By MADDY VITALE
An Ocean City environmental consultant that has been awarded $7.3 million in city contracts since 2015 is coming under strong criticism from a community taxpayer group and local officials for its billing practices.
City Council President Bob Barr said the city should immediately cease all work with ACT Engineers Inc. other than the dredging of private boat slips until “we can get to the bottom of this.”
ACT’s billing contracts were singled out by the community taxpayer group Ocean City Fairness in Taxes (FIT).
FIT emailed a letter to Mayor Jay Gillian regarding invoices for two “similar” projects, one in Ocean City and one in Brick, a community in Ocean County.
There was a difference of $60 per billable hour for the principal rate between the two towns, according to 2020 figures cited by FIT.
Brick was charged $140 for the work, while Ocean City was charged $200 per hour.
Barr called the disparity in the billing fees “troubling.”
“If you look at the scope of work, they are about the same,” Barr said of the project descriptions. “It is very troubling and I don’t think we should use ACT anymore.”
ACT Engineers, based in Robbinsville, N.J., has served as a key Ocean City consultant since 2015 for an array of flooding and dredging projects.
Mayor Jay Gillian has stated at meetings that his administration is extremely careful in spending taxpayer money and the way it hires city consultants.
He said Tuesday in an emailed statement that, “The city is in the process of reviewing the letter and will be fully prepared to address it at Thursday’s City Council meeting.”
Questions about ACT’s contracts began in February when City Council tabled giving the company a contract for drainage work on West 17th Street to protect the area from chronic flooding.
Also this year, Council set up a pool to open up the city’s contracts to a list of “prequalified” vendors that would compete for the work.
Sean Scarborough, owner of Scarborough Marine, pointed out that his company does dredging work but he found that the way contracts in Ocean City were handled by ACT were different than how, for example, his company’s contracts are handled for dredging work in other communities.
“Ocean City has a different approach to dredging inspection and management as compared to Margate, Stone Harbor, Avalon and Upper Township,” Scarborough pointed out. “In each of those municipalities, we have a professional relationship usually entailing time of operation, truck routes and if we are using a municipal street end, an insurance policy naming the municipality as an additional insured.”
Scarborough noted that his company doesn’t have daily and hourly inspection fees in relation to each residence or property they are dredging, unlike what was seen on the invoices for ACT Engineers.
While Barr said that Council should stop all projects with ACT at least for the immediate future, Councilman Pete Madden said that ACT has always done “top notch” work on city projects.
“For the seven years that I have been on Council, there has never been a problem with ACT Engineers,” Madden said. “I’ve always been satisfied with their work. There has never been an issue with their work. It has always been top notch. And I know the town is really happy.”
Madden pointed out that during Gillian’s tenure as mayor, there has been an unprecedented number of dredging, drainage and road projects that have greatly improved the city’s infrastructure.
As for FIT’s assertion that the city was billed unfairly for the work, Madden said, “I don’t think this is frivolous spending. It is about doing good business for good work.”
He said that after years of a successful working relationship with ACT to make much-needed upgrades to the city’s infrastructure, the timing for all of the concerns seems odd.
“After a six-year history of a great working relationship with ACT, all of a sudden Council wants to go outside,” Madden explained of Council looking to outside vendors. “I’m not exactly sure why.”
He continued, “We have been the example for other municipalities on how well our program is for engineering, infrastructure and dredging work. All of a sudden things will slow down.”
To view the FIT letter in its entirety go to: https://ocnjdaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/FAIRNESS-IN-TAXES.pdf
In the letter to Gillian, FIT President Dave Breeden emphasized that the disparity with the ACT invoices for work in both Brick and Ocean City are proof that the relationship between the city and ACT must stop — at least for the near future.
“I am presently of the belief that until this matter is reconciled, that ACT Engineers should not be awarded any further professional service contracts,” Breeden said in the letter.
He also asked Council on behalf of FIT for a full refund of the taxpayer dollars from ACT Engineers.
“That is how strongly FIT feels about this matter,” Breeden said. “As stated at council meetings, this is nothing short of taxpayer abuse and it will not be tolerated.”