By Kevin C. Shelly and Anna Tsiaras
Camden: A judge dismissed a challenge Monday morning that once again could have delayed an attempt to restart a massive demolition project in Camden, a city pocked by blight.
The continuing poor quality of life and housing in Camden inhibits college student recruitment. Rutgers University – Camden recently held a meeting on the issues created by its location in the most impoverished city in America.
Camden city government, which had vowed to demolish nearly 600 homes by the end of 2014 — and did not manage to tear down a single building in its planned demolition project last year — recently relinquished control of the project to the Camden County Improvement Authority, or CCIA.
The change in control followed a succession of blunders and delays, including missing contract language, asbestos abatement, oil tank remediation, withdrawal of a demolition bidder and threats of additional legal action.
The CCIA plans to redraw bidding contracts for about 530 buildings and put them out to bid in as few as two weeks. Had the legal challenge prevailed, that new contract would have been delayed indefinitely.
An additional contract for the teardowns of about 60 homes is still proceeding, though contract language would be modified to address deficiencies in the contract
Winning lawyer William Tambussi, an outside counsel to the city who also sits on Rutgers’ Board of Governors, said moving expeditiously to clear decades of blighted homes should help Rutgers recruit students put off by the condition of the city “and create a quality of life” that remains lacking in Camden. Tambussi wants to see significant construction at Rutgers; he spoke about breaking ground with the nursing and science building. He pointed out that when driving to Newark and New Brunswick there are cranes and construction everywhere; which compare to Camden has one project, The Writer and Alumni Houses,” yet to be completed.
He said even the relatively stable and safe downtown of the city — where Rutgers, Rowan University and Camden County College all have a large presence — lacks a choice of places to eat and also to safely and conveniently park.
He said tearing down unsafe vacant buildings that harbor criminals is part of “a new day” that began with a new Camden County-led police department which has begun tackling crime issues in the city, which is often labeled as one of the most dangerous city’s in America. While violent crime has dropped from historic highs since the creation of the new department, crime still remains above levels of just 15 years ago.
Bill Hargrove, the owner of a Camden-based demolition company, had sought to challenge issuing new bids, arguing he had met the terms of an earlier city-issued contract to disconnect sewer and water connections for the project. Utility disconnects must be done before demolitions can begin.
Based on a legal opinion by Tambussi, who serves as a personal lawyer to Camden County political leader George Norcross, the city had recently rejected Hargrove’s bids for much of the utility work, arguing that his bids did not comply with state regulations.
The state’s regulations require that a master plumber be a 10 percent owner of a winning company’s bid, or that a plumbing company with a master plumber be sub-contracted to do the work.
Ironically, Hargrove — and other demolition contractors — have disconnected utilities throughout the city for decades without ever being asked to comply with that state regulation.
“I’ve done thousands of them,” said Hargrove after his court loss.
In fact, Hargrove was awarded three emergency demolition contracts, including the utility work, at the same Camden city council meeting at which his utility-only contracts were rejected by council.
He and others who bid on emergency disconnect and demolition work were not previously required to meet the state regulations for a master plumber co-owner or subcontractor.
Camden County Superior Court Judge Anthony M. Pugliese, who dismissed Hargrove’s challenge, acknowledged the city has repeatedly not complied with state regulations in awarding similar contracts.
“It was done inappropriately in the past. That’s a problem, but not a problem that is before me today,” said the judge.
Tambussi said the ruling sets a precedent that the city will need to deal with in making future contracts.
Camden City spokesman Vincent Bassaro did not immediately respond to questions concerning Bill Hargrove’s retracted bid contract.
Hargove, who said he’s done sewer and water disconnects successfully in the city for 40 years, said he accepts the decision, even though it has never been an issue in the past.
He also said he could bid on the new contracts that are being put together by the CCIA “if they make sense.”
The new contracts are expected to bundle the demolition work with the utility work.
The city’s decision to make separate bids for the two elements had led to unexpected delays when other utility contractors work stalled, stopping demolition work on the smaller project of about 60 buildings for about a month.
Anna Tsarias is editor of the Rutgers Report. Advisor Kevin C. Shelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 856-449-8684. Follow him on Twitter at @kcshlly.