After nearly a year of discussion, the South Jersey Economic Development District on Monday approved measures allowing the district to free itself of responsibility for the NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park.

The district voted to accept nearly $333,650 from Atlantic County, a sum that will ensure payment this week for park contractors — some of whom haven’t been paid in two years. A lawsuit filed a year ago by Birdsall Services Group, a Sea Girt, Monmouth County-based engineering firm, for payment will be settled for $138,000.

Meanwhile, the district voted to assign the architectural plans for the project to the park’s board in exchange for $325,000 — money expected to be fronted to the park’s board by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. Final approval needed from various entities will be handled at a closing on or about March 1, officials said. Those steps will allow the district to turn over the lease for the park’s land to the park’s board.

“You’re going to adopt two resolutions tonight that will change the whole direction of the district,” interim Executive Director Steve O’Connor said. “As of (today), every contractor will be paid except one.”

That contractor is Mount Construction, which is still disputing what it’s owed. When that amount is agreed upon, Mount will also be paid with money from Atlantic County, which voted to devote as much as $425,000 from an existing bond ordinance to contractor payments. The county will be reimbursed from a $250,000 federal grant and will shoulder the remainder of the cost.

Still, the latest arrangement comes with some financial loss to the district, which accrued nearly $1 million in debt while leading the project. The district paid Environetics Design, Inc. $424,000 for the architectural plans for the park but takes about a $100,000 hit when they are turned over to the park’s board.

The discrepancy is attributed to the fact that New Vistas, a conditional developer chosen by the park’s board, can’t use all of the plans as designed because some were made for specific tenants, none of whom ever formally committed, O’Connor said.

Documents show that at one time Hi-Tec Systems, based in Egg Harbor Township, once engaged in walkthroughs with project architects in planning a potential space in the park’s first of seven buildings. The company even requested an “impressive” front lobby in the building, according to notes from a July 2010 walkthrough

While the district has continued to make progress with the lease transfer and a corrective action plan for its financial stability, the board has also continued to discover other problems that originated during the tenure of the prior administration.

At issue in one instance is an unpaid balance of $19,750 to Princeton-based law firm Hill Wallack LLP. A member of the firm, Noah Bronkesh, served as the district’s attorney for about five years, but O’Connor said that to his knowledge, no formal contract for the work was ever approved by the board. A Watchdog Report by The Press of Atlantic City last year similarly found that former executive director Gordon Dahl’s salary increased by 40 percent over six years with no formal approval from the board.

Bronkesh, who was appointed a state Superior Court judge last year, represented the district as its financial problems mounted but left prior to Dahl’s removal by the board.

Atlantic County Chief of Staff Howard Kyle requested at Monday’s meeting that O’Connor approach the firm and dispute the bill.

“The legal services that were provided by that firm were so inferior that we should not pay that bill,” Kyle said.

Bronkesh received an hourly rate of between $300 and $350, O’Connor said, adding that he could not recall the exact rate Monday night.

O’Connor, a former Cape May County administrator, said that in the public sector, that rate for legal representation is excessive unless the service is more specialized for environmental or labor negotiations. Generally legal services run between $125 to $150 an hour, he said.

Contact Jennifer Bogdan:

609-272-7239

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