Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Recycling redux

Just when you thought you had heard the last of Tony Mack, Charlie Hall, and others, they pop up again in this latest story of unpaid debts incurred due to poor management.

For years there have been rumors of an expensive piece of equipment purchased by the city of Trenton for its long defunct recycling program that sits somewhere. It was, so the stories went, ordered and paid for but never installed or used. No one seemed to be able to say where the equipment went or cared to find out.

Through some online searches and requests for public records, here’s what we have come to find out.
The City of Trenton ran its own recycling program and from 1992 until 2004, Tony Mack was the head of the recycling bureau.

The recycling bureau was disbanded when the city joined the county wide program run by the Mercer County Improve Authority in 2004.

Tony Mack was dismissed from his position with the city at that time.
That dismissal became the subject of legal action as Mack claimed his dismissal was politically motivated because he was going to challenge then Mayor Douglas H. Palmer in the May 2006 election.  A copy of the Appeals Court decision in the matter of Tony Mack vs. the City of Trenton can be found here.

In that document the following passage can be found:
Eric Jackson, the Director of Public Works, testified that in mid-2001, Mack recommended the purchase of a new sorting machine for recyclables. Mack claimed that the sale of unsorted recyclables would generate $40 a ton, while the sale of sorted recyclables could bring $200-250 per ton. He asserted that the new system "would have reduced [Trenton's] solid waste landfill budget by another million or $2 million. This was the overall objective of the conveyor system, to reduce the amount of money we pay for landfill costs." The sorting machine, which Trenton purchased for over $200,000, was never put into operation and remained with the manufacturer for resale.

The sorting machine, which Trenton purchased for over $200,000, was never put into operation.

Further along in the document there is mention of a December 19, 2002 email from Budget Officer Elana Chan to Eric Jackson that reads in part:
In the last five months, the Recycling division has charged 3 big items against this old Trust:
(1) Recycler Box Truck $59,900
(2) 10% deposit with Mayfran Sorting System $21,810
(3) 40% deposit with Mayfran Sorting System $87,239

Items (2) and (3) represent a 50% payment towards a $218,098 system, meaning you still owe the company another $149,049. Let me ask you, how do you plan to pay for it? Upon full payment of this system, there won't be much money left in FY 2004 to absorb part of the salary cost towards city positions (estimated to be $80,000 annually), then what do you plan with the staff situation in Recycling?
So, the city appeared to have ordered a $218,098 piece of equipment and by December of 2002, half of the purchase price had been paid. That much of the rumor was true.

Was it ever delivered? Did the city pay the balance? What happened to the machine after the city got out of the recycling business?

In response to an Open Public Records request submitted to the city we found out that, indeed, Trenton’s City Council had approved the contract for purchase of the sorting machine on June 20, 2002.

We also have a letter from Dan Odenwelder of BE Equipment to the City of Trenton dated November 21,2002.  In that letter, Mr. Odenwelder details change orders and delays that are increasing the costs of the project. He asks for help in moving things along.

With the information obtained from the OPRA request, we were able to contact the equipment vendor, BE Equipment of Quakertown, PA. We received a brief letter from Mr. Scott Davis, the company president.

Mr. Davis reiterated the timeline that we were already aware of: contract approved in June, 2002, letter re: change orders and such, November, 2002 (unsigned copy provided).

Mr. Davis also provided an unsigned copy of an August, 2004 letter sent to the City of Trenton. In that letter, he summarizes a phone conversation he had with the Public Works Director. Apparently, the City had asked to cancel the contract but the manufacturer would not accept that because the equipment had been custom made to fit the city’s building in which it was to be installed. The letter notes that the city agreed to pay the balance due on the purchase price plus the amount of two change orders.

The letter was apparently obtained from a computer file and the invoice mentioned was not included in what was sent to us.

We followed up with an email asking Mr. Davis what the amount that was owed was. In response, he asked that we call him.

Over the course of a 35 minute phone call, Mr. Davis graciously and calmly recounted the history of this equipment contract and his dealings with the city since. He spoke warmly of his dealings with Tony Mack and just about everyone he ever dealt with at the city. Without complaining, he mentioned that his company had paid the manufacturer of the equipment, in full, ten years ago.

Mr. Davis recalled being contacted at least twice since the August 2004 letter by someone from the city asking about the equipment. Each time all contact fell off once the whole story was laid out for them. 

He related a story of being contacted by Charles Hall about the possible reboot of the city recycling program and doing work on repairing the baler only to have problems getting paid by the city. Only after a protracted and persistent effort did he get the city to pay for the work Hall had authorized. 

Those invoices and payments were included in the response to our OPRA request that also yielded the November 21, 2002 letter from Mr. Odenwelder. It did not include a copy of the August 2004 letter provided by Mr. Davis. 

Davis remains genuinely sorry that the professional relationship he and company had with the city has fallen apart over this situation.

During the conversation, Mr. Davis stated that he honestly did not know exactly how much the city owes BE Equipment. He figured the storage costs alone could run between $30,000 and $36,000 for the 10 years he has been holding the equipment ($250 to $300 per month). He would have to pull out the files to find out what the balance owed on the original equipment purchase. We know from the court records that could be as much as $149,049 (half of the original $218,098 cost). And there are the costs of the change orders.

So, it is true. The city purchased equipment a decade ago that sits, unused and unpaid for, in storage. The Palmer administration felt they could just waltz out of town without paying what was due. The Mack administration was only interested in the equipment for the short time it considered restarting the city recycling program.

This is how our elected leaders honor their commitments? How much longer is the city going to let this situation continue?

{Mr. Davis contacted us to clarify a point. Components of the system are in storage at his facility as the manufacturing process was stopped when Trenton cancelled the order. However, BE Equipment did pay the manufacturer IN FULL for the system and the city has yet to fulfill their spoken obligation to pay for the full order plus the change orders.}