Use of consultant firms by township questioned

Officials disagree about engineer services in wake of suspensions


Staff Writer

OLD BRIDGE — Following the indictments of two engineering officials, some Township Council members are raising concerns about paying consultants to fill work gaps in the engineering office.

The consultants who are now filling in the blanks left by Township Engineer John Vincenti and Engineering Inspector Barry Bowers are the same professionals who already work for the township’s Planning and Zoning boards, according to Mayor Jim Phillips.

Smaller engineering projects are being done by in-house staff, Phillips said, but larger applications are given to outside consultants such as CME Associates. There are not more consultants now, he said, just more work for them to do.

“I think there’s been some confusion,” said Township Business Administrator Michael Jacobs.

“Our approach to this is clear,” Phillips said. “There’s obviously a problem. … There’s every indication that there are going to be more indictments in a short period of time.”

Vincenti and Bowers have both been charged by the state Attorney General’s Office with bribing builders. Their indictment alleges that each sought and received financial favors from at least one builder doing business with the township, in exchange for favorable service and rulings on applications or permits.

Phillips said that developers with large building applications pay for their own reviews. Payment for services rendered by the consultant firms comes out of the township’s escrow fund.

“If the escrow account gets dwindled, [developers] have to pay more,” Phillips said.

“We will make sure that no one has cut corners,” he continued.

Since Vincenti and Bowers have both been suspended without pay, their salaries can be used for other means — potentially for paying consultants to do work that was part of their jobs in the engineering department, Phillips said.

Nothing more is being spent on consultants than would have been spent on those salaries, Jacobs said.

But Ward 4 Councilman G. Kevin Calogera has a much different take on the consultant situation.

There are still township employees in the engineering department, he said, who could do the work that is being meted out to consultants.

Jacobs said that is not the case.

“There are going to be a few items I don’t have an engineer for,” he said.

The township had two licensed engineers, Jacobs said. With Vincenti out of the picture, the licensed staff has been reduced by 50 percent. That difference has to be made up with consultants.

“I don’t think we’re suffering,” Jacobs said.

Calogera is trying to ascertain the cost to the township of this “farming out” system, but he says the mayor’s office has not been forthcoming because it maintains that the state’s ongoing corruption investigation of the department means some information cannot be discussed.

“This is not a personnel matter,” Calogera said. “They [the mayor’s office] feel it’s related to personnel.

“I think the scope of the work has exceeded what was originally proposed to us,” he said.

Calogera said that when he brings the subject up at council meetings, it gets ignored and no real answers are given.

According to CME’s hourly rate schedule and general conditions, prices vary depending on what job is being done by which CME employee. Prices range from $47 per hour for a junior survey technician to $155 per hour for a partner, according to the list.

Ward 6 Councilwoman Lucille Panos said she, too, would like more information about the consultants.

“I’d like a breakdown of which project they’re working on,” she said.

The Crossroads Redevelopment Plan should be reviewed, Panos said, because Vincenti played such a large role in the development of the controversial ordinance, which calls for housing and offices on a 500-acre tract in the southern section of Old Bridge.

“It’s funny how they’re reviewing everything except that,” Panos said.

The councilwoman said she thinks it is a good thing to retain the same consultant firms used by township boards, for the purposes of consistency. And Phillips shared a similar thought, noting that the firms have done an excellent job over the years with whatever task they have been given.

But Panos’ concerns also cover the length of time the consultants would be needed. And she feels the township could have solicited bids for the services for the next six months. But that was not done.

“That brings questions about pay-to-play,” Panos said, referring to the idea that private firms who donate to political campaigns are given work by those politicians, once elected.