But the move also has its risks for towns expecting tens of millions from the federal government, according to federal guidelines, audits and emergency management experts.
New Jersey faces federal rules that were toughened after FEMA was sharply criticized by Congress in the wake of Hurricane Katrina for allowing no-bid contracts that lawmakers said bilked taxpayers.
Christie’s no-bid contract with Florida-based AshBritt Inc. — which gave the firm unequaled access to local towns, Lakewood included, stricken by the storm — borrowed wholesale, or "piggybacked" from the company’s 2008 contract with Connecticut to help speed up recovery efforts.
Citing an emergency, the state did not make competitive contracts for cleanup work available to local officials until late last month, about 90 days after Sandy inflicted historic damage. A total of 43 towns have operated under the no-bid contract for those three months, paying rates that were in many cases considerably higher than towns that did not hire AshBritt.
Experts say New Jersey could be vulnerable to scrutiny from the federal government because FEMA discourages state and local governments from "piggybacking" other contracts, warning they are the equivalent of a no-bid contract — and prefers that work be put up to bid as quickly as possible. The agency says it stresses this because contracts put up for bid generally save taxpayers money.
The Christie administration says it’s followed all the rules and is confident towns will get their full reimbursement.
Ernest Abbott, a Washington-based attorney with FEMA Law Associates, a private firm, who has been practicing disaster relief law since 1997, said FEMA pays special attention to the rates, and the agency will compare the reimbursement applications submitted by individual towns and cities to help draw some conclusions.
"After the storm, FEMA is going to see a whole different assortment of debris removal prices," Abbott said. "I would be surprised if those that were much higher than the rest didn’t get any special attention."
Susan Greatorex, a FEMA spokeswoman, said last week the agency has yet to determine whether AshBritt’s prices are "fair and reasonable," saying those conclusions will be made in the months ahead as towns submit for federal reimbursement.
FEMA officials warn in published guidelines that by "piggybacking" on other contracts, states and local governments may end up adopting rates that may not be "fair and reasonable" and they could inherit any problems that may exist in the borrowed contract
In 2011, the inspector general with the Department of Homeland Security recommended that FEMA recoup about $4 million in federal aid to a tiny coastal town in Louisiana that borrowed a contract from a nearby parish. The reason: The town never considered whether the adopted contract had "reasonable costs" and the inherited contract had problems. In several other cases, FEMA reimbursed at a lower rate than the local town was charged by the contractor, records show.
Colts Neck was one of the New Jersey townships that bid out the work right after the storm, taking advantage of the emergency declaration to do it informally, through phone calls, according to township administrator Robert Bowden. The town went with Florida-based Bergeron, which offered to do the work for $11.70 per cubic yard, about half of AshBritt’s rates, he said.
In the end, the town paid Bergeron $753,959 to remove about 64,000 cubic yards. If AshBritt was hired, the same job would have cost $1.36 million, Bowden said.
Lakewood could end up paying the difference if the bill from Ashbritt is found to be higher than normal.