Comptroller: $300,000 in overcharges for Sandy debris removal

TRENTON – A Sandy-debris removal project in Ocean County led to more than $300,000 in overcharges and questionable billings, the state Comptroller reported Tuesday.

The report issued by the Comptroller found “erroneous and miscalculated hauling charges but did not find persuasive evidence of intentional overbilling,” the report stated.

AshBritt, Inc. was the debris hauler in question, and three debris-removal monitors (Arcadis U.S., Inc., the Louis Berger Group, Inc. and Witt O’Brien’s, LLC) were responsible for calculating the transport mileage supporting each invoice and recommending whether payment should be made by the municipality, the report found.

The overbillings involved nine towns hurt by last year’s massive storm.

“In the effort to rebuild New Jersey, every dollar matters,” State Comptroller Matthew Boxer said in a release accompanying the report.

“We are pleased that as a result of this investigation, towns recovering from  Sandy will recoup debris hauling fees that should not have been paid.”

Among other things, the investigation discovered questionable standards for calculating transport mileage, such as rounding up transport mileage calculations.

OSC initiated its investigation after receiving a referral from the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in May.

That followed reports in the Bergen Record indicating that Ocean County municipalities were being overcharged for Sandy debris removal services.

The report states it did not find evidence of intentional overbillings, but instead a series of miscalculations and erroneous charges as well as vague contract language.

The Christie administration’s contract with AshBritt and the way it was achieved has drawn criticism in some quarters, but the Christie administration defended its methods and emphasized the need to get workers on the ground at Sandy-devastated towns as quickly as possible.

The AshBritt contract incorporated the terms of a 2008 contract between AshBritt and Connecticut, including its pricing schedule and scope of work, the Comptroller said.

That pricing schedule had been developed by  Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in consultation with FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

On Nov. 12, Ocean County entered into an agreement with AshBritt.

“Initial  reports of overbilling by AshBritt involved the hauling of construction and demolition debris from various temporary debris sites to the final disposal facility,” and Boxer’s report focused on those charges.

For example, the price for transport up to 15 miles was $31.25 per ton, and increased to $40.63 per ton for distances of 16 to 30 miles, the report said.

One thing the report examined was whether it was appropriate to include distance traveled inside the Ocean County Landfill itself, a significant concern because the distance from the landfill gate to the debris unloading site is farther than in some other landfills, the report said.

The Controller concluded that it was appropriate to include such mileage. “The debris monitors did not act unreasonably in calculating payment based on such mileage,” the report stated. That distance calculation from gate to dropoff ranged from 2.5 to 3 miles, varying with different sources, the report said.

As a result, all erroneous invoices are being adjusted, according to the Comptroller.

As for the rounding upward, although OSC concluded that it was potentially OK, but noted that AshBritt in light of unclear contract language would adjust downward for any transport under 16 miles.

“Going forward, OSC recommends that contracts for debris hauling services contain clear,  explicit requirements for calculating debris transport mileage,” the report said.

AshBritt reacts

Later in the day, AshBritt forwarded its reaction to the Comptroller’s report:

“We agree with the Comptroller’s report that due to the miscalculations by the independent monitoring firms retained by the towns some of our invoices were erroneous,” the company said in a comment from Jared Moskowitz, executive vice president of business development.

“As soon as this issue was pointed out to AshBritt we voluntarily adjusted all affected invoices even though per the report both the Comptroller and FEMA deemed AshBritt’s actions ‘reasonable.’

“As the Comptroller concluded, ‘A greater focus by the debris monitors on those latter issues may have prevented some of the problems identified.’

“We thank the Comptroller’s office for their professionalism and believe the interests of the citizens of New Jersey have been served.”  

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