Further Setbacks Haunt Camden

Further Setbacks Haunt Camden

CAMDEN – Further delaying work, yet another contractor has pulled out of a massive demolition project repeatedly bungled by top members of the administration of Mayor Dana L. Redd.

Frustrated by  Camden’s recurrent delays and the city’s inability to meet its own timetables, demolition contractor JoAnn Winzinger bowed out of the project on March 24.

Shortly after winning the contract, Winziger said the hallmark project for the Redd administration was “dead in the water,” because disputes over water and sewer disconnect contracts had stalled awarding bids for the work. Disconnects must be done before demolitions can begin.

City Council signed off on her company’s withdrawal at an emergency meeting Thursday at noon. Winzinger did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Now all of the work will need to be rebid and control of the project is shifting from the city of Camden to the Camden County Improvement Authority. New bids could be out in a few weeks.

The move to county oversight was engineered behind the scenes by political leader George Norcross, frustrated and embarrassed by the city’s mishandling of the project.

Norcross is steering attempts to bootstrap Camden’s revitalization by attracting investment, especially through Cooper University Hospital, where he is chairman, and through leveraging the presence of Rutgers University-Camden and Rowan University. Blight pocked neighborhoods are an issue for the so-called “eds-and-meds” strategy.

Rutgers has identified the stressed condition of Camden — a community groups says there are 3,400 abandoned buildings in the city of just 77,000 people — as one of its primary challenges in attracting students and support for a college anchored in a city the U.S. Census says is the poorest in the country.

Before approving Winzinger’s withdrawal, City Council President Frank Moran admonished attorney Marc Marc Riondino to get the work moving “properly.”

Riondino, the city’s lawyer, planned the misbegotten project along with Business Administrator Robert Corrales and Redd’s chief of staff, Novella Hinson. The “A-Team” had met weekly in the city lawyer’s office to discuss the project since mid-fall.

Incomplete contract language regarding asbestos and hidden oil tanks were primary issues stalling the project, but the planning itself  also appears to have fallen far short.

For instance, the city’s since-retired demolition coordinator, Byron Johnson, a man with decades of experience, was not included in the planning meetings last fall.

The Redd administration has separated out the utility disconnects from the demos, apparently in an attempt to drive bid prices down, but when disputes arose over the disconnect work, that meant Winzinger had no idea when her company could begin work.

“It is very important to this governing body that these properties get demolished in 18 months…. and that it is equitable and done properly,” Moran said directly to Riondino.

Last April, Corrales had claimed the administration would have nearly 600 derelict buildings down by the end of 2014. Instead, not a single planned demolition took place last year.

In early February, Winziger’s company was selected as the low bidder and awarded a contract to take down 101 abandoned buildings. An additional contractor for about an additional 430 homes had not yet been selected.

The second-phase tear-down of about 530 homes is to be paid for by a city-issued bond of about $8 million, underwritten by parking taxes imposed last year on lots in the Waterfront area near Rutgers.

An earlier phase one demolition project underwritten by a federal grant of about $900,00 aimed at removing an additional 62 derelict buildings is continuing, but it too has been plagued by delays.

National of Hamilton Township, the original demo contractor for the entire second phase project of about 530 unsafe buildings, had already walked away from the project in early February.

National claims the city understated issues with asbestos in the derelict structures; the city claims National failed to understand the scope of the project and its responsibilities for asbestos abatement and costs.

Earlier this week, a judge cleared the way for all of the utility contracts in the second phase to be rebid. This time, the disconnects and demolitions are expected to be bundled together.

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