ATLANTIC CITY — The next City Council meeting was just two days away, but the state wouldn’t wait any longer.
Ahead of Wednesday’s council meeting, officials running a state takeover of the city bypassed the council on Monday to privatize the city’s trash collection, saying any further delay would cost the cash-strapped city money.
But some council members are questioning the rush to award the contract. They say they still haven’t received information that verifies the deal will save the city money.
The state authorized the city administration to award a three-year, $7.2 million contract to Gold Medal Environmental of New Jersey, a private company based in Gloucester County that will handle the city’s trash and recycling collection.
City administration officials have said the contract will save the city $1.1 million per year without requiring any layoffs.
The state’s decision came nearly three weeks after the council tabled a vote to outsource the service.
“I cannot allow the city’s residents and taxpayers to be penalized due to further delay in implementing the contract,” state Local Government Services Director Timothy Cunningham wrote in a Monday letter to Council President Marty Small.
The move marks the first time the state has used such power over the council. The state took over the city’s finances in November through the Municipal Stabilization & Recovery Act, which gave the state authority to pass or repeal any council resolution.
“This is why we fought for the takeover not to be executed. For moments like this,” Small said of the state’s unilateral action.
The council balked at outsourcing the service on April 26 after some councilmen said they never received an analysis comparing the contract to the cost of doing the service in-house.
Councilman Frank Gilliam said he has since received a report from city Public Works Director Paul Jerkins, but said the cost analysis didn’t have “legitimate numbers” that justify the savings claimed by the city and state. For example, the report said the city would have to buy several trucks at once if it continued to do the service in-house, he said.
“At best he put out a wish list,” Gilliam said of Jerkins’ report. “I think we’re moving too fast on something that truly doesn’t justify where we are saving anything.”
Councilman Jesse Kurtz, the council’s lone Republican, also said he still hadn’t seen verified savings. He added the state still hasn’t approved shared services deals with Atlantic County that would save money.
“I find it interesting that they’re willing to circumvent the constitutional process, the local legislative process, to accomplish this awarding of a contract to this particular company, yet not exert their power to bring verified savings to taxpayers,” Kurtz said.
The city denied an open public records request from The Press of Atlantic City this month for a copy of the cost analysis, saying “the study is considered deliberative in nature.”
Small and Mayor Don Guardian said layoffs won’t be required because sanitation workers can either fill vacant positions in the Public Works Department or work for Gold Medal.
“We have been talking about these savings from trash and recycling for months, even prior to the state takeover,” Guardian said. “We would save the taxpayers money and the public works employees would still have an opportunity to serve the city in another capacity.”
Although Small was critical of the state’s unilateral action, he also defended the contract.
“It’s election season and they wanted to play politics to cater to workers, while I was a part of negotiating the jobs that were preserved and saving taxpayers money at the same time,” Small said of his rival council members.
Small and Gilliam are running against each other in the June 6 Democratic mayoral primary. Gilliam said his opposition to the contract has to do with finances, not politics.
Another Democratic candidate for mayor, Fareed Abdullah, criticized the privatization and questioned whether city workers would keep their jobs.
“You’re going to tell a private owner that they need to keep these current employees?” Abdullah said. “They’re going to get rid of everyone they want to get rid of.”
The union representing the city’s blue-collar workers has also questioned how the contract would save the city money. Last month, Teamsters 331 President Marcus King said the city’s sanitation workers already perform other duties for the Public Works Department, such as street cleaning and snow removal.
The council may have passed the resolution on its own Wednesday. But state overseer Jeffrey Chiesa said the city “needs to start saving money on the trash contract as soon as possible.”