A Vineland-based firm, Triad Associates, is the latest addition to the team working to get the South Jersey Economic Development District back on track.
The district recently approached the firm seeking immediate help to make sense of its remaining projects. While many recognize the district through its involvement the NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park in Egg Harbor Township, the district has another 17 projects, all in various stages of completion. They range from projects involving the Community Lodge and the Promenade in Sea Isle City to the North Wildwood sewer system.
On Monday, SJEDD's board voted to allow Triad to work on administering the grants for those projects and updating a planning document the district must have on file to be eligible for future grants. Triad has compiled a schedule of work to be done over the next three months at a cost not to exceed $16,900.
Triad President Gerald Vazquez and senior associate Steve Lingle, who will be working with the district, were at Monday's meeting to describe the steps that need to be taken. Their remarks made it apparent that the legacy of the district's past mismanagement remains.
"Records are supposed to be set up so that no matter who walks in the door they can follow what happened. Right now I'm having trouble following what happened," Lingle said of the hours he's spent trying to make sense of the the outstanding projects.
Earlier this year the district voted to oust its longtime executive director Gordon Dahl after officials discovered that the district had fallen into significant debt and other agencies were having increasing difficulty dealing with the district.
Unlike the NextGen park in which the district was engaged in soliciting contractors and overseeing the work, in the remaining projects the district is overseeing grants disbursed to municipalities for specific projects. The district is then entitled to an administrative fee for overseeing the grant. In all, those fees owed to the district total more than $100,000, officials said.
But recouping that funding could be time consuming as officials work to sort through the outstanding paperwork. In the case of a project involving upgrades to the North Wildwood sewer system, the district's documents are about half complete. An engineering firm involved in the project has copies of the missing documents and agreed to allow the district access to them but will charge per page for every copy the district makes at the engineer's office, Lingle said. Officials would not name the firm.
Other questions about how the district administered the grants lingered as well. In some cases the district was able to charge as much as $17,000 in grant administration fees on projects, but only charged $10,800. Why those decisions were made is unclear, but the added revenue for the district could have been significant. The agency recently laid off its two employees and moved out of its offices on North High Street in Millville after it could no longer afford to pay its rent and other utilities. The offices have been moved to Cumberland County's One Stop Career Center, and the county has agreed not to charge rent.
SJEDD interim Executive Director Steve O'Connor said the district is still planning to engage a firm for long-term grant administration but is still preparing a request for proposals for that work.
Previously, the district handled grant administration in-house, but under O'Connor’s financial plan, the district would save money by contracting out those services and keeping just one full-time employee. That employee would act in a management role but would earn significantly less than that the $112,000 Dahl was earning.
Answers to some of the remaining questions about Dahl's time with the district could be answered by next month's meeting when the 2012 audit will be complete. Board members have said they had no knowledge of the decisions Dahl was making as the district incurred its debt.
Auditor John Sabella of Ford-Scott and Associates was at Monday's meeting to discuss a draft form of the audit, but those discussions took place in executive session closed to the public.
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