.
"The contract (with AshBritt) was originally bid in Connecticut," Bartlett said. "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 fees that AshBritt is charging are approved by FEMA for reimbursement, Little said.
So far, it amounts to $2.6 million, the amount of a payment to AshBritt that was approved at Wednesday's meeting, Bartlett said. Much work remains, however, with debris on private property -- homes that were knocked off foundations, boats that floated away from their owners, and more -- just beginning to be addressed.
The bottom line, Freeholder Deputy Director James F. Lacey said, was getting the job done quickly.
"If we'd gone out to bid, we'd still be waiting," Little said.