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Haste is making waste in hurricane cleanup contract

Remember when Steve Sweeney said — around the taste of his shoe in his mouth — that Chris Christie “prayed a lot and got lucky” when Sandy struck in October?

Maybe the mess being created by the cleanup contracts awarded to AshBritt is divine intervention on the behalf of the state Senate president.

NJBIZ first pulled the curtain back on AshBritt Inc. — the politically connected contractor that specializes in disaster recovery operations — in reporting on a contract the Florida company got with New Jersey in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Rather than bid out the AshBritt contract, New Jersey adopted a 300-page pre-emptive contract AshBritt signed with Connecticut in 2008, to become effective in the event of a disaster. Connecticut, which solicited bids in 2008, estimated the value of its contract with AshBritt at $100 million. Since that deal was awarded, the company and Christie administration have come under a steady stream of fire as critics raise questions about the costs AshBritt charges for its services, the company's record in Katrina and how much labor is coming from out of state at a time when New Jersey's jobless rate is well ahead of the national average.

A report in The Star-Ledger last week raised more troubling questions than the Bay of Pigs invasion, particularly its comparison of cleanup costs for towns that handled contracting on their own — like Point Pleasant, which hauled away 50,000 tons of debris at a cost of about $26 a ton — and towns that used AshBritt — like Long Beach, which paid AshBritt about $100 a ton to remove a little more than 7,000 tons of debris. Another news report indicates the contractor has been fending off lawsuits related to how it handled payment for work in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, even as the firm was getting additional contracts from the Christie administration.

The governor got top marks for how he worked to quickly get the state back on line after the crisis unfolded. But the decision to award such a large contract so quickly — and without opening the process up to bids — is questionable. There's a lot to be said for bringing in a reputable company that's an expert in this kind of work, that doesn't have to wait on FEMA's foot dragging to get moving and that can get results quickly. But cost is king in New Jersey, with towns under a property tax cap and slashing staff to make ends meet, so it comes across as pretty callous when a gigantic no-bid deal is awarded, and the governor's office later offers a bunch of blatherskite about how towns weren't required to work with AshBritt, and could have just as easily gone it alone.

Perhaps, in his haste to make sure there would be a Shore this summer, Christie moved too quickly on this one. We hope the Senate's plan to look into this means there will be more caution the next time a 100-year storm rolls through.

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