Ocean County has been reimbursed $95,895,917 by 17 municipalities and the federal government for its debris removal efforts it undertook in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the result of a mountain of paperwork and nearly two years of money trickling in dollar by dollar.
“We are, essentially, now made whole,” Freeholder John P. Bartlett said at the freeholder board’s meeting Tuesday. “It was an awesome undertaking on the financial end of it, with FEMA, to get paid back.”
In the first days after the storm struck on Oct. 29, 2012, Bartlett and fellow freeholder Gerry P. Little met with Gov. Chris Christie, where they say the governor offered the county government the opportunity to piggyback on a state debris removal contract. The county, in turn, offered to manage debris cleanup to all of its municipalities. The county then fronted the money for the cleanup, managed the paperwork for FEMA reimbursement purposes, and collected the remaining balance from the 17 municipalities – including Brick – that participated.
All of the municipalities complied with the county’s recent payment deadline, Bartlett said, and the federal government ultimately came through with its 90 percent reimbursement of the costs.
For the freeholders, the success of the reimbursement effort is being seen as vindication. The freeholder board faced intense media scrutiny, primarily from the Newark Star-Ledger, for piggybacking on the state contract with debris cleanup manager AshBritt Inc.
The newspaper had similarly scrutinized Christie’s decision to award the emergency contract to AshBritt, a firm known for its political donations to both Republicans and Democrats, without a bid process. The firm also was criticized for hiring influential political figures, including Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore, as consultants. Administration officials have maintained AshBritt not only was the most capable firm to handle the debris removal, but the cleanup effort would have been hampered for months if an emergency contract was not granted and a lengthy public bidding process occurred.
“Two North Jersey newspapers came in here and said, ‘you won’t get reimbursed, the federal government doesn’t recognize piggyback contracts,'” recalled Bartlett.
“We’ll see if they print a retraction,” Freeholder James Lacey said with a smile.
The $95,895,917 reimbursement represents all the money the county is owed by the municipalities and FEMA, except for a $458,000 holdback the federal agency still owes. Bartlett said he expects the holdback will ultimately be returned.