Firm recommends college continue plans
Trustee calls for college to cut ties with conflicted engineering firm
By Nathan Mayberg
Newton — Standing before a packed board room of the Sussex Community College Board of Trustees, attorney William Maderer told the board that its bid process on a $2.88 million renovation of its student center complied with state law and should move forward.
Meanwhile, trustee Daniel Perez, the lone board member to vote against approval of the only bid, said the board should do away with CP Engineers, the firm responsbile for putting together the bid specifications and increasing the cost estimate by approximately $850,000.
The college's contract with CP Engineers will cost an additional $451,200, bringing the cost of the total project to more than $3.3 million.
The involvement of CP Engineers with the college has led to the resignation of former trustee Glen Vetrano, who was being paid by the engineering firm while sitting on the board.
Board Chairman Glenn Gavan stood in the audience on Monday to avoid the appearance of a conflict. He has acknowledged working as the attorney for the firm and renting office space in a building that is owned by the firm's partners.
Board trustee Edward Leppert has disclosed that his payroll company was being paid $2,000 a year by CP Engineers for payroll processing. Leppert said he has also been approached by the firm to do accounting work a few months ago, though no contract has been signed.
Richard Levesque, a spokesman for the firm said he could not comment on whether a contract with Lepper would still happen.
According to an investigation done by Maderer and attorney Robert Nussbaum, of Saiber law firm, it was Vetrano who recommended to college President Paul Mazur that the engineering firm be brought on in 2013. Vetrano had a longstanding personal relationship with CP Engineers managing member Stan Puszcz.
In March, 2013, the board, including Gavan, voted to work with CP Engineers on developing future construction plans. According to Maderer, Gavan became attorney for the company one month later.
According to minutes of the meeting, the company said the college could save money by not hiring a construction supervisor, since CP Engineers would do it themselves. However, this past April, Puszcz wrote a letter to the college in which the cost of the student center project was increased and that another $93,800 was needed to "increase our staffing level during construction to monitor the multiple crews that will be working on the project."
Since last year, the college has approved more than $800,000 worth of work with the firm, including the most recent project. That also includes a $179,670 capital maintenance project to plan for future construction projects.
Two of the votes, including the initial vote to work with CP Engineers in March of 2013 will need to be redone, Maderer said. There was not a quorum of the board present to approve the contracts, due to the absentions.
Maderer is not the board's primary attorney. The board's attorney is John Ursin, who is also the attorney for Echelon Services, the lone bidder on the $2.88 million construction project. A second law firm, Schenck, Price, Smith and King; had to be brought in by Mazur for $4,000 to review the bid process due to Ursin's conflict. But questions about that firm led to Saiber being brought on by Mazur.
Leppert, who had abstained from votes concerning CP Engineers initially, said he went to Ursin for advice last summer on whether he had a conflict of interest. Lepper said he was told by Ursin that he could still vote on the contracts, after which point Leppert began voting in favor of contracts with CP Engineers.
In his first public comments since Vetrano resigned, Mazur said "I went out and hired Saiber law firm" due to "possible" conflicts of interest with the other two firms.
While Echelon Services was the only bidder, 14 bid packages were picked up by interested parties. According to Nussbaum, late penalties were cited as a reason by some companies for not bidding.
Thomas Alfsen, owner of Superior Structures, a Sparta-based construction company, said he looked at the bid forms. Alfsen said the schedule for the project was too aggressive and there were heavy penalties for being late.
"I don't think the schedule was realistic for anyone to even come close," Alfsen said.
The first floor of the building was supposed to be completed by Sept. 2. The second floor was supposed to be done by Oct. 10 and the complete project was supposed to be finished by Jan. 9.
Missing the deadlines could result in fines of between $1,500 and $3,000 per day with compounding damages if multiple deadlines were missed.
That deadline will have to be changed now that the project has been delayed.
Jason Colonno, the owner of Echelon Services, said he was glad to see the law firm's investigation "found us qualified and responsive."
Colonno is waiting to see what happens next.
"The other stuff is out of our hands," he said.
The college board has to reaffirm its support of the project and the Sussex County College Board of Estimate needs to approve funding.
Colonno has worked on projects before at the college, as a consultant on boiler replacements for T.M. Brennan Contractors of Hamburg. Initially, Colonno said he picked up the bid package on behalf of that firm.
Much of the proposed work is centered on replacing the student center's windows, which are from the 1930's, when the school was used as a catholic seminary. Work on the steel wall beams and steel around the windows, and replacing the heating and air conditioning are key components.
Maderer said an independent engineer considered the cost estimates by CP Engineers to be fair.
Board vice-chairwoman Lorraine Parker, a lawyer and former judge who co-founded the college, said she was not told of Vetrano's involvement with CP Engineers until the day he resigned in July. Parker commended Mazur for contacting the New Jersey Attorney General's Office about the entire situation.
A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office has acknowledged awareness of the matter.
"I believe everybody took this seriously" Parker said. "We took a very aggressive approach."
Parker said a new ethics policy will be formed by the board, which is made up of volunteers.
Reporter Nathan Mayberg can be reached at comm.reporter@strausnews,com or by phone at 845-469-9000 ext. 359
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