TRENTON >> An engineering firm hired by the city to help with the water crisis is making a boatload of cash to provide a handful of workers to help the troubled Trenton Water Works, documents show.
Records obtained by The Trentonian lay out the scope of the previously reported $1.3 million emergency contract the city entered into with Wade Trim, a civil engineering firm with corporate headquarters in Detroit, Michigan.
The records also show an additional three-quarters of a million dollars flowing into the coffers of Princeton-based Banc3 Engineering owned by Babu Cherukuri, who online records show made at least one political donation to a Mercer County leader in the past.
That pushes the total cost to more than $2 million for the city to help fix the ailing water utility.
City councilors reached by The Trentonian said they were upset information about the cost of fixing TWW is slowly leaking.
“I’m not voting for it,” South Ward Councilman George Muschal said about ratifying the contracts, which were pushed through on an emergency basis bypassing the normal bidding process and City Council approval. “They’re playing games. We’re the ones who hold the purse for the money.”
North Ward Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson had just started to dig into the contracts and had “a lot of issues with” them.
Last month, when The Trentonian reported the $1.3 million Wade Trim contract, it asked city officials for information about a second mysterious contractor public works director Merkle Cherry mentioned in a prior interview with the newspaper.
A city spokesman blew off the newspaper’s request for information before initially incomplete documents about Banc3 were provided this week, in response to The Trentonian’s public records request.
Several pages of the Banc3 contract were missing. City Clerk Dwayne Harris acknowledged the oversight when The Trentonian contacted him and provided an additional 11 pages of documents showing the 12-month deal with Banc3 Engineering Inc. at $755,322.
City spokesman Michael Walker claimed the city didn’t earlier provide information about Banc3 because it hadn’t “finalized our negotiations. The details come out in drips and drabs because the negotiations are done in pieces.”
The Banc3 contract was signed in February.
The contracts, both of which were secured under an “exigent” exception to the Local Public Contracts Law, run through Jan. 15, 2019.
The contracts show and officials confirmed the two engineering firms are being contracted to bring in 15 workers to help stabilize TWW, which has been repeatedly cited by the state Department of Environmental Protection over qualms of staffing, operational and infrastructure.
The contracts state, “It is not expected that the contracted services or staff will replace or supersede any existing or proposed TWW or Trenton Sewer Utility staff to achieve the long-term goals.”
The DEP previously slammed the city for providing an “unacceptably incomplete” preliminary draft contract with Wade Trim.
Mayor Eric Jackson responded in a Jan. 18 letter sent to former DEP commissioner Bob Martin two days after he left office.
The city and DEP reached an agreement extending the deadline for Trenton to address TWW’s problems until June 29, 2018, or two days before Mayor Jackson is set to leave office.
A September report noted 68 TWW vacancies, or 39 percent of the utility’s staffing positions.
Some of the responsibility in addressing the staffing gaps falls to Wade Trim and Banc3.
Under the agreement with the city, Wade Trim is supposed to bring in or hire nine workers.
Some of those positions were filled within two weeks of the Jan. 15 start date of the contract and Wade Trim is still working to fill three openings, including two operator and one senior operator positions.
Cherry told The Trentonian on Wednesday that Banc3 has brought in three of the six workers it’s contracted for and is in the process of making additional hires.
Cherry didn’t know whether the employee hired by Wade Trim was from the capital city, which has had trouble attracting qualified candidates to the water department.
In 2014, the city lifted a residency requirement for certain workers aimed at filling TWW positions.
The public works director acknowledged the city isn’t “vetting” the workers brought in by Wade Trim or Banc3 because those responsibilities fall on the companies.
The contracts shows a breakdown of what Wade Trim and Banc3 are charging in “fees” for the positions. Wade Trim is charging the city a monthly fee of $109,355 for the nine workers. The fees range, which adds up to the contract total of $1,312,269, from $9,949 for each assistant operator to $19,101 for the chief pump operator. Banc3 lists two operators each at $141,081, two assistant operators each at $127,428 and two water repairers each at $109,152.
Cherry said those “fees” are “in the neighborhood” of what the city would have to pay to hire workers in those positions.
Wade Trim’s online job postings reviewed by The Trentonian included duty descriptions and a list of qualifications but not salary ranges.
The listings stated candidates must have high school diplomas or GEDs, driver’s licenses and water supply operator certificates but prior experience wasn’t necessarily required.
The listings stated “basic math, chemistry, and mechanical skills, along with basic computer skills are required” while experience with lab testing and water and wastewater treatment plant experience were “highly desirable.”
Another thing that was “highly desirable” but not legally required was for Cherukuri, the Banc3 president, to disclose any political contributions he made.
Because the contract awarded to his company didn’t go through the normal bidding process, he was required to sign a political disclosure form.
Under the contributor name section of the form, he wrote “none” and put “N/A” in the dollar amount section, for not applicable, swearing he had not made political contributions to Mayor Eric Jackson or anyone else.
However, the disclosure form stated he was only required to disclose contributions exceeding $300 made “during the 12 months prior to the award of the contract.”
That left him legal wiggle room to omit a $200 contribution to Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede in April 2013, according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission database.
Cherry and a city spokesman said they weren’t aware of any of the political contributions made by Cherukuri, who didn’t respond to a message left for him at his office.