Legal fees exceed contracted amounts County looks at details behind overexpenditures

Legal fees exceeding contracted amounts for the year drew questions at the Hudson County Freeholder caucus meeting Tuesday as the freeholders discussed a string of year-end adjustments.

Freeholder Bill O’Dea asked the board’s Contract Compliance Committee to review the changes before the freeholders voted on them this week.

Weiner Lesniak, a Parsippany firm billed the county $235,000, exceeding its contract for the year by $80,000. This firm has represented the county in labor-related matters since 1992, in cases before the State Office of Administrative Law, the state Public Employee Relations Commission and the New Jersey Civil Rights Commission. According to the change order the freeholders were asked to approve, the increases came as a result of the firm dedicating more time than originally anticipated when the contract was drawn up last January.

Scarinci & Hollenbeck, of Secaucus, requested the same $80,000 increase in spending to $235,000 this year. It also had to put in more time than anticipated, the firm said.

When contacted later, County Administrator Abe Antun said the reason the two contacts mirrored each other is that the firms were hired as co-labor counsel.

“We divide the work between them,” Antun said. “Half of the labor work goes to each of them.”

DeCotiis, Fitzpatrick, Gluck, Hayden, & Cole, of Teaneck, requested $40,000 more than its contract. This firm provides the county with specialized legal services. This firm also expended more hours than originally anticipated. Over the last year, this firm represented the county in its case against the New Jersey Department of Corrections over the use of space in the county jail, and in other cases.

Stephen E. Trimboli, of the firm Courtier, Kobert, Laufer & Cohen, also requested additional money, $50,000 more than in its original contract. Trimboli specializes in the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act and represented the county in litigation involving numerous employees. Trimboli also said he had expended more hours than previously anticipated.

“When we awarded contracts in January, we agreed to set up a process through the committee that would give us a quarterly report,” O’Dea said. “This would allow us to understand how much is being spent and possible additional money that will be needed.”

Freeholder Sal Vega said the Contract Compliance Committee would meet this week and review the requests before the vote was taken on Dec. 14.

In a related matter, Freeholder Maurice Fitzgibbons said the New Jersey Association of Counties – of which he the Hudson County representative – is supporting a state bill that would allow the state to take over the costs for lawsuits filed against the county prosecutors’ office by individuals.

This would mean that the state would also select the attorneys handling these cases. Currently, the county hires the firms and pays the bills each time the prosecutor’s office gets sued.

Bill Northgrave, counsel for the county executive, said this was something his office sued the state to do, and, in fact, the county would like to see the state take over all the costs of the prosecutor’s office.

River walkway study questioned

O’Dea also questioned the selection process used to award the contract for the Hudson River Walkway Implementation Study to Heyer, Gruel & Associates.

When completed, the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway will offer an 18.6-mile continuous path from the George Washington Bridge to the Bayonne Bridge that offers spectacular views of the New York City skyline and the Statue of Liberty. Much of the project is being funded through the state’s Green Acres program.

The concept of the Hudson River walkway dates back to the 1960s, when the Regional Planning Association proposed a plan to provide public access to an area of the river that was being abandoned by the railroads and waterfront industries. In order to encourage urban waterfront revitalization, the NJDEP in 1988 created a regulatory exception to its ban on most development within 100 feet of the water, but tied the exception to the walkway requirement. The NJDEP allowed the construction of shops and residences to within 30 feet of the River, so long as the developers who benefited from the provision also constructed and maintained a 30-foot wide public walkway.

The county has received a $200,000 Smart Growth Grant from the state to perform a study on how to complete the walkway. The study will include a public planning process that would receive input from residents living in waterfront communities as well as other groups. The study will also have an inventory and survey of the remaining walkway land parcels, estimates of the cost of completing the walkway and an exploration of issues related to the financing, construction and long term operation and maintenance.

The county received five proposals from consulting teams. According to County Administrator Abe Antun, the county sought a firm that had significant experience dealing with Hudson County municipalities because of the numerous dealings it will have with local officials.

The firm that had that experience, however, was not the lowest bidder. O’Dea suggested that the requirement to have Hudson County experience may have unfairly narrowed the possible contenders for the position. He wanted to know how big a part of the selection process this requirement played. He suggested other firms might have equal or superior skills in dealing with municipalities, but had not had a chance to use them previously in Hudson County.

Fitzgibbons suggested that another firm might bring new skills to the process and could look at the project with “fresh eyes.” But Fitzgibbons also noted that he was not always comfortable with always hiring the lowest bidder, noting that this project in particular was being designed to last for years and that sometimes the lower bidder might bring inferior skills and inferior materials.

State kicks in to buy vests for county and local law enforcers

The Hudson County Department of Corrections, the Hudson County Sheriff and municipal police officers will share in approximately $3.8 million in grants awarded to local law enforcement agencies for protective vests. More than 500 local and state law enforcement agencies throughout New Jersey will share $3.8 million in grant money for protective vests through a program administered by the state Division of Criminal Justice, Division Director Kathryn Flicker and Attorney General John J. Farmer, Jr. announced Dec. 8.

The grants to the 512 law enforcement agencies are being made through the Body Armor Replacement Fund, an annual program designed to help equip law enforcement officers with new protective vests, Flicker said. Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny will receive $46,076.29 and the Hudson County Juvenile Detention Center in Secaucus will receive an additional $10,727.32.

Last year, unions representing the corrections officers claimed that lack of protective vests were among significant lapses in safety, a matter county officials have been scrambling to address, seeking funding from various sources. Corrections officers claimed they needed “shank proof” vests to keep them from harm. Shank proof vests are sleeveless vests that cover an officer’s chest, stomach and back to reduce the likelihood that a knife blow might be fatal.

According to FBI statistics, vests of various kinds have saved the lives of more than 2,000 law enforcement officers between 1984 and 1994.

The lack of vests for all the correctional facility’s guards was one of several safety issues raised by the guard union last year. The union claims cutbacks at observation stations inside the county jail had left officers more at risk in a jail housing three times the prisoners the jail was designed to handle. Over the last year, the county received state grants covering the cost of some vests.

This current money will be used to continue to purchase vests for the officers, said Corrections Director Ralph Green.

“New Jersey’s law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every day,” said state Criminal Justice Division head Kathryn Flicker. “I am gratified that we can assist police and other law enforcement officers in obtaining this life saving equipment,” Flicker said.

The result of 1997 legislation, the grant program is funded by a $1 surcharge added to every motor vehicle traffic fine or penalty in the state. Over the three years that the program has existed, nearly $9.2 million has been distributed to New Jersey’s law enforcement agencies. Under the initiative, every department that applies is guaranteed $500, with the balance of the money apportioned among all applying departments, Flicker said. Also receiving grants for body armor, in addition to local law enforcement agencies, are: the state Department of Corrections, New Jersey State Police, Juvenile Justice Commission, Probation Services Division of the Administrative Office of the Courts, the state Division of Criminal Justice, and all 21 county prosecutor’s and sheriff’s offices.

The Hudson County Sheriff’s Department will received $20,650.87 towards the purchase of protective vests. Hudson County municipal police will also receive money towards vests, with Bayonne receiving $23,283; Hoboken, 16,701; Jersey City, 87,280; Guttenberg, $2,525; North Bergen, $10,626; Kearny, 11,042; Secaucus, 5,664; West New York, 12,144, and Union City, 19,840.


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