A Florida-based company that has been criticized for charging towns top rates to dig out from Hurricane Sandy was awarded a second contract by the Christie administration, largely for future work, despite prices that are significantly steeper than its competitors.
Under the latest contract, the companies selected can help with the current cleanup effort — although most of that work has been done — and will be offered future work if and when the state suffers another natural disaster.
In two major categories — cleaning up construction and demolition debris along with trees and other vegetative waste — AshBritt’s rates in most cases were more than double those charged by other companies awarded contracts.
For example, AshBritt is charging the state and local governments $21.25 a cubic yard to collect and haul vegetative waste less than 15 miles, according to breakdown of the rates provided by the Treasury Department, while T.F.R. Enterprises of Georgia has agreed to do the same job for $8.72 a cubic yard.
The fourth contractor, Crowder Gulf of Alabama, whose rates are closest to AshBritt’s, are charging $16.30 a cubic yard.
Over the years, the firm has faced questions from Congress, which called for fiscal monitors, and various watchdog groups, because of accusations of overcharging.
AshBritt did not return several phone calls seeking comment.
Bill Quinn, a spokesman for the Treasury Department, said price was just one consideration in selecting AshBritt, adding that its history with other states such as Louisiana and Florida after Hurriciane Katrina and its performance under the current $100 million emergency contract with New Jersey were also weighed.
All of the towns in New Jersey that used AshBritt and subsequently contacted by The Star-Ledger said they were pleased with the company’s speed and efficiency.
"The decision was made for us by the volume, by the material," Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger of Middletown said. "We certainly had to bring in outside help. It was a perfect storm, and that’s what dictated our decisions."
On Dec. 27, the town wrote AshBritt a check for $4.62 million for collecting and hauling an estimated 108,430 cubic yards of debris, according town financial records obtained under the state’s Open Public Records Act.
Quinn said the new contracts would give local officials options if disaster strikes again rather than having to choose between AshBritt or cobbling together their own plan, which happened after Sandy.
AshBritt does very little debris removal itself, but hires an army of subcontractors and pays them a fraction of the state’s contracted rates.
Over the years, AshBritt’s political ties cannot have hurt when it has sought out state contracts. Randal Perkins, the founder of AshBritt, has close ties to former Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, one of Gov. Chris Christie’s early supporters.
Perkins has contributed $218,500 to federal candidates or committees — largely Republican — since 2001, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
A day after Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey, the Christie administration awarded AshBritt a $100 million no-bid emergency contract to help clean state roads and waterways, also allowing towns to hire the firm without bidding. The contract allowed AshBritt to bypass several business and environmental regulations.
In the end, 43 towns piggybacked on the state’s contract with the firm, resulting in an additional tens of millions of dollars in cleanup work, according to a Star-Ledger review of financial records obtained under the state’s Open Public Records law.
But while a full picture has yet to form, anecdotal evidence shows towns that did not use AshBritt spent less than those that did.
In Long Beach Township, AshBritt was paid $719,309 to collect and haul 7,149 tons of debris — at a rate of $100 a ton — according to records provided by Ocean County, which has encouraged towns to use AshBritt.
By comparison, Mayor William Schroeder of Point Pleasant hired 15 temporary public workers, rented trucks and hauled away 50,000 tons of debris at a cost of $1.3 million, or about $26 per ton, records show.
"We managed to save over one million dollars in costs as compared to other communities that hired an outside company," Schroeder said in an e-mail.